How Natural History Museums Bridge Research Gaps in Space and Time

by Kris Cu

Jayme Lewthwaite, a PhD candidate who studies evolutionary biology at Simon Fraser University, enters the grand halls of the Smithsonian Institute of Natural History in Washington, DC. She walks past the elegant and elaborate exhibits, heading to the sun-lit research labs.

Above: The Smithsonian Institute of Natural History in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Proimos.

She climbs to the floor labelled ‘Lepidoptera Collections’ which contains over four million butterfly and moth specimens meticulously organized and stored in 30,000 drawers. These specimens were collected by scientists and naturalists around the world throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Lewthwaite’s research combines spatial ecology and evolutionary relationships between species to help evaluate the biodiversity impacts of human-caused climate change. Her goal is to provide scientific information to help governments, communities, and decision makers prioritize conservation efforts.

She chose to study and examine these patterns in Canadian butterflies because they have short lifespans and are sensitive to environmental changes. Butterflies respond to changing climate quickly in ways that are fairly easy to track. Furthermore, because butterflies are popular organisms, insect collectors and researchers have deposited many specimens in museum collections.

Historically, animal and plant specimens were collected for anatomical and taxonomic research, allowing researchers to organize the vast diversity of life into different classification levels. Charles Darwin is perhaps the most famous collector. The specimens he gathered on the Galapagos Islands allowed him to review evidence, observe variation in related species, and formulate his theory on evolution by natural selection.

In Canada, over 40 natural history museums contain millions of specimens in their research collections. The Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, for example, contains diverse collections of animals, plants and fossils. In addition, some collections specialize in particular kinds of organisms- as its name suggests, the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids, and Nematodes, focuses on invertebrates.

Lewthwaite and other scientists recognize the wealth of information contained in such collections. With her research, she seeks to determine how Canadian butterflies have shifted their ranges over space and time because of climate change. She builds on past work by other biologists in order to better understand the future.

Museums’ collections helped early scientists discover and understand the natural world; now, they provide information on our changing planet through big data research.

Above: One of the 30,000 drawers containing butterfly specimens at the Smithsonian Institute. Each specimen contains a record of when and where they were collected. Photo by Jayme Lewthwaite, used with permission.

Using Big Data

Big data refers to large amounts of data samples that can be used to generate mathematical models and analyze resulting trends. The analyses are vital in exploring global changes that span extensive spatial and temporal (time) scales.

To carry out her research, Lewthwaite must first transfer and input 25,000 written specimen records across 130 species of Canadian butterflies from the Smithsonian Institute into electronic databases. Each record contains information on where and when an insect was collected.

The information will help her create the following tools to help her understand and anticipate Canadian butterflies’ ecological and evolutionary responses into the future.

  • Species range maps to show the historical and modern geographic distribution of butterflies across Canada and the US.
  • Species Distribution Models that allow Lewthwaite to visualize how species have expanded or contracted their ranges during the past century. From this, she will be able to further identify which species are not adapting well to climate change.  
  • Canadian phylogenetic trees that detail the evolutionary relationships between butterfly species, allowing Lewthwaite to identify geographic locations with distinct evolutionary histories through phylogenetic diversity and phylogenetic endemism.

The resulting insights will be key to determining how to best prioritize and protect butterfly species as climate changes.

Above: A complete phylogenetic (evolutionary) tree of all Canadian butterfly species. Colours represent the different butterfly families. Figure by Jayme Lewthwaite, used with permission.

Latest Findings

Far from the Smithsonian’s extensive butterfly collections in Washington, DC, Lewthwaite applies her research ideas and methods at the regional scale in British Columbia.

She uses historical records from the Royal BC Museum and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum as well as modern records from the citizen science app, eButterfly to explore how interactions between butterfly species in a given spatial grid have changed over time as climate has warmed. Combining historical and modern records allows her to analyze trends within BC without having to conduct extensive field work across the entire province.

Her research suggests that, as climate warms, species with multiple host plants (generalist species) are adapting well compared to species that rely on only a few host plants for their life cycle (specialist species).

Above: Figures showing the relationship between increasing temperatures and generalist butterfly communities throughout British Columbia. Figures by Jayme Lewthwaite, used with permission.

