SSU Grad Student Brings New Life to Biology Specimens

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At 70, Sonoma State University graduate biology student Nicole Karres doesn't need another career. But in 1996 her natural curiosity got the best of her, and after careers in the medical corps in the Army and as a graphic designer at a fortune 500 company, she started what would be a 20-year journey to both Bachelor's and Master's degrees in a field of study that was brand new to her.

Particularly grateful are the jarred fish, amphibian and reptile specimens she has taken to cleaning and re-preserving for future researchers like herself.

Karres noticed the school's ichthyology collection was in need of some TLC, and took it upon herself to clean up the specimens, some of which were being eaten away by bacteria in cloudy, yellowing liquid. The simplest solution turned out to be the best: wash the specimens in antibacterial Dawn dish soap.

"These actually represent living creatures," says Karres, motioning to the jars of preserved animals lining the counter at her workstation in one of SSU's biology labs. Many are from the 1960s or earlier. "Nowadays... you can take that DNA and look at how they've evolved since they were collected, since urbanization," she adds.

Karres unscrews each lid, carefully removes the specimen from its smelly home, and gently rinses and hand-washes the animal before re-jarring it with the proper preservation liquid. She does this a few times to each specimen over the course of a month or so to bring the specimens back to life, in a manner of speaking.

The result is a much clearer view of the preserved animal and an extended life of the specimen now that it's not being devoured by hungry single-cell organisms.

The specimens are part of the university's vertebrate museum, which includes animals and insects from the sea, land and air. SSU biology professor Dr. Derek Girman, who oversees the museum, says maintaining the collections is an important part of his work. "We have to constantly be vigilant," he says, "in keeping the collections viable so that we can use them for our students."

Students returning to an academic setting later in life aren't unusual, says Girman. Though, he says of Karres, "They're usually not that experienced, necessarily." Having that experience is a boon to the museum's collections, as a small staff of about three graduate students work on cleaning, organizing and maintaining almost all the specimens.

"It's hard because none of the faculty here actually get any specific time allocated to them to manage any of this, but we still do it," says Girman. The work from student assistants like Karres is funded through Instructionally Related Activities (IRA) fees, which are applied for and granted by the university each year to programs like the museum.
"We find students who care about this stuff as much as possible," says Girman.

Compared to the collection at UCLA, where Girman did his post-graduate work, the museum is small. But it's comparable if not larger than similar-sized collections at other California State Universities. Karres cares for fish, while grad students Wendy St. John and Kathleen Grady care for land animals and birds, respectively.

"All the students have different strengths, and we match those strengths with what we do here," says Girman.

Karres, who graduates this spring, is applying to Ph.D. programs around the country. She has studied aquatic animals, particularly turtles, for most of her time as a graduate student at SSU. The experience of working on preserving the collection has given Karres a new focus as well--connecting humans to the wildlife of the natural world.

"The museum helps us make connections," says Karres. "When students see the real creatures, even though they're not living, a light bulb turns on for them. They say, 'Oh my god, that creature is amazing.'"

-- Photo and story by Nicolas Grizzle

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