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High Plains Herbarium receives National Science Foundation grant

High Plains Herbarium receives National Science Foundation grant
Kaleb Bell of Fort Morgan, Colorado, a biology major, applies bar codes to plant specimens in Chadron State College's High Plains Herbarium as part of a National Science Foundation grant for equipment and student salaries to digitize about half of the collection. Courtesy Photo

CHADRON – Chadron State College’s High Plains Herbarium collection will eventually be accessible online thanks to an imaging station worth approximately $8,000 funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), according to Steve Rolfsmeier, director of the herbarium.

“Having these specimens digitized will increase what we can learn from them and allow faculty to use them in lesson plans. We have a lot of specimens not being used to their full potential,” Rolfsmeier said. “We’re a unique, isolated, fairly sizable collection. A lot of the data housed here aren’t duplicated anywhere else.”

In late September, Ryan Allen with the Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado-Boulder, co-principal investigator for the NSF grant, visited CSC to train Rolfsmeier how to use the imaging station. Allen is the project manager for the grant’s digitization efforts, part of the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections initiative.

“We reached out to herbarium collections that were a good fit with the project,” Allen said. “Without great collections like this, the project wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”

At the same time, Rolfsmeier was looking for a way to get the herbarium’s collection of 65,000 specimens digitized.

“It’s been a blessing to be invited to be part of this grant,” Rolfsmeier said. “Our strength is that most of our specimens are from a region that has been historically under collected by botanists. This will make the data available to a broader audience.”

The grant to CSC came in the second year of a four-year project that started in 2017. Thirty-nine institutions including national parks, national monuments and colleges and universities are contributing to the overall effort with 19 actively digitizing their collections.

Allen estimates the database will contain more than 1.7 million specimens, with many including images and geo-references. He said digitized collections function as puzzle pieces providing botanists a better view of the local distribution of plant species and understanding of why species are found where they are.

NSF funding includes students’ salary for 2,800 hours of imaging, geo-referencing and entering data for about 35,000 of the herbarium’s specimens.

“Working with the digital imaging station will give students a broader skill set and introduce them to museum protocols,” Rolfsmeier said. “With the equipment in place, we can keep going and digitize the portions of our collection that represent areas outside the scope of this grant.”

Students hired for the project are Kaleb Bell of Fort Morgan, Colorado, a biology major, and Sadie Sheppard of Fargo, North Dakota, a science education major.

“It’s a vast job. They will be looking for specimens that need repaired, weeding out duplicates, and applying bar codes. Their names will be associated with the images they scan into the database, which is noteworthy,” Rolfsmeier said.

Although the collection has expanded by 10,000 specimens in the past eight years, and plans for the proposed Math and Science Building renovation include more floor space for the collection, funding is not available for cases at this time, according to Rolfsmeier.

“We need to find a way to sustain this effort after the grant concludes,” Rolfsmeier said. “I encourage supporters of the herbarium to consider donating cases to help house the collection as it grows.”

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