When Working at the Nature Museum Doesn’t Feel Like Work

Botany Shelves copy
Victor Becerril, Collections Technician
January 10, 2023

I am approaching my second year of working at the Nature Museum and through my journey I have come upon unexpected discoveries, both personally and professionally. When I first graduated with my degree in environmental science, I pictured myself working out in the forest preserves, harvesting on an urban farm, or writing environmental impact assessments. I also pictured myself doing all of this in Seattle but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I moved back to Chicago earlier than I anticipated. The environment and culture between the two cities are vastly different, and the opportunities for my degree in Seattle did not exactly translate in Chicago. I struggled for a while with my job search, unable to find something that called out to me until the Nature Museum came along.

In 2021, I found an education internship opportunity with the Nature Museum working for their Teenagers Exploring and Explaining Nature and Science (TEENS) program. Participating in this program as one of the mentors and educators felt very reflective of who I am as a person, someone who enjoys working hands-on with the environment and demonstrating the wonders of nature right outside your door. Being able to spend time with young students who are likewise interested in the environment was a special bonus. The mission of the Nature Museum became very clear to me then, and I realized how much it coincided with my own.

TEENS Program

Students from the summer TEENS program looking for and catching bugs in the black oak savanna habitat outside the Nature Museum in Lincoln Park.

For the past year, I have been working as a Collections Technician at the Nature Museum’s collections storage facility in Ravenswood to make advances to their botanical collection. Little did I expect that I would be exercising skills that I have had since I was a child.

From high school, I believed that your career would reflect the skills that you learned through school and the interests you developed in classes. When searching for jobs that catered to my career, I never thought to look for ones that would engage what I was already naturally good at, only ones that would complement the education that I received. Some might blame it on my Virgo astrological placements, but I have always had the natural tendency to organize things and follow strict guidelines, to make lists and create spreadsheets, to establish routines, to analyze data, and find a neat category for everything. It wasn’t until working with the botanical collection that I realized I was utilizing these inborn traits to get my work done more efficiently.

Botany Shelves copy

Processing shelves that we use for the botanical backlog collection. Each row represents a different step that each specimen goes through, which helps organize our workflow.

The typical steps for processing backlog botany material include mounting specimens onto herbarium sheets, cataloging specimens into a database, printing standardized labels, scanning specimens, and lastly, integrating them into storage cabinets for preservation and future use. Much of these tasks may appear mundane and repetitive as they consist of cycling through the same steps multiple times for numerous specimens, most of which are done on a computer. I have not found many other people who are fond of typing the same information over and over again, but to me, it’s a treat. The “treat” aspect being the personal gratification I get when I can see the difference my efforts make. Although seeing how much of one task I can complete in a day is part of the fun, I prefer to first find the most efficient path to completing a task, whether that involves keyboard shortcuts, writing preparatory outlines, or organizing taxonomy alphabetically. The process of streamlining these steps and discovering the most convenient approach, all while maintaining accuracy, is my way of having “fun”. Being able to apply these innate skills through my work almost makes my day feel as if I am not actually working; everything is being done how I would normally do it at home.

Package 43 Notes 2048x1399

Collection notes written on wrapping paper for a botany package. The information is to be transcribed online and attributed to each specimen that came inside the package.

Package 43 example notes

An example of the notes I use to make the process of cataloging backlog specimens more efficient. The notes include information that was transcribed from the wrapping paper as well as pre-written remarks for specimens that need more context as to when and where they were collected from, which will be useful for georeferencing in the future. Taking the time to set up this method allows me to easily transfer information as well as ensure that I am being consistent throughout entering the data online.

Although working with the Nature Museum has brought a lot of personal connection between myself, my habits, and the work that I do, there are other broader impacts. Sharing the fruit of my work with others is by far the most rewarding aspect. Part of the botanical backlog project is to make the collection more accessible to the public online. Oftentimes, archival websites like these are not the most user-friendly, have finicky search engines, and are constantly changing. In emphasizing consistency and clean data, I ultimately try to make sure our botany collection becomes easier to search through. Additionally, the more specimens we are able to process, the more information that can be discovered along the way. I can continue to enjoy being meticulous at work knowing that even the smallest details will have a larger impact.

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