Internship at the Smithsonian: Blog 5

Blog 5: The Taxonomist’s Assistants

So far in these posts I have practically maintained a fiction that the entirety of research is done by curators and students—however, this gives a great disservice to a class of scientist just as large, if not larger, than the curators and researchers themselves. At the Smithsonian they are called technicians, but elsewhere they are called research assistants or collections managers—regardless of their official title, this class of scientist does no research of themselves, and is nearly never remembered in any history of science, yet without them no science could have ever been done.

There have been assistants for as long as there have been professional scientists—however nearly always the image is that these assistants are students under the tutelage of another scientist, who will one day get their own laboratory with their own students. It is true that sometimes students are assistants to research, as I am, but oftentimes assistants are there longer than researchers. At the department of Invertebrate Zoology alone, there are two technicians who precede the longest serving curator by several years. They have seen dozens of curators and visiting grandees come through the museum throughout the ages, and have worked tasks ranging from ensuring that specimens are in the right location in the collection to designing primers in order to sequence genetic information. They are not failed researchers who have been forced, due to necessity of food, to merely become assistants to others, but instead are individuals who have scientific training (though rarely doctorates) who prefer to assistant others in their projects than to pioneer their own work.

This preceding sentence may make it seem that the technicians are dullards, people who are interested in furthering science but lack the skills or knowledge to do so. This could not be further from the truth—oftentimes new curators are forced to rely on technicians with only undergraduate degrees to help them identify an odd specimen, because the technician has decades of experience to the new curator’s maximum of a decade. The technician is a peculiar mixture of low and high skill labour—between having to know how to organise a cabinet of specimens and being able to tell when a specimen is misidentified. Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between these two extremes is to look at two different technicians, T and C. Both of them hold the same title, and in theory perform the same duties, and have been doing so for over three decades. So naturally one might expect that the two of them have had a similar career—yet C is a past president of an international body of zoologists, while T has yet to publish a single paper. T spends his day being a dutiful and efficient employee—he knows how to organize specimens, do Photoshop, and create primers for any invertebrate, from tunicate to sponge. C also does his work, though he almost always has two or three interns to whom he can delegate the more mindless tasks that require doing. Instead, he studies a small group of crustaceans, and publishes upon them at his leisure. In his career, despite never having held a research position officially, he has become a respected taxonomist, who has discovered a number of new species and is considered practically a curator.

In the last few years however, a new breed of technician has emerged. It is a Dr. technician. Until fairly recently the thought of a technician having a doctorate was unthinkable—it was part of the academic pecking order that those with doctorates would be professors or curators, not professional assistants. However, as the number of proper research positions in academia in general, and biology in particular, has declined, and the number of doctorates awarded grown, a new class of over-qualified and underpaid doctors has grown. These people a generation ago would have easily found a job which they were prepared to do, namely research, yet now they find themselves poor and jobless. It is little wonder then that they have turned to applying to jobs, like technician, which they are eminently overqualified for. In the Smithsonian we have one such of this new breed of technician, a man called H. His doctorate is in octocorals, and in levels of knowledge and intelligence, as well as preparation, he is the equal to any curator. Yet he is relaged to a lower rung in the academic ladder, from which he will likely never be ever climb. He does his own research on occasion, but the majority of the time he is forced to do the same work of every other technician—being a jack of all phyla assisting others.


Blog 1 The Taxonomist’s Office:

Blog 2 The Taxonomist’s Work:

Blog 3 The Taxonomist’s Tales:

Blog 4 The Taxonomist’s Psyche