The story goes that when Roy Williams coached the Kansas Jayhawks, he would take recruits to the school’s Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum.
“No other school you could go to has a place like this,” Williams told them.
It’s not clear if the alleged pitch sold any 6-foot-10-inch post player, but museum director Leonard Krishtalka smiles when he tells that story. This was the University of Kansas — James Naismith, Final Fours, championships and high rankings.
Williams might have known that work inside the century-old, gray stone museum could someday save the planet.
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And now it has a ranking of its own.
In a first-ever survey, Best College Reviews recently ranked KU’s museum fourth best in the country.
Krishtalka, ever the scientific researcher, determined KU was actually top-ranked. Among public schools, that is. The three institutions above KU were Harvard, Drexel and Yale.
“All private, all eastern, all with huge endowments,” said Krishtalka, who grew up in Montreal and slept in his office when he first arrived in Lawrence 20 years ago. “We are the underdog here, and this ranking is long overdue.”
Experts say the KU museum and institute has emerged as a national leader because it has, as Science Magazine recently noted, “broken out of the traditional mold.”
So we’re not talking about a bunch of keyboard-tapping, khaki-clad academics.
KU has ongoing research expeditions on every continent, including one to study ancient plant life in Antarctica and another aimed at insect fossils preserved in amber in Saudi Arabia.
An expedition is being planned to climb to the top of Mount Popomanaseu, the highest point on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, to study the Guadalcanal honeyeater, a bird found nowhere else.
The forested peak towered over Marines fighting across the island during World War II. As far as Rob Moyle, associate curator for ornithology, knows, no research group has ever been to the top of the mountain, which is protected by tribal law.
“Now a group from Kansas may be the first — that’s pretty cool,” Moyle said.
All this field work is aimed at the KU jewel: informatics — a digitized collection of research data gathered from plants and animals all over the world.
The system can then use something called Lifemapper to construct computational models to show how changes in temperature, rainfall and other environmental phenomena can predict migrations and the potential spread of emerging diseases such as Ebola, the Zika virus and bird flu as well as agricultural pests and invasive species.
“Everything in the 21st century will be about the environment — food, fresh water, disease, pollinations, climate change,” Krishtalka said. “And people all over the world are going to be looking at us.”
To illustrate Lifemapper, Jim Beach, assistant director for informatics, recently used a computer map of North America to show the areas inhabited by Kirtland’s warbler, a small songbird. He then altered conditions to show what happens with climate change.
The bird’s turf greatly diminished.
“We could be looking at the extinction of a bird,” Beach said.
Hundreds of schools and institutions all over the world can access the KU Lifemapper system.
Science Magazine recently touted KU as being at the forefront of a new movement.
“It’s about combining biodiversity research and technology,” said Mary Dawson, a retired paleontologist from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. “They (KU) are one of the leaders of the world in doing that.”
Krishtalka uses a stock market analogy to explain his business model. He’s not a safe, blue-chip guy.
“I like risk venture,” he said. “Not everyone does that. We’ve had success, and we have failed. But we are committed to scientific breakthroughs.
“Science becomes most powerful when description becomes prediction.”
Last week on an upper floor of the old museum building, collection manager Luke Welton unlatched a metal tub and pulled out a 6-foot-long fruit-eating monitor lizard, preserved in alcohol, that had lived its entire life in trees in the Philippines.
Not far away, Rafe Brown, curator in charge of herpetology, held an aquatic forest frog — “one of the coolest frogs in the world” — taken from the jungles of the Solomon Islands.
Moyle said the work is vital to understanding questions about diversity and species limits.
“We need to know the implications of logging, mining and oil extraction and whether to disturb certain environments,” Moyle said.
Best College Reviews prefaced its rankings by saying that some schools are far more than classes and degrees —they are hubs of research, art and education.
“These museums are truly places where wonder meets science, and they allow us to marvel at our complexly beautiful planet,” the website said.
The list was chosen based on number of artifacts and specimens, opportunities for college students and community involvement. Also, the museums had to be open to the public.
Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, known for its fossils and Incan artifacts, was top ranked, followed by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and the Harvard University of Natural History.
Then came its KU section: “Tracing its roots back to 1864, when the Kansas legislature mandated that the University of Kansas compile a ‘cabinet of natural history,’ the Kansas University Natural History Museum has grown to include laboratories, student and faculty research areas, and collections storage for about 9 million living and fossil plants, animals, and about 1.5 million archaeological artifacts.”
But the KU bunch seemingly is too busy to be concerned about any ranking.
As Mark Robbins, the collection manager for ornithology who recently saw a Cameroon expedition delayed because of activity by the terrorist group Boko Haram, put it: “We care about the work.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182