SCIENCE AT THE MUSEUM: EXPLORATION AND DISCOVERY (continued)
Over this period of spectacular scientific achievement, the Museum has played a leading role in exploration, discovery, and theoretical advances in the natural sciences. Central to these efforts has been the accumulation of one of the world's great Museum collections. In the 1870s, the Museum's quarters on Manhattan Square contained a mixed assortment that suggested rather inauspicious beginnings for the fledgling institution. These included a few thousand shells, beetles, and bird skins, 16 specimens of algae, a stuffed dodo and badger, one mummified crocodile, and a mammoth tooth-a far cry from the extraordinary 32 million specimens and artifacts under Museum stewardship today. The growth of these collections, and the research and publications they have inspired, derived from a formidable commitment to world exploration that continues to this day. The period encompassing the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a golden age of exploration for the Museum, highlighted by the Boas anthropological expeditions to study the indigenous cultures of Northwest America and Siberia, Barnum Brown's series of dramatic discoveries of dinosaurs from the American West, Roy Chapman Andrews's 1920s expeditions to the Gobi, and many more. This era of great discovery was the legacy of the next. Expeditions set out for many remote regions of the world, including the Congo Basin of Africa, central Asian deserts, and isolated islands of the Pacific. Among these, the Carl Akeley expeditions to Africa produced a comprehensive record of ecosystems that are showcased in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, perhaps the greatest diorama representations of nature ever created.
This era of discovery pertained not only to field exploration. The Museum was a leader in forging new theories on the way we look at cultures, biological organisms, and indeed the very evolution of life. Highlights of this theoretical thrust include the emergence of modern anthropology between 1900 and 1940, first through the work of Franz Boas and later Margaret Mead, Boas's famous student who became a Museum curator. The 1940s also saw a refashioning of Darwinian evolutionary theory into a synthesis that embraced genetics, paleontology, ecology, and taxonomy. This confluence was largely due to a collaboration involving two Museum curators, Ernst Mayr and George Simpson, and the Columbia University geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. In the 1970s and 1980s the Museum fostered vanguard approaches to deciphering the branching patterns of evolutionary relationships among organisms. The Museum's leadership in this area promoted a revolution in the field of systematics, the science that deals with the recognition of relationships among species and their arrangement in classifications, and these advances significantly transformed research areas that extend from paleontology to comparative molecular biology.
Today, science at the American Museum of Natural History thrives and expands on these earlier accomplishments. The work of scientific research, training, laboratory work, and collections management concern more than 200 scientific personnel, including more than 40 tenure-track curators. The museum's doctoral training program, which connects with five universities (Yale, Cornell, Columbia, and New York universities and the City University of New York), represents the largest and most diversified program of its kind offered by any unaffiliated museum. The collections and research assets are cultivated by continued exploration-over 100 expeditions and field projects annually. A critical resource for the scientific effort is the Museum's Library. With over 400,000 volumes, it is one of the great natural history libraries in the world.
These achievements notwithstanding, the Museum continues, as science advances, to be vigilant about its effectiveness. Perhaps no human enterprise can shock and enlighten us and change our sense of ourselves and the universe like scientific discovery. In the late 1990s the Museum established new programs and directions in order to enhance the quality and competitiveness of its scientific research, develop new multidisciplinary endeavors, and improve databasing, access, and care of the scientific collections and library holdings. Some of these newer developments include the following.
The Institute for Comparative Genomics
For over a decade, the Museum has fostered pacesetting research on the genetic makeup of a great diversity of species. Such research allows scientists to map the evolutionary relationships among organisms and use that knowledge for applications that include developing an understanding of infectious diseases. In order to effectively organize and build upon these remarkable gains in gene research, the Museum established in spring 2001 the Institute for Comparative Genomics, coincident with the opening of the very popular exhibition The Genomic Revolution.
The Museum and the Institute's approach considers the 3.8-billion-year history of life as a grand biological experiment, an experiment whose observation requires the integration of molecular, anatomical, and paleontological data. That effort has now become the focus for more than 40 research staff. The Institute will coalesce our efforts in databasing, research, collections, curation, and training in the field of non-human comparative genomics.