It also confirms that BC’s Okanagan region has a unique evolutionary history and diversity. Its hot, sunny, dry climate creates a desert-like environment that allows organisms like mormon metalmarks, rattlesnakes and cacti to thrive and, supports a rich, distinct biodiversity. This unique ecosystem is found nowhere else in Canada, but widespread urban and agricultural development threatens its integrity. Lewthwaite’s research aims to provide evidence and solutions for conserving these rare habitats.

Her early analyses demonstrate how important natural history museums are and how using their collections for big data can help visualize and predict climate effects on biodiversity across large geographical scales.

She says, however, that natural history museums are typically underfunded and underappreciated resources. Despite the collections’ rich scientific information, funding and grants for this type of research are scarce. In addition, gaps in the electronic specimen databases reduce their accessibility to researchers.

She hopes her work with butterflies will be used to promote the importance of natural history museums to research and to communicate the bigger messages of how changing climate is impacting wildlife and their ecosystems.

For Lewthwaite, answers to big questions sometimes lie in simple, pinned butterflies.

Follow Jayme’s latest research updates and publications on twitter @JaymeLewthwaite and on https://arnemooerssite.wordpress.com/

My CV of Failures

by Sean La

Just this past week, I was accepted to graduate school. Now, I know what you’re thinking: this must be another one of those arrogant blog posts about “FIVE EASY WAYS YOU TOO CAN BE JUST AS AMAZINGLY SUCCESSFUL AS ME”. I assure you, this is not one of those articles— they annoy me just as much as they do to you, and I doubt anyone has ever became successful because of them.

The reason why I’m writing this article is not to flaunt my successes; quite the opposite. I’m here to tell you about my failures. After being given the privilege to perform research for another two years, I took some time to reflect upon my undergraduate academic career. And quite frankly, I feel it was underwhelming. For example, for every successful research project of mine, I have at least three or four failed projects behind it. And that’s the reality of research — everyone, and I mean everyone, is going to fail way more often than they’re going to succeed.

Of course, academics hardly ever talk about failure. Academia is a rat race (and contain many rat races), and it can be easy for aspiring scientists to feel inferior among the deluge of academic websites and LinkedIn profiles and Facebook posts and CVs, touting the many prestigious graduate school acceptances and journal articles and conference presentations and awards of other students. As it currently stands, this form of peacocking is a necessary evil for a career in academia. But it is still an evil, and I feel it’s important for all of us to remember that failure is part of the process.

So along with my CV of accomplishments, here is my CV of my failures, listed chronologically since high school and almost surely incomplete since I’m writing this from memory. This has been inspired by the CV of failures of academics like Johannes HaushoferI hope this serves as a helpful reminder for my peers that for the vast majority of us, it ain’t all sunshine and rainbows, all the time.


  1. (March 2013) Received a participation award at the Sanofi Biogenius Competition for my research project at the Biomedical Research Centre at UBC. I honestly would have preferred that they hadn’t given me anything at all. Like what am I, a twelve year old at a softball tournament?
  2. (November 2013) Received a predicted score of 32 out of 45 for my IB Diploma in high school, which fell short of the 34 points necessary to get a scholarship from SFU. To give some perspective, I self-predicted 38 points.
  3. (February 2014) Rejected from the Bachelor of International Economicsprogram at UBC.
  4. (December 2014) Didn’t receive the grade I wanted in ECON 103 at SFU that I wanted. Note that at the time, I wanted to go to graduate school in economics, but I gave up on that dream shortly after getting that lackluster grade in microeconomics.
  5. (October 2015) Withdrew from MATH 480W at SFU, leaving a W designation on my transcript. In retrospect, it was quite silly of me to take a 400 level math class when I was in second year.
  6. (November 2015) Failed a job interview for a prestigious mathematics research position with a governmental institution.
  7. (January 2016) Failed to get an NSERC USRA with a machine learning professor at the University of Toronto, whom I had a skype interview with.
  8. (February 2016) Was contacted by another University of Toronto professor to do research with him over the summer, but then was promptly ghosted.
  9. (April 2016) Received a mediocre grade in MATH 320, an important class for graduate school in economics. This really turned me away from economics.
  10. (Summer 2016) Failed experiment after failed experiment in my NSERC USRA at SFU.
  11. (March 2017) Journal sent back my paper with major revisions which were almost impossible to fix.
  12. (Summer 2017) Three failed projects during my research term at the National Institutes of Health.
  13. (Fall 2017) Received the worst grades of my life , which likely will make me noncompetitive for the NSERC CGS-M scholarship.
  14. (Summer 2018) Two more failed projects during my NSERC USRA at SFU.
  15. (October 2018) Contacted two professors at the University of Toronto for the MSc in Computer Science program for Fall 2019, and was promptly ghosted. Was also ghosted by another CS professor at the University of Waterloo. Though, she ended up emailing me back just last week actually, two months after the Waterloo CS application deadline. Oh, bother.

