January 13, 2012

Volunteer Spotlight: Fish Collections

I love profiling volunteers at the Burke Museum because it gives me the opportunity to share unique stories and people who work hard and are dedicated to the museum, all without being on salary! These aren’t usually people you will see in the news, but they do a lot of great work at the museum deserving of newsworthy coverage. Today I’d like to introduce you to Saul Rico, a volunteer in the Ichthyology collections.

Jessica: Saul, tell me a little bit about what you do in the Ichthyology collections.
Saul: I process newly acquired specimens, loans and loan returns, enter data, re-label existing specimens, and any other tasks as needed.

Jessica: How did you end up volunteering for the Burke Museum’s Ichthyology collections?
Saul: I recently moved to Seattle and decided the transition would be a good time to make a career shift that aligned better with my interests and passions. I have always been interested in marine biology, particularly marine mammals and fishes, so I decided to quit my job of 10 years to pursue a career in fisheries management/research and perhaps apply to the graduate program at School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. I've been taking classes as a non-matriculated student to boost my knowledge in marine sciences and became aware of the fish collection when I took Ted Pietsch's Biology of Fishes course. He gave us a tour of the facility early in the course and I knew immediately that I wanted to be involved in some capacity. I approached him and asked if I could help and luckily there was some work I could do.

Jessica: What do you like most about volunteering at the Burke?
Saul: I really enjoy learning about the different fishes that inhabit our local waters and getting to see them first hand.  I also really enjoy working with the staff and other volunteers in the collection.  Not only are they very knowledgeable which presents a learning opportunity for me, but they are fun too. 

Jessica: Tell me a funny story that’s happened while working in the fish collections.
Saul: I think seeing school children come through the collection as part of a school field trip presents lots of opportunity for spontaneous fun. Some of the questions are very insightful and well thought out, while others are questions that only a child could come up with.  During one particular tour one kid had a question about a half-man, half-alligator that I thought was pretty funny. He really seemed to think that one existed and must have thought that as a scientist, the collections manager should be an authority on the topic and must know something about it.

Jessica: What would surprise people about what you do?  
Saul: I think people don't quite grasp what the fish collection is about and why it's important. But when they realize that it truly is just like a library of fishes that other researchers can "check out" to study them more carefully, it becomes clear that I'm a kind of like a librarian.  Oh, and some people are surprised that I don't get paid for what I do!  

Astroscopus y-graecum specimens. Some of Saul's favorite specimens from the Burke's Icthyology collections, these fish are a shallow water species from the East Coast.
Jessica: Briefly describe your most memorable project.  
Saul: I had a nice opportunity to work with another volunteer identifying some fish that had only been identified to the genus level. Many fishes can be easily classified by ichthyologists to the family or even genus level, but once you get to the actual species level, it gets difficult to differentiate them, particularly since some differences between species can be quite subtle.  So in order to identify them, we used a dichotomous key to correctly identify their species.  A dichotomous key is kind of like a map of fish characteristics.  If followed correctly it can help distinguish fish species from one another. I'd never done this before, so it was not only fun but a great learning opportunity for me.  

Posted By: Jessica Newkirk, Volunteer Coordinator