Natural History Museum, London
By V. Díaz Grisales
Dates: February 11-25, 2023
Main purpose: To study type material of the weevil genus Heilipus (Curculionidae: Molytinae: Hylobiini).
Permits: Senior curator in charge of Coleoptera at the Natural History Museum.
Summary: In February 2023, Valentina Díaz Grisales, a PhD student at the Colegio de Postgraduados in Mexico, visited the Natural History Museum in London (NHM) to review the type material of the genus Heilipus described by George C. Champion and Francis P. Pascoe deposited there. Valentina shares details of her trip to London, from the search for funding, to her first day at the NHM and the help of the Coleoptera curators of the Museum so that her trip ended successfully. Finally, she gives some tips on lodging and food options in areas near the NHM. This visit will allow her to advance her dissertation on the systematic revision of the genus Heilipus and, in a broader sense, will contribute to the knowledge of Neotropical weevils.
Acknowledgements: The Coleopterists Society, Maxwell V. L. Barclay, Keita Matsumoto, Michael Geiser, Jennifer Girón, Salvatore Anzaldo, Jesús Romero-Nápoles, Héctor González-Hernández, Néstor Bautista-Martínez.
Reviewing type material of a beautiful genus of weevils in London
A few weeks ago, I returned from a two-week trip to London. I was reviewing the type material of the genus Heilipus (Curculionidae: Molytinae: Hylobiini) described by George C. Champion and Francis P. Pascoe and deposited in the Natural History Museum of London (NHM). It was an intense trip, full of work, but very satisfying since I had been dreaming of seeing this material for several years and a year trying to get money to go. I always knew that I had to review the type material deposited at the NHM to advance the study of “this beautiful genus of weevils”, just like Félix Édouard Guérin-Méneville used to refer to Heilipus. What always worried me was how I was going to get the money for the trip. I didn't know; all I knew was that one day I would go. I was certain.
In the last two years, a lot of good things happened that ended up taking me to London. A succession of events that began when I met Jennifer Girón at the 2021 Weevil Workers meeting; I remember that I met her in the South American Zoom room. When there were only three people left in the room, Jennifer asked my name and what group I worked with. I summarized my story with Heilipus and told her about the importance of visiting the British Museum of Natural History to advance the study of the genus, since half of the type material was deposited there. Jennifer, with the enthusiasm that characterizes her, told me that I had to fight for that. She told me about the awards that exist to support graduate student research, and that I could apply for funding. Sal Anzaldo, our colleague from Weevil Workers, had also told me about those awards and had even shared some of his proposals with me, so that I would have an idea of how to structure a document to participate. In December 2021, Jennifer shared with me The Coleopterists Society call for graduate student research awards and that's where it all started.
At first, I thought it would be very difficult to get one of those awards, I saw it as unlikely. However, I remembered that my mom always says that to win the lottery you must at least buy a ticket. So, I wrote my proposal, Jennifer reviewed it, gave me feedback, and I submitted it. Five months later I received an email with the news that I had won one of the awards. I felt an immense joy, I could not believe it. I thought that the dream was beginning to materialize: I would go to London, I would see the Heilipus material. I already had the money to buy plane tickets and cover part of the lodging. However, I needed as much to cover the rest of the lodging and food. So, I kept buying the lottery; I kept writing proposals with the support and mentoring of Jennifer. I applied for two other calls, but I was not favored. Still, I went ahead with planning the trip, contacting Max Barclay, the senior curator in charge of Coleoptera at the NHM, to ask him when I could visit the collection.
Max Barclay is a very busy person -I was able to confirm during my visit-. Although I had partially resolved the money issue, I came to think that I might not be able to go, since I couldn't get an answer about possible dates of visit. However, I kept insisting and in October 2022 I received an email from Max telling me that I could visit the NHM in February 2023. I did some calculations and concluded that with the money I had I could only stay for a week; I knew that this was a short time considering the number of specimens I had to review. Fortunately, the professors on my advisory committee and my family helped me with money for the trip and that allowed me to stay in London for two weeks.
I left Mexico on February 11th. I had never been to Europe; actually, I had never left the American continent. I was scared because of the trip, but excited to finally see Champion and Pascoe's Heilipus species. I arrived in London on a Sunday only knowing what I had read on the internet and some things that people who had been there told me. That Sunday I only thought about one thing: getting to the hotel and the next day to the Museum. I used the metro from the airport, walked with my bags and arrived at the hotel. That first night I celebrated with a beer the feat of having reached my destination with Google Maps. Before going to sleep, I remembered the phrase that a friend had said to me when leaving Mexico: “there is no date that does not arrive nor a deadline that does not expire” (in Spanish: "No hay fecha que no se cumpla, ni plazo que no se venza"). An important date had arrived for me: my first day at the NHM.
