Diatoms are teeny tiny. They are microscopic single-celled organisms that contribute an awful lot to the oxygen in the atmosphere. Although most people have never heard of them, diatoms are very important for life. Important as they may be, however, I don’t think anybody would call diatoms exciting… As it happens though, diatoms were a big part of one of the most exciting experiences of my life – working behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum.
I have been visiting the NHM since I was a kid, and used to drag my parents around the dinosaur exhibits for hours and hours on end, regaling them with super interesting facts, (I’m sure they loved it). I always used to wonder what was behind the doors that remained closed, what went on in the depths of the museum away from the prying eyes of tourists. It was during the summer of 2013 that I finally got my chance, when I became a volunteer with the V Factor initiative. I knew nothing about diatoms beyond what a quick Google search could yield, but I couldn’t wait to get behind the scenes and fulfill my childhood fantasy.
The experience I gained from being a V Factor volunteer was beyond anything I could imagine. We were always made to feel part of the team, and were given ID badges so that we had access to special areas, and ate lunch in the staff canteen right at the top of the building. It was oppressively hot some of the days, but it sure did feel amazing to being eating lunch alongside some of the museum’s top scientists! As part of the initiative we worked in the bright, shiny new Darwin Centre, in a small lab that had one massive glass window (the Specimen Preparation Area or SPA), so that the public could look in and see what we were doing. Volunteer leaders engaged with the public outside our little bubble, and brought them into the world of diatoms. Most of the time we spent digitising the notes of a 19th century explorer, Thomas Comber, who’s massive collection of diatoms is stored in the museum.
The information in his notes and samples were used to make an online database to be used by academics worldwide. We worked alongside two curators from the botany department, (Edgley and Jovita) Ali from HR and a number of volunteer leaders, and they really made us feel welcome and at home. On top of our database duties we also had a great amount of fun completing challenges and tasks based around the museum itself, museums in general, and care of collections. This really helped get some context for all the work the museum does, and cemented the idea in my head that working in museums is the career that I want to pursue.
Seven months on, (this is a very late blog post I know) and my experience at the Museum has helped me get an internship at the National Trust, where I hope to learn more about managing collections and working with our heritage. Who’d have thought that such tiny little organisms could make such a big difference to my life? Good old diatoms.