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Biology professor secures grant to save West Virginia's primary natural history collection

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. Thanks to the work of a Marshall University biology professor, the nation's largest museum collection of mammals, amphibians and reptiles from West Virginia will be preserved for future generations.

Dr. Suzanne G. Strait has been awarded a $373,256 grant from the National Science Foundation to re-curate and modernize the West Virginia Biological Survey Museum, which is housed in the university's College of Science. Her colleague Dr. Thomas K. Pauley, also a professor of biology, is co-investigator on the grant.

The museum is located in the Science Building and comprises more than 21,000 specimens amassed over 70 years. According to Strait, nearly every species described in West Virginia is part of the collection, including many of those listed as federally endangered or at risk.

Strait says that over the next two years, the grant will allow researchers to buy new cabinets, containers and freezers for storing and preserving the specimens.

"This natural history collection from West Virginia is larger than that of any other museum in the country, and it is truly a unique resource to be developed for training the next generation of biologists who will study Appalachia's animals," said Strait. "It is in urgent need of new equipment and curation to ensure its survival, so we were quite pleased to get this award."

She added that the grant also will help build a new facility for storage of tissue collections for genomic studies, digitize all archival data and develop an electronic database. The database will be placed online to make it available to researchers worldwide.

"In addition to re-housing the specimens, we'll be scanning all the field notebooks, maps and slides in the museum," she said. "One of the things that makes our collection remarkable is that we have, in some cases, 40 years worth of natural history records from the same mountain in West Virginia. That's extraordinarily rare, so getting all these records digitized and available online will really put us on the map."

Strait said the College of Science has agreed to replace the facility's heating and cooling system as part of the renovation, providing better temperature and humidity controls for the storage area.

Additional plans include showcasing some exhibits in the hallways of the Science Building so the museum will be more visible, and developing outreach activities for elementary and secondary schools.

"Hardly anybody knows we have this important collection at Marshall, so a large part of what we want to do during this renovation is get the word out that the museum is here and available for researchers to use," she said.

Students will begin working next week to move the collection out of the museum so the renovations can begin.

Strait has been teaching human anatomy at Marshall since 1993. In addition, she has taught systematics, mammalogy, museum curation and UNI 101. She previously completed another project, also funded through NSF, to develop an interactive 3-D image library of fossil specimens. That museum is available online at

Pauley, who teaches ornithology and herpetology, has conducted herpetological studies in West Virginia since the 1960s. He and his graduate students maintain the museum's amphibian and reptile collection.

He plans to retire next year, another reason Strait said the renovation project is urgent.

She added, "Although Dr. Pauley is retiring, we're fortunate that he'll be staying on as emeritus to continue researching and curating the collection. It is imperative we get all the information about the collection that is in his brain into a format that will be accessible by future researchers. It's going to be a busy year."

Contact: Ginny Painter
Marshall University Research Corporation

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