Spring Break Adventure in Ann Arbor, MI

What do JMM staffers do for spring break? Explore museum collections and attend ecology symposiums of course! And what better place than the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor? JMM Museum Director Heather Lerner and eight students set off early Friday morning March 10th to Ann Arbor.  After arriving at the Natural History Museum at the University of Michigan, we explored the exhibits–including a special exhibit on evolution! Soon after, we met up with Kirra Berman, Associate Director of Education, and John Klausmeyer, Exhibit Preparator.  They showed us around the museum’s Hall of Evolution, which is filled with fossils, dinosaur fossils, mastodons, and other remains of fascinating creatures (although no  complete Giant Beavers!).

Two mastodon skeletons in the  “Hall of Evolution” (Photo:www.lsa.umich.edu/ummnh)

We also talked about the Natural History Museum’s new home. Don’t worry, the move isn’t far–across the street is the site of the university’s new Biology Building where the museum will find a more spacious and modern abode. While some popular exhibits will remain, most of them will be redesigned to fit the new space, John told us.

Next, we met with graduate admissions directors Trish Witkopp and Cindy Carlson who offered tips and advice to our students on finding graduate programs and being accepted.


Two birds of the collections

Finally, we visited the vast museum collections. Earlham College alum Janet Hinshaw showed us the Bird collection, which houses 6,387 species, two thirds of the species in the world! We saw a wide array of species, including kiwis, rheas (the only bird with a bladder) and ivory billed woodpeckers, an extinct species.


Julie Anderson holds an Ivory Billed Woodpecker

Then on to the Insect collection where we saw everything from luna moths, to hawk moths, to an orchid mantis. Can you guess what this large insect with the colorful wing is? 


It’s a grasshopper!

Afterward, we finished off the afternoon with a delicious dinner at Zingerman’s Delicatessen. We enjoyed sandwiches, cheese, and good conversation with two U of M graduate students and Dr. Robyn Burnam, who told us about her research on vines in the Amazon Rainforest.

The next morning found us munching on bagels and bananas while waiting for the start of the 12th Annual University of Michigan Early Career Scientists Symposium. This year’s theme was “Frontiers in Community Assembly.” University of California, Berkeley Professor Rosemary Gillespie gave a fascinating talk on spider evolution on the Hawaiian Islands. We also heard about island lizard evolutions, fungi, and what the fossil record can reveal about community assembly!

The Hands On Museum focuses on interactive exhibits that are fun for kids and adults. (Photo:www.aahom.org)

On Sunday, a handful of us visited the Hands on Museum, where director of education Laurrie Beaumont gave us a behind the scenes tour. She explained two exciting new programs at the museum, sensory kits and distance learning. Sensory kits are kits of sunglasses and ear protectors which help visitors who can become overwhelmed by the highly stimulating environment at the Hands On Museum. Using these kits allows visitors to be more comfortable and better enjoy their museum experience. Distance learning allows classrooms that can’t travel to a museum the opportunity to connect with museum educators virtually. The museum provides the class with an activity kit and then Skypes with the class to guide them through the activity. The Joseph Moore Museum is currently piloting similar activity kits to be used in the museum and in the classroom, so stay tuned!

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Richmond is a time, too!

Richmond is our town, but did you know that it’s given its name to a section of geological time? The Richmondian age lasted from about 449 to about 445 million years ago, during the Ordovician Period.


Our town looked very different 449 million years ago! It was so close to the equator that it was warm and humid. It was at the bottom of a shallow sea that covered most of what is now the midwestern United States. There were large mountains to the east, with volcanoes like those now found in Japan.  These types of volcanoes are formed as an ocean plate subducts, or moves underneath, a continental plate.  When the ocean plate moves down into the Earth’s mantle and melts, the magma rises through the continental plate to form volcanoes.


The Richmondian ocean was full of life, but we would not recognize most of the creatures living there, such as shelled animals called brachiopods (Greek for “arm-foot”).  Even though brachiopods are related to mollusks like clams or scallops, their bodies are quite different: clams’ shells are symmetrical and they have a left and right shell that are shaped the same, but brachiopods have a top and bottom shell that are shaped differently.  The rocks around modern Richmond have fossils from many different brachiopod species, including  Hebertella, Hiscobecus, and Rafenesquina.



Hebertella fossil. Source: Wikimedia contributor dwergenpaarje.


