Young Mi Kwon ’15, THURJ Staff

With respect to academic resources, Harvard undergraduates face the unique challenge of being offered not too few, but rather too many choices. Immersed in a wealth of opportunities for education or enrichment, they need to weigh the benefits of each to optimize the limited time they spend in college. However, the abundance of opportunities can cause students to potentially overlook some of the University’s more valuable and accessible resources.

Museums such as the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) are perfect examples. Dedicated to teaching and to research, Harvard’s museums have provided a chance for students to further explore the life sciences. The MCZ lies near the heart of campus, yet most undergraduates are unaware of the museum’s contributions and available resources.

In an interview with James Hankin, the director of the MCZ, he explained how each of the ten departments and collections that exist within the museum is monitored by curators, faculty members in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Department. As professors, they often utilize the museum’s collections to enhance learning in their courses. Aiding in the understanding of the physiology and anatomy of species, the specimens have played a crucial, active role in the labs of several popular OEB courses such as Herpetology (OEB167): Invertebrates, and Ornithology.

Not only does the museum contribute its collections for education, but the MCZ is also deeply involved in the funding and opportunities provided in many of these OEB courses. Through this support, the OEB courses provide students chances to take field trips to an array of places such as Costa Rica and Panama.

Evident in the students’ accounts of the trips is the greater appreciation of the material covered in the curriculum. In a blog by Jeremy Hsu, a student who had taken Herpetology, he described the trip as a chance to further explore an area he was interested in and also to experience the “herpetological diversity” that cannot be replicated in a classroom. These trips allow students to directly engage with the material, which not only enhances learning, but also fulfills the goal of any curriculum—to promote an appreciation and solid understanding of the subject.

The MCZ also contributes significantly to research both at Harvard and around the world. The museum’s collections are diverse, separated into ten departments—a greater number than most other museums. Under the broader categories of vertebrates and invertebrates, the collections provide a variety of specimens that are unavailable at other institutions around the nation. These expansive collections are available for individual students to utilize for research or senior theses. As members of the faculty, the curators welcome students to their labs, which often work with the museum and its specimens. Additionally, the museum funds ongoing undergraduate research through grants known as the Grants-in-Aid for Undergraduate Research (GUR). This award is available for students who are interested in pursuing research during the year, in particular with any of the specimens or collections in the museum.

Through such resources, the museum hopes that, according to Hanken, “students gain an appreciation for the biodiversity and purpose of museums as not only involved in public galleries, but also in the business of teaching and research.” Unfortunately, while opportunities provided by the museum are plenty, most undergraduates don’t take advantage of them.

The problem lies not in the quality of the opportunities themselves, but rather in the awareness of the student body. As stated during an interview by Linda S. Ford, the director of collections operations of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, “students unfortunately don’t have any idea how vast the collections are.” Throughout other institutions and in the world, the museum is renowned for its collections and deep involvement in research. Unaware of this, students often look for different avenues for research and do not consider using the museum.

In response to these concerns of how to raise awareness of the museum’s opportunities, the MCZ is working towards increasing student involvement and contact with the museum. One method the MCZ employs is providing  public lectures through the Museum of Natural History. These events bring professors from other regions who utilize the museum’s specimens or have made unique discoveries concerning the collections of the museum.

The MCZ is also currently in the process of digitizing the collections. According to Ford, through digitization, the museum will be “able to display its collections through the internet to a greater audience, including students.”

The hope is that this will not only allow easy access to the collections, but also pique the interest of those who may not have the time to explore the collections but would like the chance to delve into them.

But most importantly, “the museum,” as Hanken states, “is focusing on greater student involvement in the museum’s public exhibits.” In both designing and installing the exhibits, the museum hopes that students will perceive that these exhibits are not designed just for public show but also for education and research purposes.

While museums like the MCZ provide many educational and research opportunities for students, they are rarely used or recognized by the college population. However, these resources not only provide the chance for students to learn more about a possible subject of interest, but they also allow students to expand their awareness of the purpose of the museums.

In some respects the MCZ can currently be considered a “hidden treasure” of Harvard, but the museum is making strides toward revealing and sharing its bounty.

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