We're highlighting women in science and art at The Field Museum and their diverse areas of research, paths to working in science, and their advice for future scientists. Hear from Rebecca Banasiak, collections assistant, mammal preparator, and scientific illustrator:
How did you get to where you are?
I received a BA in chemistry and fine art (with a focus in painting and drawing) from Lewis University in Romeoville, IL, in 1997. Back then I wasn’t thinking about helping with research and collections at a museum. It wasn’t until I went back to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) to finish my BFA in visual communications (with a focus in scientific illustration) and painting and drawing, that I was introduced to the vast collection of material and specimens here. While at SAIC, I started at the Museum as an intern with Bill Stanley, who was the collections manager of mammals and then Director of the Gantz Family Collections Center. After I graduated in 2001, he hired me on part-time, and then in 2005, I became a full-time research assistant. In 2015, the collections assistant, mammals preparator position opened up, so I decided to apply for it—and that is how I got to where I am now.
What does your job entail? What's the day-to-day like?
Part of my day-to-day includes working with the dermestid beetle colony that cleans specimens; the beetles clean the bones of mammal specimens, and then prep lab volunteers help finish the cleaning. I also supervise volunteers and interns. I train them on different tasks like skinning, stuffing skins, and cleaning and numbering bones. I also show them how to use the camera equipment and the camera lucida for illustration, and help them get involved with different research projects.
One of the projects we’re working on now is photographing the skulls of Grammomys (a group of rodents found in Africa). Researchers that are overseas will use these photos to do morphometrics (analyze size and shape) of the skulls. This means every specimen’s photo has to be similar in position and coloration to do the most accurate analysis. Other tasks for similar projects have been to photograph or illustrate a specimen or create maps and graphs that my colleagues or Field Museum researchers may need for publications.
Other projects might include processing specimens that a researcher brings back from an expedition. Right now, we’re working with Praomys specimens that adjunct curator Julian Kerbis Peterhans collected on a 2015 expedition to Kenya. We’re currently numbering the (very small!) bones of all of these rodent specimens and after that, we’ll end up installing them into the main mammals collection.
And then, of course, there are the administrative parts of my job that include cataloging specimens, answering questions for the exhibitions department, and responding to inquiries from researchers outside the museum. Every day is different.
What has been your favorite part of the job, or a memorable moment?
One of my proudest moments was the day that Bill Stanley came down to my office and was holding the new Fieldiana (a scientific journal published by The Field Museum) that had various articles about the small mammals in the East and West Usambara Mountains in Tanzania. It took us about two years to complete the publication. I am the main illustrator and photographer for our part of the publication.
The other moment was when one of my colleagues and a researcher at the Smithsonian, Mike Carleton, asked if I wanted to be an author on a paper about a new species of rodent in the Hylomyscus genus. My main roles as author on the Hylomyscus heinrichorum publication included all photography of the type specimen and comparison specimens, and main illustrator for the maps. I also helped collect data from the specimens in our collection that were used in the paper. It was bittersweet when the paper came out two days after Bill’s memorial. There are many more proud and memorable moments for me, but these two are my proudest moments—both of which include working with Bill Stanley.
What advice do you have for future women scientists?
I’m not a proponent of STEM, I’m a proponent of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math). I have a degree in chemistry, but I also have a degree in scientific illustration and painting and drawing. Like the sciences, the arts also do not have enough representation by women. I’m lucky that a lot of my volunteers have some kind of art background, which helps with understanding the techniques we use in the preparation of specimens for our collection. Art does help with science; they work together. In my case, my art background helps with technical writing, illustrating and photographing specimens, and stuffing skins—stuffing is like sculpture. My science background has helped me understand and gain knowledge of the anatomy of mammals and the chemical processes we use for cleaning skeletal specimens. Science and art work together.
If I had to go back to myself at the age of nine or 10, I would say, “Stick with science, and stick with art, and don’t worry about anyone making fun of you.” When you look at our Museum, we have a lot of female presence. But we need more female leaders in science as a whole. As we educate a new generation, we want to give them confidence. My message to future female scientists and artists is to have faith in yourself; this is really what it is. If you think you can do it, you can do it. If you do something incorrectly, you’re only human, so get back up and do it again. Learn from your mistakes. All it takes is a little education and practice, and you can do it. Take the criticism, learn from it, and keep improving. You will see that it all pays off in the end.