Corals, bryozoans, and crinoids were also common in the Richmondian ocean.  Corals first became common in this area during the Richmondian.  Most of the coral reefs in today’s oceans are formed by many individual corals (a relative of jellyfish!) living in colonies together.  The Richmondian horn corals were solitary, with “horn” the home of a single animal.  The Richmond Fossil Park contains many fossils of the horn coral Grewingkia.



Grewingkia fossil. Source: Wikimedia contributor Wilson44691.


One animal that looked very similar to today’s colonial corals, and their fossils have many small openings where the individual animals lived were the bryozoans (“moss-animals”). Bryozoans may look a lot like corals, but they are actually more closely related to brachiopods.


Bryozoan fossil. Source: Wikimedia contributor Regiomontanus.

The strangest looking of the Richmondian’s ocean creatures – they looked like an upside-down starfish on a stem – are the Crinoids (“lily-forms”). The stem kept their arms off the bottom so that they could catch food from the water.  Crinoid stems are very common in the rocks of modern Richmond.


Crinoid fossil. Source: Wikimedia contributor Vassil.

The top predators of the Richmondian ocean were nautiloids, distant relatives of today’s squids.  They had shells that looked like torpedo cases and could be anywhere from a few inches to eight feet long.  A hungry nautiloid could eat anything it wanted!


A artist idea of what a nautiloid looked like. Source: Wikimedia contributor Nobu Tamura. 

The astonishing animals that lived here so long ago are called the Richmondian Fauna, and their fossils are very common in the rocks around modern Richmond.. To learn more about nearby fossil-hunting sites, visit the Joseph Moore Museum and get your fossil passport!





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Wrapping Up The Semester: Overview and Accomplishments

The museum has had a productive and busy semester. Our collective efforts have allowed us to put on successful museum events, improve the museum exhibits and programs, and reach out to the community as a whole.


During this Fall Semester, we have accomplished the following:



A reusable display was made for traveling advertisement and for events in Richmond. This new display debuted at an event in the park in the Richmond community. We had great help from graphic designer, Noah Medlen, who taught us about branding, visual communication, and marketing. A photo-booth Allosaurus and Triceratops head was also made in the wood shop for such occasions, so people may take dinosaur selfies. In addition, an Allosaurus claw was made by the 3D printer and is now used by hosts of the museum to give visitors a closer, more hands-on look at the Dinosaur that we have.






The new CST building at Earlham has allowed us to put up a display in order to show the public about what we have to offer! An informational poster and artifacts from our collections were picked and placed into the display case. The CST display was done and put up in time for Homecoming and received a good amount of positive feedback.











We talked with authors of a new study about the track patterns of Mastodons, and found that the size, shape, and arrangement needed to be altered in order to be scientifically accurate. Therefore, Fab Lab measured and cut new stencils in order to re-paint them. New Allosaurus footprints were painted over the old, fading ones. Follow these tracks across campus to give us a visit!











The Climate Change event allowed the museum to unveil a new exhibit, and it was a huge success! New photographs were hung that had been gathered from public and professional submissions. The opening of the exhibit featured many interactive stations to help the visitors better understand climate change. These stations ranged from screen-printing to investigating climate data through technology. We are so grateful for everyone’s collective efforts and participation. A big thanks to all museum staff, the class Environment and Society taught by Jamey Pavey, the Science and Pseudoscience class taught by Michael Lerner, CS Applied Groups, Cope Environmental Center, and the Richmond Art Museum. Over 200 people attended this event!






One of our Fab Lab members cut and painted 60 blocks in order to make Ecosystem Jenga! This game was a huge success at the Climate Change event. It serves to be a fun and interactive activity, while also educating the participants about the effects on ecosystems and the interactions within them. Jenga will be used in future events as well, so look forward for some more toppling fun!









Fab Lab is working on creating a new logo for the Joseph Moore Museum, and has been brainstorming on and reviewing many different ideas. This logo will go on buttons and other paraphernalia for the promotion of the museum. The Giant Beaver is the new approach for representation for the museum.




The overall goals of this semester were to create new programs and activities, improve on what we have to offer, and to bring the Joseph Moore Museum closer to the Richmond community and to the students of Earlham College. As a museum team as a whole, we feel that we have had a successful and engaging semester, and we are proud of all that we have accomplished.


