Profile of a Research Scientist
Name: James Macklin
Position Title: Research Scientist (Botany and Biodiversity Informatics)
Institution: Agriculture and Agri-Food, Ottawa, Canada
Brief description of employment history After the completion of my studies in 2000, I was fortunate to get a position at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, PA as the collection manager for Botany. In this position, I was responsible for all aspects of collection curation along with supervision of staff and outreach. My interest in databases led me to design and implement a new botany database as well as becoming more involved in a broader range of biodiversity informatics projects. I also continued my botanical research working on the Rose family, especially Hawthorns, and Blackberries & Raspberries. In 2006, I took a position at the Harvard University Herbaria as Director of Collections and Informatics. In this dominantly administrative role, I was once again responsible for all aspects of collection curation and staff supervision but also informatics and IT.
In 2011, I got an offer I could not refuse to return home to Canada and work for the Federal government at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Ottawa as a research scientist. Here, my focus has been primarily on biodiversity informatics but I also look forward to returning to work on members of the Rose family.
When did you join SPNHC?
I first attended a SPNHC meeting in 1995 at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, while I was a student at a nearby University. I recall being quite intrigued by the talks and posters and enjoyed meeting like-minded peers. Little did I know that just 6 years later I would become a member and have attended every meeting since Montreal in 2002!
Please tell us briefly of your academic background.
I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. Like many, I was sort of academically lost and “distracted” at the beginning but really enjoyed my biology courses, especially botany. This led me to an Honours Degree in Ecology and Evolution. In my 4th year we were encouraged to do a thesis and having just completed a course on Plant Systematics, I embraced the challenges of taxonomy to sort out a 'difficult' group of Hawthorns . This experience was frustrating enough to lead me to continue this into a Masters, which quickly became a doctoral degree. After some procrastination involving teaching and using my computer skills, I managed to graduate in 2001.
What drew you to the natural history field?
I spent a considerable amount of time outdoors hiking, biking, canoeing, etc., and was always curious about what I saw around me. Fortunately, my father was a high-school biology teacher and could answer many of my questions. I also learned a considerable amount about nature through my many years as a Boy Scout and a camp counsellor.
Describe the nature of the nature of the collections you work with.
Most of my experience is with traditional botanical collections: lichens, bryophytes, algae/diatoms and fungi as well as plant derivative collections for economic botany, dendrology, etc. Lately, I have been focused on data curation including primary specimen data, observational data, collection metadata, digital annotations, genetic/genomic data, field and specimen images, and other digital derivatives.
What are your responsibilities for them?
I have been responsible for all aspects of collection curation over the years from the perspective of a collection manager, administrator, and researcher. Having filled these different roles, I have gained a better appreciation for the challenges involved in managing collections and continue to advocate for them.
Describe some of your activities.
Today, my main research focus is in Biodiversity Informatics working with the data associated with natural history collections. I am involved with developing standards and tools to promote efficient capture of specimen and observation-based data, its management, and quality control in order to make these data freely available for research and other uses. Speaking of other uses, I am very interested in using these data as a foundation toward building digital floras incorporating many different technologies to allow for a much more dynamic environment than what is possible in books. I have also become quite interested in digitizing legacy literature in order to make this wealth of knowledge available to be re-purposed.
What do you find most interesting about your work?
I really enjoy working with natural history collections as they always have a story... whether it is my own investigations into a particular taxon, or collection management practice, or a visiting researcher who makes an interesting find; everyday there is another page and something learned. I particularly like the historical aspect of collections and have many times gotten lost on a journey in the library tracking down a collector or a geographic location because it intrigued me. Of course, this can lead to time-management issues... I also enjoy the collaborative nature of working with collections as for many of our challenges, the more brain-power the better!
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
One of my greatest accomplishments was the complete re-housing of the Academy of Natural Sciences Botany collection based on funding primarily from an NSF Biological Resource Collection (BRC) grant. Knowing that this incredibly rich (and perhaps under appreciated) collection is safe for many years to come (in perpetuity!) is very rewarding. I am also quite proud of the progress my colleagues and I have made toward an annotation network infrastructure known as Filtered Push which will allow communication (through annotation) between collections to increase data capture efficiency and improve data quality, promote discovery of collection's data, and facilitate knowledge transfer from researchers and other contributors back to the collection(s) housing the specimen(s).
What do you find most fulfilling about your work?
I feel fortunate to be able to contribute to the knowledge about the biodiversity on our planet. More specifically, I remain committed to safeguarding these irreplaceable collections and their associated data for future reference.
How has SPNHC helped you?
I cannot state strongly enough the positive influence that SPNHC has had on me and my career. The Society has given me the vision to understand where some of the real issues remain and supported me in pursuing some of them. Like many of my colleagues, I always come back from SPNHC meetings so invigorated and ready to tackle a new set of challenges...
In giving back to the Society, I have served on the council as a member-at-large and been involved with many committees. Currently, as co-chair of the Best Practices committee, I am focused on the development of best practices for collection care and maintenance. These documents are a valuable resource for all who work with collections as they provide a practical set of guidelines to compare against and to strive for.
I am very fortunate to have worked in some of the best natural history collections in North America, if not the world, and look forward to many more years of contribution to the challenges these collections face in a large part through my interactions with SPNHC and the fabulous group of dedicated individuals that are its members.