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Shaena Montanari: Studying Vertebrates and Paleoclimates at the Museum

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. Over the next week, we’ll profile the newly minted Ph.D.s.  

Growing up in Ridgefield, Connecticut, Shaena Montanari had always been interested in science, and she loved taking the train to New York to visit the Museum for field trips. When she returned to the Museum years later as a graduate student at the Richard Gilder Graduate School (RGGS) her research took her much farther from home—including to Mongolia’s Gobi desert—to uncover fossils of long-extinct animals.

Shaena Montanari

Shaena Montanari in Mongolia, 2010

Courtesy of Shaena Montanari


A member of RGGS’s first-ever class, which matriculated in 2008, Montanari used innovative techniques, including measuring the ratios of stable isotopes of carbon and oxygen in eggs, bones, and teeth of fossil vertebrates, in order to analyze the extinct animals’ diets and ecology, as well as nature of climates in which the animals had lived—known as paleoclimates.

As part of her degree studies, she conducted fieldwork in Wyoming; Canada; and, twice, in Mongolia, as part of the Museum’s annual expeditions to the Gobi desert, which started in the late 1910s under Museum fossil-hunter Roy Chapman Andrews and, after a hiatus due to political turmoil, resumed in 1990.

Shaena Montanari Mongolia 2 (2010)

In Mongolia, 2010

Courtesy of Shaena Montanari


“To be a part of the Gobi expedition is a huge honor,” says Montanari, though the way she joined the trip was fairly low-key. “During my first year,” she says, her advisor and chair of the Division of Paleontology “Mark Norell stopped by the student lounge and asked me, ‘So, do you want to go to Mongolia?' …”

While there, Montanari collected oviraptorid dinosaur eggshell-fragments and teeth from a famed fossil locality called Bayn Dzak (the Flaming Cliffs) to examine stable isotope ratios in these 80-million-year-old fossils. Because Montanari’s technique is to grind portions of the fossils to conduct her research, she collects broken pieces, not intact specimens.

In addition to time spent in the field, says Montanari, “I’ve learned so much—and grown leaps and bounds!” A grantsmanship course—required for all students—provided hands-on structural help for writing and improving grant applications and scientific articles. (While a graduate student, Montanari received the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship.) “From the day we got there, the faculty emphasized writing—how to write papers, apply for grants,” says Montanari, who published several research papers while in school.

Shaena Montanari in Paleo collections

Montanari inspects a dinosaur fossil in the Museum's paleontology collections

© AMNH/R. Mickens


Today, Montanari, who defended her dissertation in September 2012, is a Columbia Science Fellow in the department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University in New York City. She also writes about paleontology for PLOS (Public Library of Science) blogs and is a visiting postdoctoral researcher at the Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics.

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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