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Homecoming Weekend

This past weekend, the museum held a Homecoming Alumni Open House from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. The event was a smashing success, with over 150 visitors stopping by the museum, some of whom increased our Memory Jar collection, leaving behind memories of their time here at the Joseph Moore Museum. Visitors also got to enjoy a sneak peak at our new exhibit on climate change. Alumni, current students, and faculty roamed the entire museum, commenting on the changes that have taken place, the climate change sneak preview, and enjoying refreshments in the lobby while chatting and sharing memories. Having the chance to talk with past museum staff members provided our current staff members with new tips and tricks and connected past generations to current members.

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Ancient Medicine and Modern Miracles

Associate Professor Julia Nelson-Hawkins’s talk on Friday, October 9th, went very well. Listeners were arriving early to the presentation, until every seat was taken and students, faculty, and other listeners began to stand around the perimeters of the room. Professor Nelson-Hawkins talked about how the ancient methods of medicine practiced by the Greeks have influenced today’s medical field and the new classes that are being created to delve into the intricacies of how ancient medicine and modern medicine are connected. Professor Nelson-Hawkins discussed how the ancients viewed diseases and the emphasis that was placed on the connections with the divine and the natural world.

The reception afterwards went swimmingly, as well. Students were asking questions and were engaging in the discussions. Overall, the presentation given by Associate Professor Julia Nelson-Hawkins gave students and faculty new understanding about how ancient medicine is affecting today’s medical field.

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Meet Erika Nelson – our new Community Engagement Director


We’d like to give a warm welcome to Erika Nelson, who has joined us to work as the museum’s Community Engagement Director. Her work managing tours, outreach, and events makes it possible for the museum to connect and interact with the community. She was gracious enough to sit down for an interview with me, and I was able to learn more about her background and interests, as well as find out her goals for the future.

Mia: Where are you from?

Erika: I’m from Oxford Indiana, around 40 minutes away. My parents came 53 years ago and thought they’d stay for only one year.

M: What’s your job like at the museum?

E: At this job, I get to be very creative. I’m passionate about connecting people to each other, nature, and science. The museum can be a way for people to access these things. My goal is to be that. Have after school programs, and get kids in here to ask questions or touch something as a way of learning.

M: How did you find out about the museum? What brought you here?

E: I’m an educator. I teach at Miami University. I was looking for additional jobs and saw “community engagement”, and I thought, “That’s what I do!”.

M: What kind of background do you have with museums? With community engagement?

E: I’ve always worked in volunteer development and education development. I’ve worked with volunteers, and you need to have good relationships, listen to people, and be an advocate for them. As an anthropologist it’s been a natural thing for me to be responsive to other people’s needs and help people engage.

M: What’s your favorite part of the museum?

E: I love the mummy. It’s so fascinating to think that that was a real human being that people touched and knew. But I love elephants, so I also love the Mastodon because I lived in Africa.

M: What are you looking forward to this upcoming year? Do you have any long term goals?

E: I want to increase people’s access to the museum, have more students coming in, and multigenerational programs. I’d like to have inside and outside activities because kids get enough time inside.

M: If you had an unlimited budget for the museum, what would you do?

E: Where to begin right? Brand new building, new space, and space for things to be preserved properly. Expand the interactive learning centers and be closer to the woods and road.

M: What’s your favorite animal?

E: My totem animal is the slug. They are patient and slow moving, probably characteristics I need to develop. I am a very forward thinking and driven person.

A big thank you to Erika for participating in this interview. The museum is super excited to have you, for you are a great addition to this community. We are looking forward to seeing where your skills and ambition takes us!

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Welcome Back!

It’s been a few weeks since the first day of classes, and the fall semester is in full swing. Each semester always brings change to the museum: students graduate, or leave campus to study abroad, and new team members are greeted with open arms. This semester’s change is particularly poignant, as we bade farewell to nine graduating students (a third of the staff!) Alongside the departure of many other staff members for study abroad programs, the effect was stark.

Yet with our first meeting of the school year, we were able to welcome back staff members who had studied abroad last semester, as well as many excited new faces. Each staff meeting is bustling with people, and everyone is energetically working towards completing their goals each week, from replacing collections trays to preparing for tours. We also welcomed a new non-student staff member this semester, our new community engagement director Erika Nelson. (Stay tuned into the blog in the next couple weeks to learn more about Erika and her work with the museum!)

