At School in the Museum

Email a Friend

Joel Cracraft, a curator of ornithology, teaching an evolution class.

Students studying to become biologists usually go straight from college to a masters or Ph.D. program at a university. But the American Museum of Natural History is offering them another route. It recently became the first museum in the country accredited to award its own Ph.D.

Zach Baldwin’s walk through school isn’t anything like what the typical graduate student encounters.

"So now we’re going through the hall of birds, birds of the world," he says.

We’re on the second floor of the American Museum of Natural History, passing the famous dioramas of mounted birds in scenes of their native habitats. Groups of school children and tourists gape in awe at King Penguins and Andean Condors with their dramatic wingspans. "It takes a while to get to know the way around," says Baldwin.

This is Baldwin's morning commute. His classrooms are up on the fifth floor, in the newly renovated Richard Gilder Graduate School. But his research office is downstairs in the ichthyology department. Baldwin studies fish.

"You don’t see these every day," he says, pulling out a bottle.

Zach Baldwin holding a black dragonfish caught in the Pacific Ocean.

No, you don’t. Baldwin is interested in deep sea fish that glow in the dark. There are dozens upon dozens of bottles in his office containing all different kinds of these bioluminescent fish. He pulls a long, black dragon fish out of a jar filled with preservatives. It resembles a small eel. Baldwin is studying exactly how these glow-in-the-dark fish evolved. "Everything’s just bizarre," he says, describing the different types. "Big teeth, big eyes, small eyes, big fins, small fins, weird body shapes. It’s just kind of an interesting group. I mean every time I look under the microscope I just think, that’s cool."

Baldwin is among nine students in the American Museum of Natural History’s graduate school. He came here in the fall of 2008 with the very first class, straight after getting his bachelors degree at the University of Washington. He says he didn’t even consider regular universities because they wouldn’t have the museum’s two million specimens of fish. "It’s nice having everything kind of centralized, you don’t have to go find stuff," he notes. "We have an awesome library here, there’s actually a library in ichthyology, too, right across the hall, there’s three labs, it’s just every thing you need is at your fingertips."

Zach Baldwin holding a black dragonfish caught in the Pacific Ocean.

Those resources are what spurred the museum to create its own graduate school, says John Flynn. He’s a curator of fossil mammals and dean of the new school. "We have more than 30 million objects that form the basis for all kinds of research programs," he says. "There are thousands and thousands of Ph.D. theses that can be done on the collections that we have here."

Universities often collaborate with museums. Students from Columbia , NYU, and CUNY have long been able study at the Museum of Natural History while working on their degrees. But no American museum has ever awarded its own doctorate. The museum received full accreditation by the state last fall. At a time when scientists have cracked the human genome and can take a deeper look at evolution, Flynn says there’s a growing need for students trained in the museum’s own specialty: comparative biology.

"There are a lot of researchers who might study the mouse or the frog or the fruit fly, where they’re trying to understand in detail how one organism or one system might work," Flynn explains. "What our students will be doing is looking at all of the mice that might exist on the planet, maybe living and fossil, all of the fruit flies, all of the frogs. So we take a much broader sort of perspective than research that’s often done in other kinds of institutions."

The Museum’s nine graduate students come from all over the country, as well as Colombia, England, and France.

Shaena Montanari is from Connecticut and did her undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina in only three years. Studying in the museum means she can spend her time exploring dinosaur fossils prepared by a professional who drills carefully through layers of rock.

During her first year at the museum, Montanari got to dig for dinosaurs in Mongolia. "This is what I always wanted to do, and I knew it. I was always working in labs and doing internships and researching during the summer, and just doing whatever I could to learn more."

Shaena Montanari holding a Velociraptor claw from Mongolia. She’s studying paleontology.

Natural history museums were common on university campuses more than a hundred years ago. But many schools abandoned their collections in the 20th century.

Those in the field say the American Museum of Natural History is uniquely positioned to launch its own graduate school. It’s considered the only institution with the collections and fundraising muscle to pull off such an ambitious endeavor. The museum raised $50 million from four donors to launch the Gilder Graduate School.

Warren Allmon is Director of the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, a natural history museum affiliated with Cornell. He’s intrigued by the new graduate program. "If it succeeds and turns out really high quality students over its first few years then I think everybody’s going to say ‘wow, great idea,’" he explains. "If it generates students of the same quality or lesser quality of other programs then people will say they have a lot of money, they’re generating more students, that’s a good thing but it’s not going to really change the way any other institution does things."

There are questions about whether students studying at a museum will be exposed to the same broad range of scientists and perspectives they’d find at a university. But the Museum of Natural History students are encouraged to take classes at Columbia and CUNY. And evolutionary biologists agree the museum will fill a niche by training more scientists who can classify and identify species during a period of climate change and extinction.

Joel Cracraft is a bird curator at the Museum of Natural History. He’s teaching evolution this semester. "For many of us, it’s just keeping up with the science world that is just going crazy in terms of publication and trying to keep up with it is really, really difficult," he explains. "Teaching helps us, I think a lot, intellectually, especially with very good students like we have here."

Edward Stanley is holding a preserved Cordylus Giganteus, a large girdled lizard with rough yellow skin that is found in South Africa. This one was stored in a bottle.

And for those intrigued by strange and beautiful creatures, the American Museum of Natural History is the place. Student Edward Stanley, 27, gets to work in the herpetology department, where a giant Komodo dragon is immersed in what looks like a metal casket. We walk past bottles of snakes to get to his section and he says, "Usually the lights are all off in here so if you’re coming in late at night or after everyone else leaves you have to kind of wander in the dark to turn the lights on. It’s a terrifying experience."

Stanley is studying a family of spiky lizards from South Africa. Being here, he says, can’t possibly compare to a regular university program. "It’s an amazing experience," he says. "Interviewing here was great and seeing all these big old cabinets filled with thousands and thousands of really interesting and amazing creatures. Who’s seen these things? It’s just amazing, amazing opportunities."

Opportunities scientists in this competitive field will surely be paying attention to as these first museum-based students complete their doctorates in a couple of years.

Zach Baldwin is studying bioluminescent fish, which glow in the dark. He has access to the museum’s whole collection of specimens. Above he is standing in the Ichthyology library.