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Updated 10:00 AM April 4, 2005
 

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Spotlight: Collecting the fungus among us

It's in the flu medicine your doctor prescribes. The mulch heap for your garden is packed with it, too. It's tossed in with the $25 insalata di funghi at your favorite Italian restaurant.
(Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

It's fungi, and for Pat Rogers, collection manager for fungi and lichens for the Herbarium, preserving and keeping track of its thousands of specimens is a full-time job.

The Herbarium's 1.7 million items include almost 350,000 fungus and lichen specimens, housed in the facility's museum. Fungus researchers, called mycologists, collect them for research from sites around the world. They deposit their collections in a herbarium so that other researchers—today and tomorrow—may see their findings.

"This herbarium has specimens that are nearly 200 years old. Their collectors could not imagine the techniques that are being used to extract information from their specimens today, just as we cannot imagine the techniques that will be used 200 years from now," Rogers says.

The collections are housed in a large, climate-controlled warehouse, where thousands of metal cabinets hold boxes, packets and sheets covered and filled with plant and fungal specimens.

The herbarium is a research museum, so you won't find any glass-cased displays or public tours. Instead, researchers from U-M and other universities hover silently over microscopes and well-lit desks tucked away in a corner of the warehouse.

The building is kept extremely arid to prevent the hatching of any larvae that might be housed in the samples. The lack of humidity makes for a dry mouth and loss of energy after an hour or two.

"Our student assistants bring big containers of water with them into the collection area. And I keep a clean mayo jar filled with water on my desk to remind me to drink, drink, drink," says Rogers, whose office is adjacent to the Herbarium.

The plant-mounting team prepares all the specimens for storage. They use archivally-safe papers, packets and string to strap, glue and pack the plant specimens into their appropriate containers. The process is long and labor-intensive, but integral to the preservation of the collection.

"This is not something a machine could do," Rogers says. "This is all done by hand, and it is all knowledge that has been passed on for hundreds of years."

Rogers came to the Herbarium 14 years ago as a technician with a background in library services, knowing what she did about scientific classification from college biology. Today, she's developed an understanding and passion for fungi and plants that extends to her life outside the Herbarium. Something always seems to catch her eye, even the pile of mulch outside her home, she says.

"I get excited. Right after a heavy rain, it's a prime source for fungi, so after it rains I'll always think 'What's coming up next?' I am the type of person who enjoys the turning world."

It's for that reason that Rogers will continue her work preserving and updating the collections for those who wish to access it.

"I've been here 14 years, and I have never wanted to go anywhere else. Museum work is very satisfying, because you're part of a movement to advance our understanding of the world, which is very exciting," she says.

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