Size Doesn’t Matter – The Big Benefits From Working with Small and Large Collections

Guest post by Marcia Revelez

I am the Collections Manager at the Angelo State Natural History Collections (ASNHC) at Angelo State University located in San Angelo in west-central Texas. The ASNHC is comprised of approximately 150,000 specimens in 5 different collections. But instead of talking about the specifics of my job, I want to tell you what inspired me to have a career in collections and how that guided me to be what I am today.

When did I know I wanted to work in natural history collections?

Since I was a young child, I was fascinated with collecting. I used to come home everyday with shoeboxes and jars filled with life – bugs, butterflies, spiders, baby birds, and even plants. Thank goodness my parents invested in a set of encyclopedias that included annual Science volumes, and a special topic companion set for children. I wore out the volumes about animals and plants in trying to identify everything I collected. This was a favorite activity until one day my mom said, “Girls don’t do that.” Now before you get upset with her, let me explain. It was the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, and as far as she knew – girls didn’t. As an older child, I checked out a book about primates from the county library. While reading the book, I was fascinated with the diversity, but one thing stuck out – the names. I became obsessed with the taxonomy and understanding the names, and even recall writing them all down and categorizing them by family. I didn’t know what I was doing when I was that small kid, and I certainly didn’t think it was something I could do with my life. Then, in high school I had to write a report and chose a topic related to primates. As I was researching it in our tiny library I found a copy of National Geographic, and on the cover was a woman working with chimpanzees – a woman! I ran home that day and showed my parents the cover and said, “Girls CAN do this!” Of course, my parents smiled and told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, and today I can tell you that I did.

Why it is important to me to succeed

Education was something very important to my parents, especially my mom. She was pulled out of school at a very young age and made to work on the family farm, pulling cotton. Education was not considered important by her parents. My dad had to start working at the age of 9, also pulling weeds and cotton on a farm. He finished school, apprenticed as an upholsterer and opened his own business by the age of 30. He was the first Mexican-American to do this in our town, which was no small feat for the early 1970’s.

My parents wanted more for us, and to have a life that wasn’t as hard. I have always tried to do my best in everything I commit myself to in life, particularly when it comes to education and work. Whatever I do, there are the voices in my head encouraging me to do my best. I do it because I respect all the sacrifices my parents made. 

How did I get involved in natural history collections?

I was an undergraduate who happened to be in the right place at the right time – standing in the hallway speaking to friends when I overheard another student talking to one of my favorite professors – Dr. Robert C. Dowler, Curator of Mammals in the ASNHC. I walked over because they were talking about the mammal collection, and they asked me if I wanted a job – I think you know my answer.

I didn’t know what a natural history collection was or what I would be doing, but I would be working with mammals and that’s what mattered. I spent about 5 years working in the ASNHC, while completing both my B.S. and M.S. at ASU. During that time I learned how to care for collections of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and frozen tissues. I trained other students, helped with volunteers, managed permit reports, databased records, created accessions, prepared loans, and even wrote my first procedures manual. The longer I worked, the more responsibilities I earned and by the end I had obtained a valuable skillset. The years I worked with Dr. Dowler were absolutely priceless. He is by far one of the kindest people I have ever had the fortune of knowing, and he taught me so much more than academics, he taught me about life.

Dr. Robert Dowler and I on San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands, 1999.

Dr. Robert Dowler and I on San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands, 1999, photo courtesy of Marcia Revelez.

After graduating with my MS from ASU, I attempted to get my PhD at Texas Tech University working with Dr. Robert Baker and Dr. Robert Bradley. I learned a lot while there and managed the frozen tissue collection for a short time. At Tech, I did a lot of fieldwork and enjoyed the travel. Unfortunately for them, it was during that time I realized that academic research didn’t inspire me as much as collections. With their full support I left, but I was lucky enough to get hired for the first and only job I had ever applied for, which happened to be at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH). Under the guidance of Drs. Janet Braun and Michael Mares, I worked for 12 wonderful years in a museum that is known for its high standards. I served as Collection Manager to the Mammal Collection, helped establish the Genomics Collection, and later managed the IPM program for the entire museum. During those years I was given so many opportunities that I am forever thankful for – I got to travel, go to meetings, and build professional relationships, and see other museums all over the world, to name a few. I worked with an incredible staff that helped me be a better and stronger professional. Some of my favorite memories revolve around the people I worked with in the collections. Whether they were employees, volunteers, or students – mentoring and teaching was very rewarding.

The Collection of Mammals at SNOMNH

The Collection of Mammals at SNOMNH, photo courtesy of Marcia Revelez.

While things seemed perfect in Oklahoma, I had always felt like something was missing – something personal. I missed my culture and my family – two important things that molded me. The cliché is true – you may have a fulfilling job, but home is where the heart is.

