Milwaukee Public Museum curator lands $4.3 million National Science Foundation grant

Will support national effort to digitize entomology specimens

Milwaukee Public Museum
The Milwaukee Public Museum.

A Milwaukee Public Museum research curator was awarded a $4.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Jennifer Zaspel, head of MPM’s zoology collections, is leading a national effort across 26 research institutions to digitize arthropod specimens and develop a database of historical records.

Participating organizations include MPM, the California Academy of Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Stevens Point and the Field Museum and Purdue University, which will serve as the financial arbiter of funds, including $293,044 to support the effort at MPM.

“This grant puts the Milwaukee Public Museum back into the upper echelon of research institutions,” said Ellen Censky, president and chief executive officer of the MPM. “Through this award, the National Science Foundation recognizes that MPM’s natural history collections provide critically important data lending context to the applied research underway today in universities and other research centers across the nation and the world.”

The effort will digitize more than 1.3 million specimens, including parasites like fleas, ticks and mosquitos, to create a Terrestrial Parasite Tracker database. It will allow scientists to identify parasite-host patterns and make predictions about the future spread of pathogens, including those that cause Lyme disease, West Nile virus, malaria and other diseases.

Digitization will include capturing and cataloguing images and the valuable host and environmental information preserved with each specimen.

“Parasites may be small, but the influence they have is massive. The work this grant will support will have a tremendous impact on our daily lives,” Zaspel said. “It will allow scientists to paint a more complete picture of where potentially harmful parasite species have occurred and how their ranges have changed or expanded over time. Gaining an understanding of species’ past geographic distributions can help researchers predict where a species may move to in the future – allowing for better education and protection efforts.”

As MPM lays the groundwork for moving to a new building, Censky has said the museum is focused on reinvigorating its current programming by telling stories that integrate its natural history and cultural collections, growing its research arm and digitizing collections.

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