Working with the Notebooks of Dr. Robert Stebbins

Written by Sharleen Lee, first-year, Applied Mathematics and Classics majors.

When you were a child, did you watch countless hours of nature programs on National Geographic, Animal Planet, and Discovery? Well, I did. And I often wondered how these scientists know so much about nature. Through working at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, I have found the answer to my question.

As an undergraduate research apprentice at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, I have spent the past few months digitizing the field notes of Dr. Robert C. Stebbins. He was a museum curator and a professor in Zoology at UC Berkeley. Some of the field notes in his collection date back to the 1940s. Through scanning these field notes, I have discovered that Dr. Stebbins was also an artist. His illustrations are so detailed and vivid, and he often incorporated them into his field notes.

Robert C. Stebbins field notes, 1950

Robert C. Stebbins field notes, 1950

In his field notebooks, he often included letters of correspondence with other field biologists. They worked together diligently by sharing new discoveries and correcting one another’s mistakes. After stumbling upon a letter that begins with the words “a friend took this photo of a skink,” in which a scientist enthusiastically asks Dr. Stebbins to identify the species of a skink, I have come to realize that Dr. Stebbins and other zoologists have devoted their whole lives to the study of nature, to the study of something they are passionate about. Upon this conclusion, I decided to do some research on Dr. Stebbins. I found out that he made significant contributions to nature conservation, especially in the establishment of nature reserves which is something I aspire to do in my future years.  Dr. Stebbins has become a model for me to follow as I work toward my ultimate goal of founding a nature conservation fund.

As he said in his book, Connecting with Nature, “[field] studies are absolutely essential to understanding nature and of increasing importance as human impacts escalate.” His field notes prove that he dedicated his life to the preservation of nature. Although Dr. Stebbins passed away in September 2013 at the age of 98, his legacy will always be preserved in his field notes. It has been an honor for me to work as a field note digitization URAP, and Dr. Stebbins has inspired me in many, many ways.

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