Wow, that was quite the list. But hey, I feel that my failures were just as formative for me as my successes, if not more so. These experiences taught me that even if I fail, I’ll be okay. That I’ll still be alive to fight another day.

So the next time you, fellow scientist, have an inconclusive experiment or a crummy test or a rejected application, remember that there are others who have failed way more than you have, like me!

We’re Recruiting!

We're recruiting! (1)

Are you interested in joining SFU SURJ’s 2018-2019 Editorial Team?

We are looking for motivated individuals who are interested in learning more about the peer-review process.

To apply, fill out this application form and email it to sfusurj@sfu.ca with the title “Editor Application 2018/2019.” Please also attach a CV or resume.

The deadline to email us your application form and CV/resume is Monday October 1st.

Optimization in the real world

By Cherlene Chang

     Cherlene_Pic1How does classroom learning translate to real-life applications? Well, the STEM Spotlight Awards offered my team (Cherlene Chang, BSc Kinesiology Major; Matthew Reyers, BSc Operations Research – Mathematics Major) the opportunity to pose a solution to a real-world question from Peace River Hydros Partners. Our challenge was to optimize the existing charter flight system in terms of minimizing cost and commute times of workers, which provides service to six flight hubs in Western Canada including Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Kelowna, Kamloops, and Prince George.

Fundamental to the formation of this team was the ideology of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and Simon Fraser University.Read More »

Stealth aircraft: the silent hunter

By Joanna Pater

We all know what an airplane is supposed to look like. A body with wings and a tail attached… and a cockpit at the front. A child could tell you the same.

But Air Force engineers don’t agree. It just takes a single look at the F-35 or the F117 Nighthawk to see that our concept of aircraft has dramatically shifted from what it was during World War II. From jet engines capable of reaching speeds twice that of sound, to even unmanned drones, the aircraft industry continues to evolve.

Recently, an image on the internet caught my attention. It was a side-by-side comparison of the B2 Stealth bomber and a peregrine falcon.Joanna Pater_plane_photo.jpg

The similarity is striking. But despite its futuristic appearance, this technology is not new. The B2 Bomber is simply one of many tailless, stealth aircraft. In fact, some claim the inspiration for this design dates all the way back to the German prototype Horten 229 of the Second World War.Read More »

Twitter and Science, revisited

By Lauren Dobischok

     When people ask me what my greatest influence was to pursue science in university, I think they expect to hear a vaguely inspiring story about how I was driven to make the world a better place or more deeply understand the intricacies of life around me. The real answer? Twitter. Upon hearing this many people are incredulous that material more complex than hashtags and memes exists on Twitter- isn’t that where people go to procrastinate on homework they have to do and complain about the state of their hockey team? Fortunately, over the years Twitter has evolved into a platform for professionals to network directly with each other, as well as interact with members of the public. Businesses, innovators, academics, artists, scientists, and the general public are now able to share content, provide opinions, crowd source, and meet new people with shared interests through a website initially intended to assist groups of friends in keeping tabs on each other. Not bad. As a student now in second year university who discovered the online scientific community in high school, Twitter changed the way I thought about science and how it is communicated, and continually introduced me to new research and current issues that I am simply not aware of through reading large, popular science magazines and websites. In my eyes, when academics use Twitter to network and educate, both professionals and the public are the beneficiaries.Read More »