Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

Discovery Lecture Series

Friday, February 7, 2020
7:00 PM - 9:00 PM

Biodiversity in Our Ocean — A Natural History Museum Vision

By Dean Pentcheff and Dr. Regina Wetzer, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Natural history museums: stuffed animals, dinosaurs, and dust, right? That’s not the whole story (though, truth be told, we’ve got all those, too). Natural history museums are, it turns out, drivers of exciting new developments in biodiversity science. As the world changes and populations increase, we need new ways to see how our presence on the coast affects (and can benefit from) the ocean’s biodiversity. New genetic approaches, using “environmental DNA”, promise to let us inventory our biological surroundings, including our coastal communities, with unprecedented detail and speed. Tools like these will be essential for managing development of our coast. Researchers at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County are using the coastline of Long Beach, San Pedro, and the Palos Verdes Peninsula as a testbed for these important new technologies — building new ways to view our ocean while learning more about our marine neighborhood.

Dean Pentcheff spent his first life at the University of Washington doing computer support for two biomedical laboratories, in an age when V7 Unix was new and a gigabyte of disk storage was the size of a dishwasher. He spent most of his U.C. Berkeley graduate school years in Puget Sound pondering whether barnacle legs differ between sites because of heredity or wave forces (twist: it’s different diets). At the University of South Carolina, Dean spent most of a decade learning how animals and fluids in the ocean interact: how crabs find their prey by smell in flowing water, and how the flow turbulence created by corals affects their feeding. Transmigrating to Los Angeles in 2001, Dean was seduced by the attractions of a natural history museum, and worked to bring aspects of classical taxonomy and systematics into the computerized 20th Century. The irony that he did this in the early 21st Century is not lost on him. With a short excursion teaching at Loyola Marymount University, Dean has spent the past decade and a half as a biodiversity research scientist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM).

Regina Wetzer is Associate Curator and Director of the Marine Biodiversity Center at NHM. In high school Regina became fascinated with invertebrates — their bizarre forms and crazy life histories. She was introduced to marine field work in the Sea of Cortez as an undergraduate at Loyola Marymount University and fell in love with both invertebrates and exotic places. After completing a Master's Degree with Alan Miller at California State University Long Beach working on gills of snails, followed by a year working for Pacific BioMarine, she joined NHM as Curatorial Assistant in Crustacea. She moved to the San Diego Natural History Museum as Senior Invertebrate Collections Manager, and completed her Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina on molecular and morphological systematics of crustaceans. Returning to NHM in late 1999, she works with an extraordinary team of Invertebrate Collections Managers who oversee and curate the great diversity of animals (35 phyla) in NHM’s marine invertebrate collections. In 2016 Wetzer and her team launched the Diversity Initiative for the Southern California Ocean (DISCO). This research initiative is greatly enhancing biodiversity documentation in the marine environment by applying modern genetic technology.

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