Many students need extra money to pay bills or cover the cost of books and meals. Anita Rai was no exception.
When the then-USC College freshman learned she could conduct research at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and get paid for it, she jumped at the chance.
“This is so much better than sitting in an office answering phones,” the 22-year-old senior said, climbing a ladder inside the museum’s basement vault, where she sorted collections of crustaceans, echinoderms and mollusks stored in various-sized jars.
“My work at the museum also gives me an opportunity to connect with institutions in my community in a profound way,” she said.
Rai works in the museum’s crustacea division, where her job also teaches the principles of biological systematics, giving her hands-on lessons of the evolutionary history of life on Earth that she might not receive from classes alone.
Located in Exposition Park, the museum is an igneous stone’s throw from the University Park campus.
“With this job, I can walk across the street from campus and be paid to do science-based work,” Rai said. “And since I’m a biology major, this job actually enriches my education.”
Currently the museum employs 30 USC students through the federal work-study program — a financial aid program in which employers can use federal funding to hire students.
Work-study jobs are typically on campus, but there are off-campus opportunities at many other prominent nonprofit institutions and organizations such as the California Science Center Foundation, the California African American Museum, the USC Hillel Jewish Center and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.
Located in a major metropolitan center of culture, politics and economics, USC College can offer real-world learning experiences in a variety of world-class institutions.
The Natural History Museum is a major research institution where students are paid to work and learn. Founded in 1913, the museum is a national leader in research, exhibition and education. It’s the largest museum in the western United States, with collections including 35 million specimens and artifacts, some as old as 4.5 billion years.
Research is conducted in fields from archaeology to mineralogy, and from malacology (the study of mollusks) to vertebrate paleontology. Work-study students also have jobs in other museum departments such as human resources, education or marketing.
“USC College will never be an ivory-tower experience,” College Dean Howard Gillman said. “All our students benefit by engaging the community, and that includes taking advantage of our partnerships with our city’s great cultural institutions.
“These expanded opportunities for student learning and inquiry are part of the reason why USC College attracts such an amazing group of undergraduates.”
At the museum, Rai wore rubber gloves and carefully pinched with forceps a sponge specimen from a large jar and placed it into a small plastic tube. She was handling Thieleia rubiginosa, one of 5,000 known modern species of sponges. The sample had been collected in Ensenada in Baja California during a 1936 expedition.
A researcher in Mazatlán writing a paper about marine life along the Mexican coast had asked to borrow a piece of the rare sample. Rai was extracting a small yet precious piece to be delivered by hand to Tucson, Ariz., then picked up and taken to Mazatlán.
“It’s a good feeling to know that we’re helping researchers and professors from all over the world develop new knowledge about marine life,” Rai said.
Mainly, students in the crustacea division sort incoming marine life — usually crabs, lobsters, shrimps and isopods — gathered from expeditions.
Working with the museum’s experienced researchers, students group and categorize organisms by species — a monumental task given the great diversity of marine life. Students analyze the life forms under microscopes and in some cases establish their DNA sequence. They also review literature, some dating back more than 100 years. At times they discover a new species and name it.
They place the specimens in alcohol-filled jars, then label and store them. Finally they enter information about each specimen into a computerized database.
College alumni who participated in the museum’s work-study program credit the real-world experience for helping them to obtain work once they graduated.
After graduation she returned home to Soldotna, Alaska, and was hired by the Kenai Watershed Forum, a nonprofit organization dedicated to maintaining water quality on the Kenai Peninsula.
“The databasing skills I learned at the museum were the reason they hired me,” she said. “The hands-on experience really added to my education because it was so different from what I was doing in the classroom.”
In a biology class, she did learn DNA sequencing.
“But we didn’t get to use actual DNA,” McCard said. “At the museum, we were doing it for real and the data were actually being published.”
Like many students, McCard learned about the opportunity at an annual job fair for students that this year will be held August 21 in the Von KleinSmid Center courtyard.
McCard was grateful for the experience for other reasons, too.
“Coming from Alaska, I really missed home,” she said. “The down-to-earth scientists I worked with every week were almost like having a family.”
“They are wonderfully energetic and bright students,” said Wetzer, also an adjunct professor in the College. “I don’t know how we would function without them.”