Ph.D. Profile: Lauren Oliver

Research posts

On October 24, the fifth cohort of graduates from the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School—the first Ph.D.-degree-granting program for any museum in the Western Hemisphere—will receive Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Comparative Biology at a commencement ceremony in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. We're profiling the soon-to-be minted Ph.D.s.

Coming from a family of chemists, Lauren Oliver recalls being introduced to microscopes and chemistry sets at a young age. Those weren’t the scientific tools, though, that held her interest.

“I was interested in animals,” she says.

 

Oliver holds a jar of specimens.

Oliver in the Museum’s Herpetology collections.

© L. Oliver


In the woods and streams near her childhood home in Alabama, Oliver would collect frogs, feeding them grass until she realized that probably wasn’t what they ate. 

“And I would always let them go,” she makes sure to point out.

As a freshman at Louisiana State University, she found her way to the school’s Museum of Natural Science, where she studied in the lab of herpetologist Chris Austin. From there, she quickly entered the world of academic (and field) research, doing lab work and publishing three research papers as an undergraduate, including her senior thesis examining hidden species diversity in a wide-ranging frog species from New Guinea, Mantophryne lateralis. 

While at the Richard Gilder Graduate School, she received a prestigious 3-year U.S. National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship, collaborated with Professor and Curator Chris Raxworthy, and traveled to New Guinea with support from a National Geographic Society “Young Explorers” grant for her to collect and observe frogs in the genus Papurana. The many species in this genus, similar to the North American leopard frog and bullfrog, range from a minuscule 30 millimeters long to as large as 160 millimeters, or just over six inches. The bigger example, known as the Arfak Mountains frog, is the largest frog species in New Guinea. 

 

Oliver stands in a stream, wearing rubber boots and carrying a net.

Oliver's work studying frogs in the field took her all over the world.

© L. Oliver


Wanting to get a comprehensive look at the Papurana, Oliver utilized other museums’ collections as well the Museum’s own extensive records. These include many specimens from the Museum’s pioneering 1930s expeditions to the interior of New Guinea, one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots, sponsored by Museum supporter Richard Archbold. Information from Archbold’s expeditions not only added to Oliver’s research, but also helped guide her to sites she could revisit decades later to collect further frog specimens.

 

Oliver stands outside holding an approximately 7 foot long snake.

Though she largely studies frogs, Oliver’s interests include other amphibians and reptiles, like this snake.

© L. Oliver


While analyzing her specimens’ morphology and genomic data – “I spent a lot of time at the Sackler Institute for Genomics,” she recalls – Oliver also served as an educator, advising students in the Museum’s Science Research and Mentorship Program and teaching laboratories for the Richard Gilder Graduate School’s core course on systematics.

After defending her dissertation, Oliver returned to the Gulf Coast, where she now is a biology instructor at Bishop State Community College, and she will soon publish new research on the remarkable diversity of Papurana frog species in New Guinea.