Category: Blog


Published: November 9, 2014

The museum, big data, and islands of knowledge

John Bates, Curator and Section Head, Life Sciences, Negaunee Integrative Research Center


On a Saturday morning a few months ago, I felt a huge confluence of thoughts come together for me with respect to science at my institution.  The Division of Integrated Research is once again looking at how we can convince people to support the science we do.  We have been discussing strategies with our institutional advancement folks and how we might present ourselves in upcoming fundraising.  That morning, Shannon, Pete and I were watching a recorded episode of Real Time with Bill Marr, where guest expert Martin Blaiser, Director of the Human Microbiome Program at NYU, discussed microbes and the issues of how humans are affecting microbial diversity with antibiotics. I also read a Wall Street Journal book review, sent by my Mom, about a book by Marcelo Gleiser, which presents the seemingly never-ending debate about whether we finally know most of what there is to know about science.  On Facebook, museum graduate student Holly Lutz shared a link to Alaina Levine’s on-line essay from Science touting how many jobs are now becoming available for bioinfomaticists because of Big Data that is now being gathered for human health issues.  To top it off, my brother David shared an interview he gave NPR about how Big Data is used in his medical research based at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.  In my brother’s interview, I was struck by his emphasis on how studying Big Data questions allows researchers to better address individual cases for single patients. 

So how does all this converge with respect to what we do at the museum?  To me, all of this illustrates how truly different and important the science we do is, and how exciting a time it is for people to support our science.  The microbial example is about diversity, and it documents what scientists can now do with respect to documenting diversity using advances in molecular studies, but also with advances in traditional morphological studies.  The curators and other researchers at our museum do this, and we are both really good at it and at the cutting edge, using both modern and traditional approaches.  Holly, Loyola graduate student Heather Skeen, Shannon Hackett and colleagues have gathered extensive data sets on avian malarial genetic diversity across Africa based on our recent fieldwork.  Our curators are experts in studying and describing diversity in humans, but also lichens, flowering plants, mammals, birds, feather lice, ants, spiders, beetles, marine bivalves, avian malarial parasites, and other groups.  More importantly we are involved in lots of different projects that involve gathering Big Data; because of our collections, we always have been. 

At the museum, we are moving into the genomic era in terms of the data we are gathering.  But Shannon Hackett’s 2008 Early Bird data set involved Big Data, as did Tom Schulenberg and co-author’s Birds of Peru.  Rick Ree collaborated to analyze data on the evolutionary history of Dendrobatid frogs across the Neotropics and Rüdiger Bieler has gathered 30 years of data on marine gastropod communities in the Florida Keys.  Access to genomic data is permitting Corrie Moreau and colleague’s studies to document the diversity of gut bacteria in ants.  These projects are modern extensions of numerous monographic works dating back to the first Field Museum curators.  Many of these results have appeared in Fieldiana, the museum’s research publication series.  We also have databased or are databasing and imaging our collections so that we can make them more accessible for all types of research.  These are all examples of Big Data, and just like the human health research arena, we need bioinformaticists too.  It always seems unfortunate to me that venues like Science magazine could publish a whole essay about the field of bioinformatics and focus on one species, Homo sapiens (no offense to my Anthropology colleagues).  There is no logical reason to be so narrow-minded with respect to the needs associated with Big Data.  Humans have the capacity to learn more and more quickly than ever before about ALL of biodiversity, the microbial example illustrates how such research could benefit humans just as much or more than all the research studying human genomics.  I am obviously biased, but when I talk to people about human genomic studies, I usually emphasize that to me, the biggest long-term benefit of all this effort comes when the research breakthroughs on humans allow the broader scientific community to use them to better understand the rest of biodiversity on the planet.

For Life Sciences, all of this highlights the points that Marcelo Gleiser is making in his book The Island of Knowledge as reviewed by Astronomer John Gribben in the Wall Street Journal book review.  The review focuses on how, through time, individual scientists have inevitably proclaimed that “we know just about everything.”  But time and again, what we find out is that there is more to learn, a lot more.  This is what the author Gleiser means with his book title, every time, we eventually realize that we are only on an island of knowledge in a sea of unknowns.

Science at a place like The Field Museum deserves peoples’ support because our institution offers a great and diverse place for experts to study the science of biological and cultural diversity, now and into the future.  We continually introduce new students to the vast set of questions that need to be tackled and the modern tools available to do it.  Too frequently, we are told people do not understand what we do; so we fret about providing “deliverables” and terms like “Big Data” that can characterize what we do in a sound bite.  There has also some thought that we should focus most on questions that have implications for humans.  But what makes The Field Museum special is that we are this and so much more, because we are a special place for Big Data about all of biodiversity (past and present).  We need to continue to develop our programs to illustrate the relevance of our science in these ways.  The Field Museum represents an incredible archipelago of knowledge in terms of scientific expertise and collections at a very exciting time; but the public needs to know that we are surrounded by unknowns and new questions that we have the unique capacity to answer and communicate those answers far and wide.