My URAP Experience at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology

By Hannah Thorner

Having participated in this URAP program since my first semester at Berkeley, it is strange to think of a time when research was not part of my life. I first learned about the URAP program through an online course I took the summer before my freshman year called L&S 1. The course introduced the departments in L&S to give an overview of majors, each discussed by a professor. I was already set on majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology, but was open to learning what other options were out there.

My favorite introduction came from Professor Eileen Lacey from the Integrative Biology Department. In addition to doing fascinating research on the social behavior of tuco tucos (adorable rodents, look up a picture to see how cute they are), she is a mammal curator for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. I asked her what is involved in being a mammal curator, and she told me I could learn more about it by participating in the museum’s URAP projects. I ended up applying for a position that fall.

Although I knew I wanted to participate in research during undergrad, I didn’t feel too pressured to find a position my first semester. I applied because I had a genuine interest in the museum, and was curious how the experience would differ from a biology or chemistry lab, which is what I typically think of when I hear the word “research.” In addition, because I hope to pursue a career in forensic science, I believed some skills I might acquire during the URAP could translate to that field. It was also encouraging to read the project descriptions and see that extensive experience was not required.

URAP positions within the MVZ include curatorial positions with the different collections, pest control, specimen labeling, online archiving, and the preparatory lab. When applying for the URAP, you pick the top three projects that interest you. I applied for mammal curatorial, specimen labeling, and prep lab. About a week after submitting my application, I was called in for a group interview, where we were asked how we heard about the museum and why we were interested in the projects we picked. Soon after the interview I found out I got a position at the prep lab!

My first day the lab manager, Theresa Barclay, explained the workflow of receiving and cleaning specimens before they are stored in the museum. I was then set to the task of “waterworks,” which involves removing the last bits of tissue from bones that have been macerating in water. During the rest of the semester, I learned new tasks at different stages of the specimen preparation process. I learned how to retrieve skeletons from the demisted beetle colony that eats the flesh off bones, and even got to participate in some specimen dissections.

After my first semester in the lab, I was offered the opportunity to do curatorial work with the bird collection. This involved scanning barcode-labeled tissue samples into the online database to make it easier for researchers to locate the samples. That same semester, I was invited to participate in the Prep Lab Class where I would get more detailed instruction on skeletal specimen preparation.

Classes in the prep lab are unique in that they are only offered through MVZ URAP and are taught entirely by undergraduate students and recent graduates. In Prep Lab Class you learn how to correctly retrieve the skeleton from bird and mammal specimens, take tissue samples for DNA analysis, and collect data about the specimen according to the standards of the museum. My fourth semester at the MVZ I was asked if I wanted to learn how to do bird skin preps, which is a process much like taxidermy. I was excited to take on this new project and am currently taking the Bird Skinning class for the second semester in a row.

My URAP experience put into practice lots of advice I would give someone looking to find a research project through the program. First, I would encourage someone to explore projects listed under majors that are not their own. While you may have an overall field of interest many projects are interdisciplinary or cover a sub-discipline different from your primary focus, and these projects are worth considering. Second, it is more important to find a project you are passionate about than to find any project as soon as possible. It is absolutely okay not to dive into research your first semester. Sometimes it takes a semester or two to gain knowledge or develop skills you need to carry out a project. It also helps to focus on applying to projects that match your current level of experience. However, if you find a project you are really passionate about, and have the time to do it, there is never any harm in applying, no matter the timing, because you never know what might happen (unless you are in your first or second year and the project explicitly states that only upper division students should apply). Finally, know that you will probably start off doing a fair amount of “grunt work” before you get to do anything with greater impact. You can’t do the advanced stuff until you know the basics. It is often worth it to stick it out at a position to see what opportunities will come your way.