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IT trends spotted and checked by experts

CT facility head at the Natural History Museum

Dr Farah Ahmed is X-ray CT Facility Manager at the Natural History Museum in London. Farah received a BSc in Biomaterials Engineering and a PhD in Biophysics from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL)...


A scientific transformation with IT

18 Nov, 2013 08:50 am

The Natural History Museum is leading the way in analysing thousands of specimens with the latest IT. High end workstations with hundreds of gigabytes of RAM, combined with sophisticated software, enable us to transform how we research and preserve natural history.

The Natural History Museum, located in the heart of London, houses around 80 million specimens, including fossils, meteorites, plants, insects and many more. We also work with academics and researchers around the globe, many of whom request to use our IT or view our specimens.

In 2008, we introduced micro-CT technology, which is a versatile 3D X-ray scanning technique. The advanced viewing systems allow us to see specimens from every angle in a huge level of detail, transforming our scientific research.

Reaping the rewards

The technology offers huge benefits. Before we brought in the systems, we had to handle specimens, many of which were fragile. Additionally, we could never see the level of detail that we can now.

Micro-CT scanning is used for one hundred or so projects every year at the Natural History Museum and the range of applications is diverse. They can include everything from looking at fossils, to fine details on species in the wild today, as well as meteorites from planets such as Mars.

Academics around the world connect to us, in order to view the results of our scans and carry out their own research. Prior to introducing the technology, we had to send physical samples to them, but now we can scan the specimens and provide them with all of the detail and imagery they need over the internet.

Micro-CT also enables us to share our knowledge better with visitors. As we digitise our collection and also change our displays within the museum itself, we are able to present new information to the public. It is absolutely essential that we share this information quickly and provide all the detail people want to know.

The conservation of natural history is equally impacted by the systems. As we use micro-CT to allow regular analysis of items without having to handle them each time, we can preserve specimens better. We can also avoid destroying samples by cutting into them, which is something we previously had to do with certain specimens in order to study them. Additionally, we can monitor the impact of collection management techniques on specimens.

The technology

The IT that goes behind our research in this area is fascinating. We use high-powered gaming workstations, each with hundreds of gigabytes of RAM and several gigabytes of graphic cards. This hardware is connected to the micro-CT scanners themselves, and runs advanced software that enables us to extract the massive detail we need for our analysis. A file from any one scan can be well over 30 gigabytes in size.

We have software systems that are open source and others that are commercial, depending on the needs of our users at the museum and beyond. However, we tend to encourage the use of open systems in order to ensure that people can interact with each other as easily as possible.

Future research

We are seeing a change in demand in what people want to see. Some researchers desire to scan larger items at an even higher resolution, and we are fascinated by the technology that will enable this. Others want increasingly microscopic samples, even of soft tissue, to be scanned.

There is a variety of technology out there, and we are also interested in how optical imagery can be combined with micro-CT to produce more detailed research.

As micro-CT is increasingly used by other industries, such as by manufacturers that analyse parts, there is a fascinating future for the technology. We expect our usage at the Natural History Museum to grow further as we meet the demands of an information-hungry scientific and public community.

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