A Brief History of the NSRL
In 1962, Dr. Robert L. Packard (image at top left; Packard seated in chair) was hired as the first mammalogist in the Department of Biological Sciences at Texas Tech University. Upon his hiring, Packard established the Mammal Collection at TTU with an initial deposit of approximately 350 specimens. Although originally housed on the second floor of the Science Building, the collection was later moved to the basement of the Museum of Texas Tech University. In the early 1970's, the Natural Science Research Laboratory (NSRL) was conceived out of the need to establish appropriate facilities to house the growing natural history collections. The NSRL addition to the Museum was completed in 1973 (image at top center).
The collections housed in the NSRL soon grew to include not only mammals, but also birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, invertebrates, and the paleontology collection. In 1996, the Paleontology Collection received autonomy and became a separate division under the Museum umbrella, and the paleontological specimens were moved to the basement of the Museum.
Although the early natural history collections of the NSRL were diverse, representing most phyla of the animal kingdom, the primary research focus of the NSRL always has been mammals. This reflects the collection-based mammalogical research focus of the faculty of the Department of Biological Sciences (image at top right; Clyde Jones, Ron Chesser, Robert Owen, Michael Willig, J Knox Jones [seated], Robert Baker, and Dilford Carter, ca. 1984). By the 1990s, this emphasis had left the reptile, amphibian, and fish collections underutilized at Texas Tech University. Similarly, the mammal and bird collections of the Texas Memorial Museum of the University of Texas at Austin were underutilized due to that museum's strong focus on herpetological research. To make more effective use of these resources, to ensure the collections were properly curated, and to make specimens more readily available to scientists and students, Ed C. Theriot, Director of the Texas Memorial Museum, initiated negotiations with Robert J. Baker and Gary F. Edson, Director of the Museum of Texas Tech University, to exchange the NSRL's reptile, amphibian, and fish collections with the Texas Memorial Museum's bird and mammal collections. This exchange occurred in 2001. The collection acquired by the NSRL consisted of nearly 7,000 mammals, 1,700 birds, 800 clutches of eggs, and nearly 300 taxidermy mounts (image at bottom left). The Texas Memorial Museum collection was primarily the result of work by noted Texas naturalist W. Frank Blair and his students, and the collection included many specimens of historical significance. As the NSRL mammal collection prior to the exchange had consisted primarily of recently collected material (1959 forward), the addition of the Texas Memorial Museum collection added a valuable historical component concerning the mammalian fauna of Texas. Although the trade reduced the overall vertebrate diversity of the NSRL collection, this realignment of specimens with faculty strengths not only benefited both universities and improved the care of both collections, but it also served to strengthen the biodiversity programs that provide critical natural history information to society.
The growth of the NSRL collections necessitated a complete remodeling of the NSRL building in 1997-1998. During those renovations, which were supported by a National Science Foundation grant, collection areas, office areas, and preparation areas were isolated from each other to maximize safety and efficiency and to minimize potential contamination problems. A new room, equipped to house up to 11 ultra-cold freezers, was designated for frozen tissues (the Genetic Resources Collection) (image at bottom center).
Between 1998 and 2004, the traditional mammal collection grew by more than 25,000 specimens, and the Genetic Resources Collection grew to exceed the capacity of the freezer room, necessitating the temporary housing of additional ultra-colds in an adjacent room. The rapid growth of the collections, and expectations for continued growth in the years to come, spurred the commitment of Texas Tech University to construct a new wing of the NSRL building, which was completed in 2005 (image at bottom right). The funds for this expansion generously were donated by the Ben E. Keith Company. The expansion more than doubled the size of the NSRL facilities to accommodate the growing collections, as well as to provide additional space for research and teaching activities, student offices, and an expanded library. The move into the newly dedicated space was accomplished through a second NSF Biological Research Collections grant. In 2009, a donation from the Helen DeVitt Jones Foundation allowed for the purchase of 249 additional cases and cabinets to further expand the storage capacity of the Mammal and Bird Collections.
In 2015, upon the retirement of Robert J. Baker as Director of the NSRL, Curator of Mammals, and Curator of Genetic Resources, the Museum and TTU allowed his position to be filled by Robert D. Bradley as Director of the NSRL and Caleb Phillips as the Curator of the GRC. Also in 2015, the NSRL was awarded a major grant from NSF to convert the GRC storage system from mechanical -80°C freezers to a liquid-nitrogen based storage system, and the University provided funding for renovations of the GRC facility in support of that project (see more about the liquid nitrogen project here). In addition, the NSRL received financial support from The CH Foundation to install donated compactors (mechanical storage units) in the Fluid Collection and the Packard Library of the NSRL. These compactors have greatly increased the efficiency and overall storage capacity of these two collections.
In 2023, the NSRL celebrated its 50th anniversary. The occasion was marked by a celebratory event at the Museum; the publication of an extensive 50-year report about the NSRL's contributions to research, education, scholarship, collections growth and management, and engagement; and the development of an illustrated timeline summarizing the history of the NSRL.
For more information on the history of mammalogy at Texas Tech University (from 1962 to 2005), please consult: Mammalogy at Texas Tech University: A Historical Perspective, Occasional Paper No. 243