Name: Burton Lim
Museums have teams of dedicated scientists doing research behind the scenes. We talk to Burton Lim, an assistant curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, to find out what it's like to work at the ROM.
Photo above: Burton admiring a Golden white-lined bat ( Platyrrhinus aurarius ) caught at Mount Roraima in Guyana during a fieldtrip in 2003.
What is an assistant curator?
A person who looks after and studies a collection of artifacts or specimens at a museum or gallery.
What is a typical day as an assistant curator at the ROM like?
I start the morning by deleting my junk mail and trying to address the real emails. There typically are questions about mammals from the general public that I will answer, or enquiries from other researchers about specimens in our collection that they want to study. I supervise a technician and coordinate these specimen loans. If they need to examine a lot of specimens, we invite them to come to the ROM and I will look after their visit. Molecularbiology is a fast-growing field of study in evolutionary biology and we have one of the best frozen tissue collections of mammals in the world (all of those field trips I've been on finally pay off!!). So we are getting more and more requests for tissue samples. In addition, we are planning a new gallery on natural history for 2009 so there might be work related to the displays and what is going in the mor how to explain them. Of course, not all of this needs to be done every day and the amount of time required varies greatly. But in between doing these regular duties, I keep up on my bat research projects. Depending on what stage they are at, it may involve grant proposals, data collecting, analysis, or manuscript write up.
How did you become interested in studying bats and their evolution?
I took a university course that was taught at the ROM. The professor, Dr. Randolph Peterson, was also the mammal curator and his area of study was the evolution of bats. I did a couple of research projects with him and developed an interest in bats also.
Tell us a funny joke related to your profession.
Two vampire bats new to the area were trying to figure out where the best place was for getting blood. They both went out in separate directions to see what potential prey were available. One of them came back with his face covered in blood. The other vampire bat said, "Wow, where did you find all that blood?" The first vampire bat said, "See that wall ... I didn't".
How much traveling is involved in your research?
I usually do about 2 field trips, each of 1 month duration, per year. My busiest year involved field trips to 5 different countries over a 7 month period.
What is a typical day in your travels like?
Being that most of my field trips are in remote areas, there is really nothing else to do but my field work. So a typical day starts when I get up at 6 a.m., then I check my rat traps, have breakfast, bathe, prepare specimens, have lunch, finish preparing specimens, open bat nets, check nets, have dinner, check nets, and hope I get into my hammock before midnight to do it allover again the next day.
Of all your travels, which was your favourite trip?
After over 50 field expeditions to 17 countries, I'm a little bit jaded now... so just glad to get back home in one piece. But almost half of these trips have been to Guyanaso I think I like going there because it is one of the few countries where you can still see virgin rainforest stretching to the horizon while flying overhead in a small plane. This is a good sign that the natural habitat is still intact.
What are the top 5 songs on your mp3 player?
I'll broaden the question by telling you that I always seem to bring into the field tunes by REM, Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, Bob Marley, and Angelique Kidjo.
What courses in high school prepared you for this field?
Biology, where I dissected a rat.
What was your favorite thing about high school?
Where did you go to university?
University of Toronto for my BSc and PhD; York University for my MSc.
How did you decide where to go?
It was close to home and I didn't have to pay for rent.
Was there extra training required for this career after you finished university?
No, but there was a lot of on the job training by trial and error.
What's your favorite cartoon character?
Fred Flintstone, I love the way he stops his car.
Meat. Yes or no?
Yes, medium rare.
What is the coolest part of your job?
Not only do I get to travel to exotic places for fieldwork but also get the perspective from off the beaten track as we usually go into remote places with the help of the local people.
What's the worst part of your job?
As Silvia, a student on a field trip to Guyana, so succinctly put it, "Mud and bugs".
Ooooops! Everyone makes mistakes so what was the dumbest thing you've ever done at work?
Accidentally letting a weasel escape from a trap ... it would have been the first documentation of this species from Guyana.
Any advice that you would give others seeking a similar career?
You have to like doing it for more than just the money!!
What is a typical salary range for a curator in your field?
$40,000 to $80,000
What are some great web links or references for someone interesting in reading up more about this career?
Natural History Museum, London
Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkley
Careers in Mammalogy
Burton Lim and his research at the ROM