The new semester promises exciting new events, and other changes to the museum beyond staff demographics. We are all eagerly looking forward to the introduction of a new exhibit on climate change in November, and are hard at work planning for the myriad other events set to make this semester great! We are also very excited to begin work on redesigning our existing exhibits, and we have wonderful guidance in the process.

Things are different, as they always are at the start of a new semester. Perhaps it’s a little more different this semester than last. But it’s good to be back, and the rest of 2015 promises to be even better.

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The Final Week in Germany by Jacob

The last week was here was much more relaxed. With our libraries prepared for sequencing, we were basically finished. We couldn’t run our samples in the sequencer until Wednesday, so we had planned to work in the Ancient Lab, reextracting several samples, mostly to get more practice working in the clean lab. Unfortunately, the lab was booked all day Monday, so we did some quick practice in one of the modern labs, reviewing technique and basic lab habits. Although that sounds easy, it’s actually very difficult to consistently follow George’s protocols. There’s a million little steps that have to be done in a specific and not necessarily obvious order. For example, you have to remember to open the tubes before you put the tip on the pipette, even though I would have thought the reverse to minimize contamination of the buffers and samples!

Tuesday, we went into the ancient lab and began new extractions. We used two samples that didn’t work the first time, as well as three new ones. Using the mortar and pestle to grind the specimens made a nice break from pipetting. Before work Tuesday, Mayeesha and I went to a German breakfast buffet, which was awesome. Germans have excellent breakfasts, mostly bread, croissants, and different types of meat, although there are also eggs, yogurt, and cereals.

Wednesday, we finished our work in the ancient lab, getting to a stable stopping point with our libraries. That afternoon, when Johanna and Carolina, who were also putting samples on the sequencer, were ready, we began prepping our samples for sequencing. This took a long time, as there are a lot of calculations necessary to ensure the samples are placed on the sequencer in the right concentrations. George explained to us how the sequencer works, which is actually very cool. It measures flashes of light to tell the order of nucleotides.

Because the sequencer takes about 24 hours, and we didn’t start running it until 7pm Wednesday, there wasn’t anything for us to do Thursday, so we took the day off. I used it to explore more of Potsdam. I’ve been trying to run in different directions, and I found a new park complex which is pretty cool.

Friday, our last day in the lab, we finally saw our sequencing results! But, we’re not going to tell you what they show just yet…stay tuned for a bigger announcement!

We are leaving on Sunday! Mayeesha has friends from high school coming to visit this weekend, and I am going to continue exploring Potsdam and Berlin. Working in the lab has been so fun, but I’m looking forward to coming home and continuing with my summer.

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The story of how four scientists met the challenge of sequencing the Giant Beaver by Heather Lerner

In a country far, far away, four scientists set forth to capture DNA from an extinct Giant Beaver. George, Heather, Jacob and Mayeesha met in Potsdam, Germany to begin their mission in June 2015. Five fossils of giant beaver teeth were their best hope. They ground the bones to a fine powder, digested them in solution overnight and returned the next morning to finish extracting the DNA. But, no separation column existed that could handle the massive amount of digested Beaver samples. Undaunted, our fearless scientists crammed together pieces from two different kits to make the perfect column system. Early signs were good: four of the extracted bones showed evidence of ancient DNA. That is, short fragments of ~100-200 nucleotides in length.

There was no way to know if that DNA belonged to a Giant Beaver unless they sequenced it. Our scientists knew they would need a lot more copies of each DNA fragment in the samples to be able to sequence them. But this copying process would be risky. At any step, a simple mistake could mean that all of the DNA was lost. Over three days, they attached strings of known DNA (barcodes and adaptors) to the ancient DNA in each tube. Using those known strings as “primers” and a DNA copying enzyme (polymerase), they attempted to copy the ancient DNA. Signs were again good, four of the remaining samples still showed evidence of ancient DNA! An ice cream celebration ensued with much joy.

Our intrepid scientists faced another challenge: DNA sequencing is too expensive to waste time and money on sequences that aren’t Giant Beaver. They would have to somehow pull out only sequences that were likely to be Giant Beaver. “What else might be in that tube?” you might ask. The most likely contaminants are bacteria, any humans who had handled the samples, and any DNA that might have been floating around the lab or in the chemicals they used. They called on another scientist, Johanna, to help them solve this problem. She proposed capturing Giant Beaver DNA with a trap made of modern beaver DNA. Using a similar copying process as before (i.e. PCR), the scientists essentially made a net of modern beaver DNA to capture the Giant Beaver DNA.  When the two types of DNA were mixed, strands of DNA that were similar would be attracted to each other. As the strands paired up, one strand would be made from modern beaver DNA and the other from extinct Giant Beaver.

