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ANHC Volunteer Profile: Karen Seale

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Thursday, June 29, 2017

Volunteers help the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC) maximize its resources. They can frequently be found participating in a clean-up on a natural area, or collecting images of rare species in remote locations, or mounting specimen for the agency’s herbarium. But there is another very important job that one of our volunteers, Karen Seale, has chosen to tackle. It lacks the excitement of field work or the artistic reward of an exquisite photograph or a beautifully mounted herbarium specimen, but it builds on the very foundation of the agency’s work. Karen helps out with the monumental, and often underappreciated, task of data management.

The agency collects and manages information on locations of rare species and high quality examples of natural community types in a computerized data system. These data are used by the agency to select locations appropriate for protection as natural areas. The database is also a valuable conservation tool in itself. Its information is made available to help guide public and private forest management, commercial development, road construction, species protection, and conservation planning. In recent years, there has been an explosion both in the availability of and appetite for the information. This demand often strains the ability of the agency’s three full-time and one part-time data management staff (Cindy Osborne, Katie Shannon, Scotty Winningham, and Nate Weston). Enter volunteer extraordinaire, Karen Seale.

Although a native Texan, Karen is a naturalized Arkansan with a demonstrated enthusiasm for her adopted state. She came to Arkansas for what was to be a one year rotating internship in 1977 and ended up doing an orthopedic residency at the University of Arkanas for Medical Sciences to become Arkansas’s first female Board certified orthopedic surgeon. She practiced mostly in Arkansas (with brief stints in Texas and Washington) until, ironically, she took an early retirement around 2013 when her own orthopedic health declined.

But retirement for Karen did not mean a rocking chair on the front porch; it was an opportunity to pursue other passions. She discovered the Arkansas Master Naturalists program, which was founded in 2007 with a mission “to develop a corps of well-informed volunteers to provide education, outreach, and service dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities.” This mission meshed with her own desire to help restore the environment with a more natural approach to gardening.

Becoming a Master Naturalist takes commitment. It requires attending at least 40 hours of initial training, then performing at least 40 hours of volunteer work and acquiring 8 hours of advanced training each year. Much of Karen’s initial volunteer work with the Arkansas Master Naturalists involved developing and making public presentations and using her own computer skills to help others polish their digital presentations. Her physical limitations kept her from participating in some of the more active projects, such as prescribed burns or interpretive trail hikes. She was looking for new opportunities after helping ANHC’s land steward, Patrick Solomon, hone one of his presentations. Patrick introduced Karen to the agency’s database manager, Cindy Osborne, who introduced Karen to the wild and wonderful world of data management.

As it turns out, data management and orthopedic surgery have a lot in common. Both require careful attention to detail, an ability to maintain focus while conducting tedious work, patience, and a passion for getting it right. Through her work with ANHC, Karen logged over 250 hours of volunteerism last year (she’s shooting for even more this year). She started her volunteer data management career by helping the agency prepare its files for an office move. This required thinning down and reorganizing decades of manual data archives.

Since the move, Karen has worked jointly with the agency’s Research Assistant, Nate Weston, to computerize herbarium label information for a project to help better understand the taxonomy and distribution of rosette-grasses in Arkansas. This is a daunting task that involves digitizing information on more than 2,300 images. The condition of the labels varies greatly. Newer specimens typically have clear, typewritten labels in a standard format. Older labels (which comprise the majority of the images) are handwritten with highly variable formats. Once all the labels are digitized, locations can be assigned (a task in which Karen is likely to participate) and botanists will have a much better understanding of this important group of grasses.

“Working with Karen is a pleasure. She is an enthusiastic naturalist and always excited to acquire new skills,” Osborne said. “She is quick to smile and always busy, working in her volunteer time with ANHC between piano lessons, swimming, Spanish lessons, and volunteer work at the Central Arkansas Master Naturalists’ Greenhouse. She is humble and, despite her own considerable accomplishments, shows great respect for the work of the ANHC.”

In her typical style, Karen notes “I am sincerely grateful for having been given the opportunity to prove that just because I don’t want a job doesn’t mean I am not willing to work.”

And work she does! We appreciate all the hard work and talent that Karen and all of our volunteers share with us.

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