Wednesday, April 26, 2017

It's almost time to say goodbye

I'm going to miss working in the MVZ.

I have so many feelings about the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. The overriding one is love. I've adored this museum ever since the first moment that I stepped through its lobby. It was on Cal Day (UC Berkeley's annual open house), which is the only day of the entire year that the Museum is open to the public. My dad and I came together in my senior year because I was still deciding between UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara. UC Santa Barbara pulled at me - how could it not, with its miles of beaches, and beautiful ocean views, and incredible ecology department? But I knew I had to give Berkeley a chance, so to Cal Day we went.

I can't remember how we decided to visit the Museum, but I do remember the instant that we followed the crowd in and I found myself in a space that felt too magical to be real. There were people everywhere, but more importantly, there were specimens - real, actual museum specimens - out on display and I fell in love. I remember stepping over to a cabinet with specimens of waterbirds displayed on top and just looking at them, until one of the undergrad volunteers stepped up to me and struck up a conversation. Her name was Alma, and she worked on research about birds. I decided in that moment that if I came to Berkeley, I had to work in the museum. I wanted to be just like her.

My decision wasn't made quite that easily. I remember struggling to decide between SoCal and NorCal, between beaches and bays, between biking to class and taking the BART to San Francisco. Eventually I chose Berkeley, for too many reasons to describe. But from the moment that I moved into my dorm freshman year, I knew I had to join the Museum.

I found the email address for Monica Albe, the MVZ's volunteer coordinator at the time, and sent her a message that I wanted to work in the museum - ASAP. The volunteer application process had actually already closed by the time I emailed her, but she opened it back up for me, and I visited the MVZ for the second time ever in order to attend a group interview for one of the volunteer positions. I wanted to start out with bone numbering, but I said I would do absolutely anything, so I ended up in pest management.

From the very first day that I showed up for pest management and met my Pest Detective partner, Kei-Lin Ooi, I was hooked. We worked together for an entire year cleaning cabinets of birds, and then every single shelf of eggs (we only broke one egg each).

In my second semester of pest management, Monica remembered that I had mentioned that I might be interested in working in a lab, and she recommended me to Carla Cicero, the staff curator of birds. Carla invited me to work in her genetics lab on a project sequencing the genomes and microsatellites of Steller's Jays. (It was through Carla that I met Alma again and told her that our conversation changed my life.) I worked in that lab for two and a half years and met some of the researchers who I respect most, including Irene Chang, Lydia Smith, Zach Hanna, Bryan Bach, and Phillip Skipwith (who I've only ever called Skip, so that's weird to write out). These are the people who I worked with in between classes, over the summers, way too late at night, and way too early in the morning. These are the people who taught me everything I know in the lab.

I started taking Prep Lab classes as soon as I could. When I had first found out about the MVZ, I looked it up online, and all of the information on their website absolutely bewitched me. My favorite part was the tab about the Prep Lab. When I took my first semester of Prep Lab Class under Shelby Medina, I somehow fell even more in love with the MVZ. Preparing museum specimens made me feel like I was part of the magic. I didn't know there was anywhere on the planet where I could learn how to prepare specimens. The truth of the matter is that there really aren't that many places where undergrads can volunteer in preparation labs. I had struck gold, completely accidentally. I think everyone could tell that I had gotten the prepping bug, and eventually I helped teach Prep Lab class for one semester as an Undergraduate Student Instructor.

After two and a half years in the genetics lab, I trained two of my friends, Ann Nguyen and Kei-Lin (my old Pest Detective partner-in-crime) to replace me in Carla's lab, and I focused on the part of the Museum that I found myself drawn to more than any other: the Prep Lab.

I pretty quickly advanced from the normal Prep Lab Class to Advanced Prep/Bird Skinning with Anna Hiller (who coincidentally is from the same town as me, and knows my brother). I took Bird Skinning for a year and enjoyed it more than any other class I took at UC Berkeley, although California Mushrooms and my senior thesis class are close runner-ups. Eventually, Anna applied to grad school, and Bird Skinning found itself without an instructor. Terri Barclay, the Prep Lab Manager, and Carla asked me to teach the class with another student, Andrea Rios-Dominguez. They let us think about the offer over winter break between 2015-2016. I still remember the Skype call between Andrea and I where we asked each other if we really thought we could do it.

We started co-teaching Bird Skinning in January of 2016, and have continued to teach it ever since. She left to work in the field just a few weeks ago, and now I am teaching Advanced Prep/Bird Skinning all by myself. It still blows my mind.

And through all of these years, I've been able to volunteer at numerous Cal Days myself, first under Monica Albe, and then LeleƱa Avila, two of the kindest and most enthusiastic women scientists I know. I will always be grateful for the chance to be what Alma was for me, for some other young person with stars in their eyes and museums in their heart.

And now I'm about to leave.

I can always come back to volunteer. It's not as if I have to leave forever. But I will never again be an undergraduate in the MVZ. I know that this is the way with things. Undergrad is never supposed to last forever. But... I love this place. Working in the MVZ has been an incredible experience, far more incredible than I could have ever imagined on that Cal Day in 2013. The MVZ made me happy even when everything else sucked. I've learned more here than I learned in most of my classes (sorry!). And it's honestly just fun to be here. I love being able to collaborate with my friends on projects that I think are way more fun than they are work. I love being able to contribute to current and future research just by volunteering in a Prep Lab. I love working with museum specimens. I love talking to the graduate students and the curators about their research and their careers and what they think is coming next. I love walking through the doors of the museum and the Prep Lab and realizing that I have a place here. I will miss every single inch of this space.

But now that my time here is coming to an end, I think the most important thing to say is that I am infinitely grateful to every single person who took a chance on me and let me work here. Every single name in this entry is not just a name. These are my friends, my mentors, my colleagues. These are the people who I will remember forever, even when I have forgotten the names of the classes that I took or the papers that I wrote. The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology is too important to me for me to describe in words.

But I can say this:

Thank you.

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