By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—When it comes to teeth, those of the short nose gar are among the smallest you are likely to see with the naked eye—just one millimeter in length.
Despite its diminutive size, one set of gar chompers has a big role to play as part of an upcoming exhibit on teeth that will open the new IU Collections Teaching, Research & Exhibition Center (CTREC) in the renovated historic McCalla School complex at IU Bloomington in October.
The inclusion of the teeth, alongside those of a grass pickerel and the skull of a mudpuppy, a type of salamander, is the latest chapter in an ongoing collaboration between IU Collections and Dr. Suparna Mukhopadhyay, lecturer in biology at IU Southeast.
It all began in 2018, when Drs. David Taylor and Pamela Connerly, professors of biology, appointed Mukhopadhyay curator of the IU Southeast zoological collection.
The collection contains specimens from surveys conducted on fish and freshwater mussels from the Blue River and its tributaries by students under faculty supervision from 1973 to 1997, and preserved through the efforts of Jon C. Norman, laboratory research assistant.
“Besides the zoological specimens we also have preserved all relevant documentation including pictures of IU Southeast students taking part in the collection of these specimens, all the details of the collection sites including their latitude, longitude, elevation information as well the various conditions of the water resources from which these specimens have been collected such as salinity, pH and other chemical compositions,” Mukhopadhyay said.
Rather than cataloguing a collection that few would ever see, Mukhopadhyay secured grant funding from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop and implement high impact practices in introductory biology courses. She used specimens from the collection in team-based lab assignments. These efforts helped her win the 2019 Faculty Innovator of the Year award from the Institute for Learning and Teaching Excellence (ILTE).
All the while, she continued to catalogue, preserve and digitize the entire collection and all associated documentation.
Around the same time Mukhopadhyay took over the collection, IU Collections was formed, with a mission to ensure that all of IU’s collections, regardless of size, location, or resource level, are properly preserved, housed, and made accessible to all members of the IU community, the general public, and scholars.
It also seeks to bring unity to the disparate collections of nine campuses. As a first step, these collections needed to be documented, a task that fell to Erica Kendall, museum services generalist.
To get a handle on IU Southeast’s holdings, Kendall reached out to Taylor regarding the IU Southeast herbarium. Taylor told her about the zoological collection, and introduced her to Mukhopadhyay.
Kendall and her colleague, Gary Motz, information technology manager for University Collections, were impressed by the scope of the collection, by Mukhopadhyay’s achievement in organizing it, and by the significant contribution of students. They were also impressed by Mukhopadhyay’s use of collection holdings in the classroom.
“Suparna is spirited, driven, knowledgeable and passionate about the collection, her students, and research opportunities that the collection provides,” Kendall said. “She has made this regionally-sourced collection truly accessible by creating hands-on learning experiences that engage students in developing a better understanding of and deeper connection to the outside world, and moreover, its sometimes inaccessible and ever-changing environments.”
When IU Collections conceived of its first exhibition, including specimens from IU Southeast’s collection was attractive not just for the specimens it could supply, but also for the story of Mukhopadhyay’s innovative blending of curation and instruction.
“We really want to demonstrate the significance of the collection as the majority of the specimens were collected by and with students and are actively and–now with Suparna’s efforts–routinely incorporated into the undergraduate curriculum,” Motz said. “We aim to highlight the contributions that IU Southeast students have made to these collections, not just IU faculty.”
Motz and Kendall visited campus earlier this spring, to meet with Mukhopadhyay and discuss which specimens to include in the exhibit.
For Motz, the specimens will help the exhibition tell an important story.
“A significant number of objects from the collection are from the waterways near New Albany, Indiana and provide a glimpse into the long-term history of the ecology of the region,” Motz said.
That long-term history doesn’t end here. Thanks to the efforts of the collection’s founders, Drs. Claude D. Baker and Bill J. Forsyth, their students and Mukhopadhyay, the value of its contents will only increase.
Fishes and mussels may not be the most show-stopping of collections featured in big museums and exhibits, but their potential for research is enormous,” Motz said. “Further, these specimens and the metadata gathered by many years’ worth of efforts by faculty and students have augmented the collection to be both a longitudinal archive for ecosystem monitoring and a history of IU engagement with the local community with students actively involved in the data/sample collection, curation, collection management, and preservation processes.”
Mukhopadhyay continues to discover new ways to leverage the collection for instruction. She would like to secure grant funding for display units in order to make the specimens more visible, and more accessible to faculty for use in their classrooms. She has also created a new course in vertebrate zoology in which specimens from the collection can be used. This course will be of interest to pre-vet students looking to learn more about vertebrate anatomy.
For Motz, collections like this, when well curated, can pay for themselves while continuing to provide untold benefits to the university.
“Data we receive about collections allows us to develop and implement policies and plans that support collections like the fish and mussels collection,” Motz said. “It is an invaluable way for us to drive the importance of and notoriety to Indiana University’s mission to expand outreach and research opportunities, and to protect, utilize, curate and maintain its incredibly diverse collections.”
Homepage photo of specimens in the IU Southeast zoological collection by Dr. Suparna Mukhopadhyay.