Stefan Hill, sorter of tissues

Sorting and documenting tissue samples.

Sorting and documenting tissue samples.

One of my main projects during my internship at Texas A&M University’s Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections (BRTC) was sorting through and organizing a collection of tissue samples from past research by Dr. Ira Greenbaum. These tissue samples were primarily harvested from a variety of Peromyscus species over decades of research. Totaling over 7,000 combined liver, heart, kidney, and testicle samples, the collection had been stored inside freezers in Dr. Greenbaum’s lab for some time, until those freezers started to fail.  Luckily the BRTC was able to take in these tissue samples and continue to preserve them by placing them within the Genetic Resources collection.   Notably, the skins and skulls from which these tissue samples were taken are already included within the Mammal Collection. Therefore, obtaining these tissue samples greatly benefits the collections overall as now we have all samples associated with each specimen. As one can imagine, sorting through all these frozen tissues is a huge and somewhat numbing (literally) task. Fortunately for the staff at the BRTC, there is an army of undergraduate interns such as myself that will work on such projects.  The task may have been simplistic in itself, but it gave me some insight to the efforts that are required at times during real scientific research.

Organizing the Greenbaum tissue collection involved taking the tissue samples out of the original cardboard storage boxes, placing them into new plastic vial storage containers, and recording their information into an excel tissue spreadsheet where they could be easily located. These new containers were organized into a 9 x 9 grid system capable of holding up to 81 individual vials; columns were labeled A through I and rows labeled 1 through 9. Each new container was numbered and entered into the tissue excel file on an individual spreadsheet that had the empty cell slots organized A1-I9 ready for vial placement.   Written on the side of every vial contained the initials of the researcher, followed by that collector’s collector number and a letter designating its tissue type.  This information would be recorded into the spreadsheet alongside the cell number giving each tissues’ specific location.    After organizing all the tissues from the storage into new containers, the next step was to cross reference the organized vials’ collection ID with another excel spreadsheet from the Mammal Database that contained the specific information about each individual specimen from which the tissue came from.  The purpose of this cross-listing was to record that a specimen cataloged in the Mammal Collection did indeed have a tissue and note the tissue location (box and cell slot). Although time consuming, the overall process was fairly straightforward and once I got into the rhythm of creating new excel sheets for each tissue box, reading the tissue information, and entering it into the excel file, I was able to fly through the process. My knowledge of the Excel program definitely increased as I discovered faster keyboard shortcuts to enter the data at a much more efficient rate. It wasn’t exciting work but by listening to music, TED Talks lectures, and audiobooks, I was able to stay focused and relaxed enough that time went by much faster. The biggest challenges and frustrations involved with this project was merely trying to decipher some of the written information on the vials. A combination of illegible hand writing and non-permanent ink made reading a fair number of tubes almost impossible.  I would either have to look for patterns in the numbering system of how they were originally sorted to deduce what was written or simply record UNREADABLE in the Excel file.

After accumulating several dozen hours doing this project, I often wondered what the overall purpose of this project was. Then about halfway through the semester, I happened to stumble upon a magazine article highlighting the importance of biodiversity collection museums. The author pointed out that they play an important role by tying together a number of scientific fields including genetics, population studies, migration patterns, evolutionary history, and taxonomy that can be used to further benefit the goal of conservation. These tissue samples that I had been sorting were a contribution to that direct effort.  They can be used by future researchers for generations to come for a variety of studies to further advance the field of biodiversity.

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