They faced yet another challenge: to separate the captured beaver DNA from contaminating DNA. Brilliantly, they had modified their original modern beaver DNA by attaching a molecule that sticks to special enhanced magnetic beads (i.e. biotin). By applying a magnet to each tube, they could pull the hybridized strands to the side and pipette everything else away!

One final challenge remained: How would they get their ancient DNA away from the modern DNA, (which would be too expensive to sequence)? Luckily, it is easy to get DNA strands to separate by just heating them up. Again, that magnetic bead came in handy: after heating the tubes, they used the same magnet and pipetted off the ancient DNA that had once been trapped by the modern beaver DNA. It was time to check again to see if they had been successful. This was an important moment after three arduous weeks of challenges, including several mishaps in which they all believed the project had been lost. This time, three of the samples showed evidence of short strands of ancient DNA!

One final step remains in our heroes’ saga: sequence the potential three ancient Giant Beaver samples. And that is where we will leave you…until we hear from our heroes again, we will wonder and dream about if they have recovered the first ever Giant Beaver DNA sequence…


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DNA capture progress by Mayeesha (June 1st)

Update for Monday, June 1, 2015

Last week, we ran our first capture, which is the process by which we made our modern beaver DNA baits bind to the ancient DNA in our samples, so that non-target materials could be removed. So, on Monday, we wanted to amplify the target DNA that we (hopefully) captured. In order to do that, we had to run a quantitative PCR (qPCR) to find out the optimum number of cycles each of our samples had to go through during amplification. After finding out the required number of cycles for each sample, we amplified our captured libraries using PCR. By now we were very curious to find out how much ancient DNA we were able to capture and amplify so we did a High Sensitivity Qubit and ran a Tapestation. The results showed we had DNA in our samples (whew, looks like there’s still hope!).

Hey check it out, we’re listed on the University of Potsdam website as guests of the Biology and Biochemistry department. This feels so official!


And now you know how to say guest in German.

On Tuesday, we started a second capture and we left it in the thermocycler called Clive. All the thermocyclers in the lab have names instead of numbers and their names are: Juan, Stu, Lee, Ford and Clive which I found pretty funny because they kind of sound like one, two, three, four, five. Since we don’t have any lab work to do while we wait for our capture to be completed, we decided to use our time to make a list of all the reagents and lab materials we used so we could pay the department back. This was a long process because we had to go through all the protocols to figure out how many times we did each protocol and how much stuff we used. After an afternoon of calculations, we got the wonderful opportunity to meet with Dr Michael Hofreiter. Michi took some time off his extremely busy schedule to have a conversation with us and we were super excited to be able to chat with the great scientist whose lab we were working in!

On Wednesday, we decided to arrive at the university at 10am, which is an hour later than usual. Jacob and Heather go to campus on their bikes, while I take the bus (I developed a phobia of bikes after a pretty bad fall last year). Usually when I take the 8:40am bus, the bus is mostly empty and I get to have two seats to myself which is really nice. However, when I took the 9:40 bus that day, it was so crowded that people had to get off at each stop to allow new passengers to get on. But no one got off to leave; they got back on with the new passengers so the bus kept getting more and more crowded. I had to stand on the whole way and kept trying my best not to lose balance and fall on the other passengers every time the bus made a turn. When we finally arrived at the university, everyone got off and the bus was totally empty! I made a mental note to never take the 9:40 bus with all the university students again. Nope.

When we got to the lab, we decided to keep our capture running for 48 hours instead of 24. So we didn’t really have to do any lab work that day and being the awesome person that Heather is, she let us have the rest of the day off! So I took the bus back to Brandenburger Straße (ß is the equivalent of ss in pronunciation) and explored the shops on either side of the street. They have some cute souvenir stores, some handicrafts stores, and amazing restaurants! I found a really nice restaurant where I had a delicious crepe with banana and nutella and went on to exploring all the nearby streets and discovered some shortcuts to our hotel from there. I really enjoyed walking around the pretty streets by myself and discovering new places that I liked! It was wonderful to get a day off to relax in the middle of the week!

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