The volunteering opportunities at universities are vast, and at Reading we are fortunate to have our own on-site zoological museum. The Cole Museum of Zoology is a fantastic resource for teaching, run by a small group of dedicated staff and volunteers, many of whom are our students.
Inspired by trip to Natural History Museum
Many of the student volunteers at our Cole Museum of Zoology share the common interest of museums and animals and relish the chance to get up close and personal with specimens, instead of just seeing them in the classroom.
Claire Smith started volunteering with us at The Cole after a behind-the-scenes tour of the Natural History Museum in London sparked her interest in fluid preservation.
“I specifically wanted to work with fluid preserved collections, The Cole Museum was the obvious place to start volunteering. So even though I wasn't a student at the time (at Reading), they were really welcoming."
Delving into any role with little experience can seem daunting, particularly because not every museum has a fluid preserved collection. But at The Cole Museum, learning opportunities are limitless.
Like all our volunteers, Claire was trained by technicians and as she got more involved with fluid specimens, she undertook an external training course, allowing her to gain professional expertise in the treatment of fluid-preserved specimens.
Claire is now employed one day a week to take care of our specimens and to teach new student volunteers.
Up close and personal
Biological sciences students can volunteer at The Cole Museum and have the opportunity to learn a breadth of practical skills. This includes learning how to look after the preserved specimens, which Claire teaches, bringing her specialist knowledge and enthusiasm to our students.
“ Having this training is a really good head start for anyone that wants to go and work in a museum because there are not that many places where you can get this training unless you're already working in a museum.
"It's also really useful if they're going to go into scientific research because institutions that do have collections like this quite often use them for ongoing scientific research."
By working in the museum, volunteers can become more confident in their skills and use their experience to help them determine what jobs they like doing and are good at.
“ We start them on simple things that they can do just out on the bench. And then as they get confident with that, we'll move them onto more complicated things that need more safety equipment or more training.
"And they also learn associated skills that you wouldn't necessarily think of as needing for this kind of work. So, for example, if we need to make a new lid for a jar, then we'll teach the students how to cut the right shape out of glass and how to drill a hole in it and how to seal it back onto the jar. So, they learn literally all parts of the job."
Give volunteering a go
Grace Staines, final year BSc Zoology student, has volunteered at The Cole Museum for three years, citing Claire's passion for her work as infectious. Grace strongly recommends volunteering in the museum to supplement student's studies in biological sciences:
“ It has provided me with skills I couldn't acquire anywhere else, and this gives me a clear advantage over other students in my cohort, namely practical skills such as glass-cutting and other highly transferable laboratory techniques.
"Volunteering and training in the preservation of fluid specimens has not only given me more of an appreciation for the roles of conservators but has also opened doors for my future in potentially working in a museum myself."
Claire encourages all students to volunteer and try something new, including using the experience towards The Reading Experience and Development (RED) Award.
“Come along and give it a go. I mean, obviously what we do in the fluid preservation team is very specialist and not everybody really enjoys it. It's quite technical.
"But the museum itself is a really welcoming environment. If the student finds they're not enjoying something that they've signed up to do, it's really easy to move on and try something different. There are so many different roles available."