Luke Tornabene
SAFS assistant professor and Burke Museum ichthyology curator Luke Tornabene.

In 2017, University of Washington ichthyologist Luke Tornabene was inside a small submersible called Idabell near the island of Roatan, Honduras. Sitting next to him were a masters’ student in his lab named Rachel Manning, and a pilot. They were collecting samples of marine life 550 feet deep when they spotted an unfamiliar bright blue and yellow fish.

“We knew it was something new before we even got it into the collection tube,” Tornabene says, excitement still clear in his voice. “You can hear us on the recording yelling, ‘Get it! Get it!’” They were right: it was a new species of reef fish, which they dubbed Lipogramma idabeli.

Collecting samples aboard one of only two research submersibles in the Caribbean is a special opportunity for any student of fish biology. But when your professor is also the ichthyology curator at one of the premiere natural history museums in the country, it’s just one of many perks. Tornabene’s dual role as an assistant professor in the College of the Environment’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and curator of the ichthyology collection at the Burke Museum of History and Culture gives his undergraduate and graduate students unique access to the largest collection of preserved fish specimens in North America—currently around 13.5 million—as well as the chance to put that experience to use in the field.

Founded in 1885 by an enthusiastic group of young naturalists, the Burke Museum was eventually designated the Washington State Museum. Today, it’s the oldest of its kind in the state, with a collection of over 16 million artifacts and specimens spanning geology, biology and anthropology.

Specimens at the fish library.

Of 12 Burke curators, Tornabene is the only one in the College of the Environment; 11 are faculty of the College of Arts & Sciences. His domain is housed in a separate building just south of the main museum: 13.5 million preserved fish specimens from around the world, from steel tanks filled with preserved sharks to one of the largest collections of fish eggs and larvae in the world. “We are definitely the largest in terms of the most specimens,” he says, “the ‘Bulk of the Burke.’” (The total number of objects in the Burke’s collection is 16 million.)

Tornabene’s multi-part role keeps him busy supporting the ichthyology collection’s mission to promote both teaching and research. On one hand he supervises the management of the world-class collection as curator, making sure his staff of half a dozen or so undergrads “keeps the lights on and the museum running.” He also oversees the addition of 5,000 or so specimens every year, including a few thousand he and students collect personally.

As a professor, Tornabene is tasked with ensuring students are able to take full advantage of the museum’s resources. He teaches a fish biology class, for example, where students tour the collection and use specimens in their labs. Tornabene supervises graduate research and study abroad courses that draw on the experience of other Burke curators. One study abroad course he runs with Holly Barker, Curator for Oceanic and Asian Culture, has students using the ichthyology collection to examine links between human culture and marine biology before heading to Tonga and American Samoa.

Other fish biology students work with the Burke’s educational and public outreach events, including hosting school groups and other visitors (over 100,000 people visit the Burke every year). Early this year, a new exhibit at the museum will give visitors a peek at four curators’ research projects. One of these will feature two models of the Idabell and a few preserved specimens it helped collect—including a very special blue and yellow fish.