My first day at the Museum was shocking. I was not only surprised by the beauty and immensity of the building located in South Kensington, but also by the amount of Heilipus material deposited there. In addition to the Champion and Pascoe type material, there is a lot of additional material from other Heilipus species collected many years ago. I knew my priority was to take pictures of the type material, but I also wanted to review the other species; the problem was time. The check-in time was at 9:00 a.m. Fortunately, in the Coleoptera section of the NHM you can work until 7:00 p.m., so each day I tried to get as far as I could until that time. I spent the whole day taking photos, since I had to photograph at least the habitus of 44 type specimens with their labels. Thanks to the sound of my camera with each shot, everyone already knew that I was there.
I would leave the Museum at night, walk to the hotel, eat something, and go to rest. The next day, I would walk to the Museum, buy something to eat for the day, and work until about time to leave. The first week passed very quickly and, three days before returning to Mexico, I still had several things to do. The problem? Time had run out.
Luckily, the last two days I received a lot of support from the Coleoptera curators so that my visit ended in the best way, because they know that these are unique opportunities for a student and that returning is difficult. Keita Matsumoto helped me photograph some type specimens that I had pending. Michael Geiser allowed me to work until later to finish what I needed. And Max Barclay, who gave me all the conditions to make my stay at the NHM pleasant and productive, loaned me material that will help me enormously to advance my thesis. In the end, my visit went better than I expected. Heilipus continues to surprise me more every day, as the visit to the NHM made me realize that the diversity of this beautiful genus far exceeds what we know about it. The good news is that this revision of the type material deposited at the NHM and the loan specimens will help me understand it a little better.
Thanks to all the people and institutions that supported me to make this dream come true: to The Coleopterists Society, the professors on my advisory committee and my family for the economic support. Thanks to Jennifer for the constant support, because part of this achievement I owe to her mentoring me. Thanks to her guidance, many Latin American students can find out and prepare to participate in calls and grants like the one I won. As I told her one day: for many Latin American entomologists, Jennifer Girón is our SiB node (the local Colombian GBIF node) in a GBIF world. Thanks also to Sal Anzaldo for his support and advice, for helping me figure things out as I went along, and for answering my questions and concerns when I felt confused by the amount of material deposited at the NHM. Thanks to my fellow visitors to the Museum: Gabrielle Jorge de Melo and Matheus Bento, two doctoral students from Brazil with whom we share not only the dream of reviewing type material in Europe to identify the Neotropical species of our insect groups, but also lots of stories and laughs. Finally, thanks to the ROSTRUM editors for facilitating this space to share a bit of my adventure in London.
Tips on lodging and food near NHM
Lodging. The Natural History Museum in London is in South Kensington, an area with a wide range of hotels and restaurants. Staying in South Kensington can be very expensive, so the best option when you are on a tight budget is to look for accommodation in a nearby area such as Earl's Court or West Brompton, zones from which you can walk to the NHM. Ibis London Earl’s Court is a nice and not so expensive hotel that is 30 minutes walking distance from the Museum. You can also reach the Museum by tube in case you don't want to walk, because 10 minutes away from this hotel is West Brompton station; from there you can change to South Kensington station, the closest to the Museum. Hotel search engines such as “Agoda” allow you to find last minute deals on hotels located near South Kensington or its surroundings, such as Cromwell International Hotel, an accommodation with much simpler rooms but very close to the Museum, approximately 15 minutes walking distance.
Another lodging option is to stay at the home of Mick Webb, Hemiptera curator at the NHM, who rents rooms in his house for £200 per week/ £600 per month. This price is much more affordable compared to the cost of staying in a hotel and is favorable for long stays; just keep in mind that Mick's house is about an hour away from the Museum by public transportation. If you are interested in this option, you can contact Mick Webb via email at email@example.com.
Food. South Kensington and the surrounding neighborhoods have a variety of restaurants in many price ranges, from fancy and expensive to fast food chains such as Burger King, KFC, or McDonald's. The busy work schedule at the Museum requires bringing some food to have lunch at the employee and visitor dining room. Around South Kensington it is possible to find many supermarkets -Tesco is one of them and it was where I usually bought my lunch- where you can buy simple and ready-to-eat food such as salads, sandwiches, wraps, pasta, some fruits, juices, and soft drinks. It is also possible to have lunch or a snack at the Museum's restaurant or cafeteria, or to go out and eat at the many restaurants available in South Kensington. However, these last two options are not recommended because they involve moving among the hundreds of visitors who arrive every day to the Museum's public exhibitions, and this can be time-consuming. Therefore, it is best to arrive prepared with something to eat at lunchtime.