Digital Environment for Sample Curation (DESC)

Shared Cyberinfrastructure for Earth Science Sample Collections


What is DESC?

DESC is a multi-institutional initiative to build a shared, community-driven, and open-source system that will provide a comprehensive cyberinfrastructure for sample collections to catalog and manage physical samples and connect them to digital information infrastructures.


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What are DESC's objectives?

DESC aims to dramatically advance access to physical samples for the research community, government agencies, students, educators, and the general public on the internet, while supporting, simplifying, and standardizing the work of curators in a wide range of repositories, museums, and universities, and even for individual investigators who are managing personal or project-based sample collections in the lab. The DESC system will facilitate the creation, identification, and registration of ‘virtual samples’ that can be networked into an ‘Internet of Samples’ and that will allow to discover, access, and track online physical samples, the data derived by their study, and the publications that contain these data. DESC will provide efficient, easy-to-use software tools for curators in a highly integrated architecture to maintain digital catalogs of their collections, to provide online access to the catalog for users to search for and request samples, manage sample requests and users, track collection usage and impact


Click here to take the DESC Survey about data management and sample curation challenges


Rationale for DESC

Many sample repositories are keen to use cyberinfrastructure capabilities to provide access to their collections on the internet and to support and streamline collection management (accessioning of new samples, labeling, handling sample requests, etc.), but encounter substantial challenges and barriers to bring their collections online and to integrate digital sample management into their daily routine:

  • They lack the resources (staff, funding) and infrastructure (hardware, software, IT support) to develop and operate web-enabled, searchable databases.
  • They lack resources to migrate analog sample records into digital data management systems, and to transfer paper- or spreadsheet-based workflows to electronic systems.
  • Use of commercial software for sample curation is often not an option as it incurs high costs for purchasing licenses, requires IT expertise for installation and maintenance, is not web-enabled, and often does not match the needs of the smaller repositories, being designed for large museums or different types of collections (art, archeological, biological).

In order to overcome these obstacles, a group of curators of major NSF-funded repositories, of data centers and facilities such SESAR@IEDA and NGDC@NOAA, and representatives of the US State Geological Surveys (AAGS) and the USGS has over the past few years developed the idea of DESC as a jointly governed, centrally operated and maintained cyberinfrastructure for repositories and collections that develops and maintains software tools needed to support collection management and online presence.


Project Status

An initial group of partners has been funded by NSF's Office of Cyberinfratsructure to lead the development of a community-driven, consensus-based requirements document and implementation plan for DESC. This initial group brings together expertise and resources required to efficiently and effectively plan and prepare the development and future operation of DESC:

Other institutions that have expressed their interest to participate and contribute to requirements gathering include:

  • University of Hawaii School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology,
  • University of Rhode Island Marine Geological Samples Laboratory,
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Seafloor Samples Laboratory and Sample Repository for the Global Rivers Observatories
  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography Collections, University of California San Diego,
  • Ohio State University US Polar Rock Repository,
  • Florida State University Antarctic Marine Geology Research Facility,
  • Strouds Water Research Center,
  • USGS
    • Denver Core Research Center
    • Menlo Park Marine Geology Sample Repository
    • Woods Hole East Coast Geological Sample Repository
    • National Ice Core Laboratory
  • National Geophysical Data Center Index to Marine and Lacustrine Geological Samples.


Click here to take the DESC Survey about data management and sample curation challenges