Staff Spotlight

Paul Larson from IS&M, Research Information Services, volunteered some of his time to sit down with us this month and explain some of his work at FWRI and beyond.

What are your degrees/certifications?

A BS from the University of Minnesota and a PhD from Ohio State University. My PhD was in invertebrate evolution (molecular phylogenetics), systematics and taxonomy. My dissertation was on the evolution of various reproductive strategies in brooding sea anemones, and treated several taxonomic issues in that group.

What kinds of professional experience do you have?

I worked as a NOAA Groundfish Observer, a drinking water microbiology analyst at Analytica Alaska, and had a post-doctoral project modeling species distribution of freshwater fishes.

What are you working on now?

I have several ongoing projects: On the research end, I’m working to put together a dichotomous key to sea anemones found in and around Florida. This is a long-term project and only progresses when I find time here and there. I try to collaborate with other groups whenever and however I can, and in the near future I’ll be working with the corals group on surveys of hard-bottom communities in the Gulf. On the curation end, I’ve been working toward setting up the specimen database for migration to a new system designed specifically for biological collections and working through the historical backlog of collected specimens that have not been identified or cataloged. I am also collaborating with 3-D digitizing experts at the USF Digital Heritage & Humanities Collections to produce some digital specimens as a pilot, or proof-of-concept experiment (These will be on the new FWRI website when it finally goes live, but can be seen at this link now

How is this information beneficial? 

Specimens are much more than just a record for a species’ occurrence in a time and place. Inside their guts, their cells, and their molecules, they contain biological, geological and chemical data about the environment they lived in. As new analytical technologies develop, specimens become even more valuable sources of data that, otherwise, would require a time machine to collect. The projects I’m working on seek to maximize the value of the specimen collections by making them and their associated data available as broadly and easily as possible.

A queen conch specimen from the collection. SIS has wet-preserved specimens which retain the soft tissues of the animal and dried specimens like this one for loan.

What is your typical work day like?

My days are extremely variable. Some days I spend all day on the computer writing, or working in the database, or dealing with administrative stuff. Other days I might be on the microscope identifying specimens, or in the field collecting. On the best days I do a little of everything, which might include giving a tour, corresponding with colleagues, and working with specimens.

What is your greatest career accomplishment?

I am probably most proud of my research products (i.e., publications) because all the reams of data and hours of analysis are pointless without distilling it into little discrete increments of knowledge that can be used by others.

Honestly, though, in today’s research/job climate, just having an advanced degree and then finding a job that actually uses that degree is an accomplishment to be proud of in itself.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

One challenge is getting voucher specimens from ongoing FWRI research projects. Florida Statute 1004.56 states that it’s the ‘duty’ of state agencies to deposit vouchers from regular research and monitoring activities. Through our Memorandum of Understanding with FLMNH, the collections here at FWRI can indefinitely maintain and curate specimens resulting from FWRI research efforts. If your research results in dead fish or invertebrates, it should result in at least some specimens.

In order to keep them suitable for genetic studies, recently collected specimens like this Calappa tortugae are not being fixed in formalin and are having tissue sub-samples preserved in 95% ethanol and frozen at -80C.

What do you like most about your career?

I love learning new things – the weirder and more bizarre, the better. When your work is based in biodiversity, there are frequent opportunities to have your mind blown by creatures, behaviors, and associations that are wilder than you could have ever expected.

Was this your original career interest? 

I have wanted to be a scientist since 4th or 5th grade, and a biologist high school. Curating a natural history collection was something that only started to interest me in graduate school when I worked in museums and did research using specimens.

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in science? 

If I wasn’t in science I’d probably want to work in the movie industry doing special effects work (practical, not CGI), especially gross makeup or horror gags.

The corkscrew anemone is an important member of reef communities because it frequently hosts cleaning organisms like Pederson shrimp.

What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?

If you are interested in marine science, the science has to come first. Lots of people like the idea of working in and around the sea, but graduate advisors look for people with questions, ideas, and the ability to test them.  Get as much research experience as you can as an undergraduate – no matter what field. My undergraduate research was in entomology, but the skills I learned could be used on sea anemones, whales, or sea grasses. If you want to be a curator or natural history collections in particular, that is a mostly a matter of luck and waiting because those jobs are very few.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I do a bad job playing guitar, a good job playing with my kids, and I like to try to build things that make me learn new skills in my garage.