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Antonia Florio: Fieldwork and Furcifer Chameleons

Education posts

On September 30, 2013, the first graduates of the Richard Gilder Graduate School will receive Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Comparative Biology at the inaugural commencement for the program, the first Ph.D.-granting program for a museum in the Western hemisphere. This week, we're profiling the newly minted Ph.D.s. 

 

Among the first cohort of students to graduate from the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School, Antonia Florio spent her childhood in Queens, New York, “saving” flies that flew into her apartment; wanting to be a veterinarian; and just generally adoring living things. But after she volunteered in a vet’s office, she gravitated toward biological research instead.

Antonia Florio

Antonia Florio examines a Furcifer lateralis chameleon—one of the species she studied in Madagascar—in the Museum's Department of Herpetology.

© AMNH/D. Finnin


The class of 2008 valedictorian of the City College of New York (CUNY), where she was also a member of Macaulay Honors College, Florio first came to the Museum as an undergraduate on a National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Undergraduate Experience (REU). “That was the first time I realized that the Museum was more than a public space—it was also a research institution,” she says.

Florio returned as a graduate student in 2008, working closely with her adviser, Richard Gilder Graduate School Associate Professor Chris Raxworthy, who is an associate curator in the Department of Herpetology and has been traveling since 1985 to the island of Madagascar to study reptiles and amphibians. Though as an undergraduate Florio had studied beetles and fishes, she happily switched to chameleons, many species of which are found only on that island. Spending months doing fieldwork in Madagascar, she says, “I did so many things for the first time: catching a chameleon; speaking French; dealing with permits—in French!” Other fieldwork while at the Richard Gilder Graduate School included coursework studying parasites in Mexico with Mark Siddall, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology.

Carpet chameleon (Furcifer lateralis)

A beautiful Furcifer lateralis chameleon

Courtesy of Antonio Florio


But Furcifer lateralis, or the “carpet chameleon,” of Madagascar—so named for its color patterns resembling sumptuous Persian carpets—became her focus. For her dissertation, she used genetic, morphological, and environmental data in order to better understand how new species are formed.  She was also able to determine that the three species of Furcifer chameleons she’d studied in Madagascar, actually represented a complex of seven distinct species.

Antonia Florio

In Madagascar, Antonia Florio holds a "carpet chameleon" (Furcifer lateralis)

Courtesy of Antonia Florio


Today, Florio works at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center managing the Urban Barcode Project. She credits her experience as a teaching assistant while at the Richard Gilder Graduate School with helping give her the confidence to jump into developing her own curricula, facilitating high school students’ research, and teaching “nonstop.” Florio is also a research associate at the Museum. 

Read more profiles of the graduates on the Museum's blog.

Click here to read more about the Richard Gilder Graduate School. 

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