AI Spotlight: Florida Museum of Natural History with Pam Soltis

AI Spotlight: Florida Museum of Natural History with Pam Soltis

The Florida Museum of Natural History is a leading authority in biodiversity and cultural heritage, using its expertise to advance knowledge, solve real-world problems and impact public policy and perception. An engaging and impactful hub for teaching and learning science, the Museum has been particularly successful at utilizing research collections and making them accessible to diverse audiences, demonstrating relevance in their daily lives.

As part of the University of Florida’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Initiative, the Florida Museum of Natural History is hiring faculty with an AI background. To learn more about the museum’s work in the AI field, we interviewed Dr. Pam Soltis, distinguished professor and curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

How has the emergence of artificial intelligence advanced research at the Florida Museum of Natural History?
AI has allowed us to begin to make use of the millions of images of herbarium specimens (dried, pressed plants) available through iDigBio ( for all sorts of research questions. To date, these images have been used mostly to develop methods of plant identification and ways to score specimens for the presence/absence of particular traits (like the presence of leaves, flowers, fruits). In addition, the use of AI to score features from text that accompanies these images is also being developed.

How do you see your curriculum evolving as you expand AI research and opportunities within the museum?
Given increasing interest in the use of AI for scoring traits from images and text of natural history specimens, we will need to offer courses to support student interests. My colleagues Matt Gitzendanner and Brian Stucky are currently offering a course entitled, “AI in Biology.” I envision additional courses that describe both research questions that can be addressed using AI and methods to apply them.

The Florida Museum of Natural History is currently hiring faculty with an AI background, how do you envision these faculty will help advance your field’s research through artificial intelligence?
The Florida Museum of Natural History is hiring two faculty members: One in AI and Biological and/or Cultural Diversity and one in AI in Museum Education. I would expect that whoever is hired for the first position will be a great resource and collaborator for many of us in the Museum and other biodiversity-related departments. The second position will be important for all of us in the Museum as we continue to develop new outreach methods to share our research with the public.

What kinds of pressing issues has faculty research been able to address through AI?
One of the main applications is the use of images and text of herbarium specimens to investigate changes in flowering time associated with climate change. Each specimen bears its date of collection, and we would expect that with climate change (and warming temperatures over the past few centuries) that plant species in the Northern Hemisphere would begin flowering earlier in the spring. Analysis of herbarium specimens on local scales (such as Massachusetts) by hand bears out this expectation. But what happens with more species, larger geographic areas, etc.? Millions of images of herbarium specimens can fill these needs. Understanding the large-scale effects of climate change on plant reproduction is a first step in documenting the responses of other species that are dependent on these plants to both direct and indirect effects of climate change. We received a grant in the UF AI Catalyst Program to pursue this work.

What steps are you taking to build a cohort of AI researchers that represents our diverse society?
We have advertised in a number of journals, listservs and organizations that support diverse communities of scientists, including those in fields related to AI. We have also contacted colleagues to discuss their possible interests in our positions and to request suggestions for qualified potential applicants.

What opportunities does AI present to the Florida Museum of Natural History for collaboration across disciplines, colleges or units?
Because we are evolutionary biologists, we rely on computer scientists, data scientists and information technology experts to help us develop and apply the methods that will allow us to score large numbers of individual specimens. These collaborators include colleagues in the Florida Museum plus those in Engineering as well as other biology-focused departments, such as Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.

How does the culture of the Florida Museum of Natural History foster an environment where new faculty members can excel in AI?
There will be a large pool of faculty, staff, post-docs and students who are eagerly awaiting the hiring of these two new faculty members. Many members of the Museum have ideas in mind of how they might like to use AI, but lack the AI expertise, and so are looking forward to new collaborations with the new hires. There will be a lot of interest in making them feel at home right away.

This story originally appeared on UF Artificial Intelligence.