Working in the ASNHC Herbarium, photo taken by Ramey Wauer

Working in the ASNHC Herbarium, photo taken by Ramey Wauer

Coming home

I decided to return to my roots, Angelo State University. At times it seems surreal. I am in the very same office I held as a graduate student all those years ago. The campus seems smaller but different, and my old professors want me to call them by their first names. But one thing hasn’t changed – that same energy and desire to put students first and help them succeed is still here. This is what I love about ASU.

I wear a lot more hats than I did at SNOMNH, and I am busier than ever, which is something to consider when working in a larger vs. a smaller institution. I get to use all of the knowledge and skills I gained over the years and apply it to the collections that nurtured my career path. I manage five collections now, including a Herbarium. Plants may not be as cute and fuzzy as mammals, but it has been a great opportunity to learn new things. I oversee all outreach, manage IPM, train and supervise students and volunteers, manage the databases and the ASNHC webpage. I have a small budget and limited resources. Although this might seem overwhelming to some, I love it! I get to work with the people who encouraged and trained me. I am a product of their success and now I am part of that team. I look forward to making the ASNHC one of the best collections out there!

Angelo State University President Brian May attending ASU’s Night at the Museum, a university event held in collaboration with the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts. This event featured over 100 ASNHC objects and had one of the highest attendance records for an event.

Angelo State University President Brian May attending ASU’s Night at the Museum, a university event held in collaboration with the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts. This event featured over 100 ASNHC objects and had one of the highest attendance records for an event. Photo taken by Marcia Revelez.

Paying it forward

Since I began working in 2013, I noticed a change occurring with the students I worked with in the ASNHC. Without solicitation, I began to get more women and more Hispanics wanting to get involved. I realized I have a unique opportunity to create change. You see, in all the years that I have worked in a museum and attended meetings, I always made the same observation – I am in a field that doesn’t seem to be well represented by minorities. Granted, the word ‘minority’ is not a favorite of mine. We are living in a different time, and recent reports suggest that minorities will become the majority by 2020 – a reason to reconsider the word altogether. However, the number of Hispanic students earning degrees in STEM fields is lower than the national average and employment is lower.

Angelo State University is among 263 U.S. colleges, universities, and institutions defined as a Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI). This means that at least 25% of the student body is Hispanic. In the short time I have been here, I have trained and worked with an average of 30 students each semester, many of whom are Hispanic. I have realized that I have all the resources to help change the demographic disparity in the recruitment and retention of “minorities” working in natural history collections and STEM fields.

Diversity of students working in ASNHC continues to increase.

Diversity of students working in ASNHC continues to increase, photos taken by Marcia Revelez.

I am always eager to work with any individual that expresses an interest, and I don’t discriminate against sex, race, sexual orientation, etc. By just being me I can serve as a mentor and provide evidence that success is obtainable. My immediate goal is that these students walk away with a better appreciation of natural history museums and how they relate to the greater scientific community. I realize not everyone wants a museum career, but I hope they gain a better understanding of issues related to biodiversity, conservation, climate change, etc. These students become our advocates as our future voters, policy makers, and donors – here in Texas we need all the allies we can get!

Engaging future advocates of natural history collections is an important part of my job.

Engaging future advocates of natural history collections is an important part of my job, photos taken by Marcia Revelez.

“Success is not a function of the size of your title but the richness of your contribution.” — Robin S. Sharma

My advice

Over the years, I have done a lot of things. I have had success, and I have had failure. In no particular order, I suggest the following: Seize every opportunity to learn. Cultivate initiative. Maintain integrity. Work with passion. Do more than is asked. Stay positive. Never burn bridges. Understand no one is perfect. Reward. You will make mistakes. Be gracious. Get out of your work area and explore. Avoid complacency. Treat others the way you would want to be treated. Learn and respect your institution’s history. Collaborate and share. Never be afraid to ask. Adapt. Never make enemies with your IT, Security, Facilities, Administration, or Custodial Staff, for they are the ones who really make things work. And most importantly – you can be anything you want to be.

Until the next adventure begins…

Marcia Revelez is the Collections Manager at the Angelo State Natural History Collections (ASNHC) at Angelo State University located in San Angelo in west-central Texas. The ASNHC is comprised of approximately 150,000 specimens in 5 different collections. Marcia wears a lot of hats, managing the five collections, including a Herbarium, overseeing all outreach, managing IPM, training and supervising students and volunteers, and managing the databases and the ASNHC webpage.

Next time on Cracking the Collections:

August 10 – Crystal Maier, collection manager of insects at the Field Museum of Natural History, shares her experiences in an Old Collections with New Managers blog post!

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