What is biocuration and why is it important?

For five weeks this summer, five students (representing Kenwood Academy, University of Chicago Charter School, and Urban Prep Academy) have been coming to our lab to find out the answer to this question and learn skills that are required of successful biocurators. As the amount of biological data quickly surpasses the capacity of scientists to organize it, biocuration is becoming an increasingly essential tool for the scientific community. Part of our goal is to bring attention to this field and make science and technology more available to the next generation.

With support provided by the Phenoscape Project, funded by the NSF, for the second year in a row the fossil lab has provided an outreach program to get local area high schoolers involved and excited about science. Our 2013 Jr. Biocurators have been learning about topics ranging from genetics and speciation to the dinosaurs of the Sahara while concentrating particularly on the evolution and morphological comparisons of vertebrate appendicular skeletons.

Combining lectures, field trips, and hands-on activities with lessons about photography, manipulation of CT scans, and Photoshop the students were able to produce professional quality photos of the entire appendicular skeletons of a squirrel monkey and alligator. More impressively, each student took on an individual project involving the creation of a 3D rotation of CT scans of a bat, crocodile, python, and opossum using Mimics and Maya software. These completed projects and photographs have the possibility of being incorporated into collaborative scientific databases such as Phenoscape, making them available to researchers and the public! While there were several hours of work to accomplish each class day, there was still time to experience the art of cleaning dinosaur fossils and take a trip to the Field Museum, which were some of the highlights of this year’s course. The amount of information covered and workload accomplished in just five weeks was certainly demanding, but our students this year more than lived up to the challenge.

We are all extremely proud of how hard they have worked and the exceptional quality of what they produced! To see some of their work for yourself, check out their blog at jrbiocurator2013.tumblr.com and Jrbiocurator2014.tumblr.com.