Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Natural History Museum asks Angelenos to be scientists in new learning lab (Photos)

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L.A.'s Natural History Museum will unveil their new Nature Gardens and learning lab on June 9  and will be asking the public to help them bolster their staff of scientists.

A major project that will be run out of this new outdoor space is BioSCAN, a three-year investigation that attempts to catalogue all the insects in Los Angeles. This creepy-crawly census involves collecting hundreds, if not thousands, of bugs per week and sorting through them to identify different species.

Lead scientist and project coordinator Dean Pentcheff said they've already discovered insects that are completely new to science.

"We unfortunately have no magic devices that we can just pour the samples in and a list of species comes out," he said. "We actually need to pour them out under the microscope and pick them apart."

And this is where you come in. Bugs are the most diverse group of organisms on the planet and BioSCAN is a massive project, so the Natural History Museum is asking for the public's help.

"You know, people can tell the difference between bees and ants and flies. That's not something that takes years of training," said Pentcheff. "So we're going to be using volunteers from the public to help us do that sorting."

The museum will officially begin taking volunteers later this summer, but for now they're relying on NHM staff and USC students to get things moving. Kelsey Bailey is a political science major at USC — but for a few days a week she slips on a lab coat and turns into a budding scientist.

She sits in the quiet museum lab and uses tweezers to pluck insects from a plastic collection tube and examine them under a microscope. Bailey said she usually starts with the larger insects such as the moths, butterflies and grasshoppers, and makes sure there are no other tiny insects stuck to them.

"The first few weeks I was doing BioSCAN, it was one of the most frightening experiences ever," said Bailey. "It's just like how it's portrayed in the movies. They're all in your face and I would scream occasionally every time I moved the petri dish because it was just so magnified."

But BioSCAN has also helped Bailey overcome her fear of worms, and even grow to appreciate everyday flies.

"If you look at a fly's eye, the geometric patterns in it is intense. And you have a new-found respect for flies and you see that they're not as...scary, but they're so complex," she said.

As of now, the BioSCAN project has a handful of collection sites in L.A., including one in the museum's new Nature Gardens. But eventually, there will be 30 plastic containers on public land and in people's backyards from Exposition Park to Griffith Park.

These contraptions are filled with alcohol, which preserves the bugs' structure, tissue, and DNA.  Some insects are pulled out, pinned and stored in trays. Assistant Collections Manager Lisa Gonzalez said they have been swamped with the insects they have already collected.

"A rough estimate — thousands in a single week, from a single sample, and we're talking about things as large as a giant grasshopper and a monarch, all the way down to things that are about a millimeter in size, so, thousands," said Gonzalez.

And insects aren't the only organisms living in large numbers in Los Angeles. 

According to the museum, Southern California is a biodiversity hotspot – which means we have tons of species unique to this area, as well as a growing population. Taking inventory of insects helps identify how life has changed over the last 100 years – and how we can prepare for the next century.

Scientist Dean Pentcheff says we are living in a world dominated by humans, which has led to the loss of many species. By studying the hardiest organisms – such as insects – that continue to reproduce, it may help us well into the future.

“We’re living right now in one of the earth’s great mass extinction periods and in particular, this one is caused by humans," said Pentcheff. "And the organisms that are around on the earth now are the few organisms that are the survivors. They’re the ones that hold the answers we need to figure out how to transition us through climate change.”

But for now, the Natural History Museum is having a party. This Sunday starting at 9 a.m. there will be behind-the-scenes tours, garden workshops, food trucks and music, including live performances by GZA/The Genius and Devo.

Sunday will also be your first chance to check out the new Nature Gardens that include meandering walking paths, a large pond featuring aquatic animals such as lizards and turtles, and a "Listening Tree"  – where microphones are strategically placed so that you can actually hear the tree's roots sucking up water from the ground.

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