A chance encounter with Utah State University’s Intermountain Herbarium allowed Utah State University alum Sara Lamb ’12 to indulge her fascination with rare and endangered plants, while creating an enriching opportunity for fledgling lab technicians to contribute to university research.
In a unique partnership forged with the herbarium in fall 2012, Lamb is leading a group of inmates at eastern Utah’s Daggett County Jail in preparing and cataloging a collection of more than 4,000 plant and seed specimens for the herbarium’s collections.
“This is a classic ‘win-win’ situation for everyone involved,” says Lamb, who teaches in the Daggett County School District’s GED preparation and adult education program. “It allows the herbarium to make use of a valuable collection and provide students and faculty with expanded learning and research opportunities. And it affords a group of inmates the opportunity to learn new skills, gain self-confidence and contribute to society.”
Lamb became acquainted with Mary Barkworth, herbarium director, and Michael Piep, assistant curator, while attending a USU Extension Master Gardeners’ event at Cache Valley’s American West Heritage Center in fall 2011.
“I noticed the herbarium’s exhibit and I was intrigued,” she says. “Mary, Michael and I hit it off immediately. I later made visits to the herbarium and learned how to mount specimens and do data entry.”
Around that time, the herbarium received an intriguing donation offer. Tim and Sally Walker, who were retiring from their seed business in Arizona, offered to give USU their collection of dried plants and seeds gathered over decades from throughout the United States and Mexico.
“Some of these specimens are more than half a century old and they include families of specimens we haven’t had in our collection before,” Barkworth says. “So, we jumped at the chance to expand our holdings and better support research in any part of the United States and northwestern Mexico.”
What Barkworth didn’t realize until the collection arrived in Logan is many of the specimens were mounted on non-archival, larger-than-standard size paper.
“This presented a dilemma because it meant more labor was involved than we anticipated,” she says. “Rather than cataloging and imaging the specimens, importing the information to our database and virtual herbarium and storing the specimens, we realized we were going to have to either cut the mountings to standard size or re-mount them.”
The process, she says, is painstaking and time-consuming. The dried plants must be handled carefully to prevent damage.
“At the standard rate we pay our student technicians, it would have been cost-prohibitive to process a collection of this size,” Barkworth says.
Lamb, who heard about the processing challenge, suggested employing some of her students at the jail.
“Inmates are allowed to work for a modest wage that is kept in an account they can use for purchases at the jail’s commissary,” she says. “We approached the Sheriff’s Office with a proposal, supported by a private donation to cover wages, and it was readily approved.”
Working as an herbarium technician is considered a privilege, Lamb says.
“Our students enjoy the work, which includes learning how to mount the specimens, adding each specimen’s scientific name and entering the information into a database,” she says. “It also gives them the opportunity to earn pocket money for purchases of treats and personal items. This is an important psychological boost; particularly for those inmates who have no financial support from family or friends.”
Lamb says the students also take pride in contributing to university research.
“They understand their efforts in adding these specimens to the herbarium’s collections will benefit not only USU student and faculty researchers but all users of the U.S. Virtual Herbarium, of which the Intermountain Herbarium is a part,” she says.
Daggett County Sheriff Jerry Jorgensen is pleased with the project and is working with Lamb and Barkworth on other ideas to involve inmates, including a planned hoop house project to grow vegetables for the jail’s cafeteria.
Lamb says one of her students has expressed interested in pursuing studies at USU in the future.
“That’s a big thing,” she says. “Our hope for these students is they’ll find purpose and direction. To see them turning their lives around is inspiring.”