The Division of Physical Sciences and a new astrophysics research program
In 1999 the Museum reorganized its ten scientific departments into five divisions (Anthropology, Paleontology, Invertebrate Zoology, Vertebrate Zoology, and Physical Sciences) in order to more effectively foster multidisciplinary research and strategic initiatives. One of these divisions, Physical Sciences, combined a very productive, well-established Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences with a new department devoted to astrophysics. Both these research programs are the foundation for the scientific messages powerfully displayed in the exhibition halls of the Frederick Phineas & Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space: the David S. and Ruth L. Gottesmann Hall of Planet Earth, the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Hall of the Universe, the Hayden Planetarium, the Scales of the Universe, and the Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway. The scientific staff in astrophysics carries out research based on ground- and space-based telescope observation, computational modeling of star formation and extraterrestrial impacts, and star surveys based on enormous astrophysics databases such as the Digital Galaxy.
The C. V. Starr Natural Science Building
Coincident with the Februrary 2000 opening of the Rose Center for Earth and Space was the completion of the C. V. Starr Natural Science Building. This eight-story facility, now part of the Museum's interconnected campus of buildings, provides 21,500 square feet of secure, climate-controlled compact storage for collections of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, invertebrates, and vertebrate fossils (primarily the Museum's superb and valuable dinosaur collection). The Starr building also adds 2,000 square feet of state-of-the-art laboratory space for electron microscopy, digital imaging, and other functions.
The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation
The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC) was established in 1993 to enhance the rigorous use of scientific data to mitigate critical threats to global biodiversity. Highly successful CBC programs include field surveys, training programs, policy recommendation, and conservation action in Vietnam, Madagascar, Bolivia, and other areas where unusual and valuable communities of animals, plants, and other organisms are under serious threat from human activity. The Center is developing, with substantial assistance from the National Science Foundation (NSF), exportable models for biodiversity research and training. Another NSF award funds the Center's coordination of a multifaceted study of threatened coral reef systems in the Bahamas. Several leading universities and research institutions are partners in this study. The Center also convenes an annual series of spring symposia on topics that have included human-induced extinction, urban sprawl, biodiversity and medicine, conservation genetics, and marine ecosystems.
Anthropology and cultural studies
The great traditions and advances achieved by the Museum's anthropological research are being upheld and transformed in ways that are responsive to the new challenges in understanding both the history and the dynamic interrelationships of world cultures. Three of the Division of Anthropology's eight curators have been elected members of the National Academy of Sciences, in recognition of their leadership in important aspects of the field. The recent recruitment of a leading anthropologist whose work focuses on social structures, traditions, and histories in native North America represents the Museum's commitment to maintaining both a scholarly and a cultural connection with diverse Native American groups. As part of its strategic planning, the Museum is forming a Center for Cultural Studies to augment its role as both a leader and a convener for research and dialogue on cultural globalization, human activity and environmental stewardship, and intercultural cooperation and conflict.
Paleontological exploration and research
Current research in paleontology builds on one of the oldest scholarly programs in the Museum's history. Recent years have seen a revival of the earlier golden age of exploration, highlighted by the discovery of one of the world's richest fossil sites, in the Gobi Desert, by a joint Museum/Mongolian Academy of Sciences team. That site, Ukhaa Tolgod, is one of the world's richest sites for dinosaurs, archaic mammals, lizards, and other vertebrates.
Another major accomplishment has been the recent collaborative research on the extraordinary fossils of feathered dinosaurs and furred mammals from 100-million-year-old rock sequences in northern China. Field expeditions targeting dinosaurs, fossil mammals, lizards, turtles, fish, ammonites, trilobites, brachiopods, and fossil mollusks are currently underway in western North America, central Asia, northern Africa, Brazil, Patagonian Argentina, the Falkland Islands, Australia, the polar regions, and many other locales. Complementing this field program is influential research in theory and method concerning interpretations of the fossil record and their bearing on our understanding of evolution and of relationships among species.
New directions in vertebrate zoology
The science that concerns the more familiar organisms and the species more closely related to us in the tree of life is vertebrate zoology, which studies the backboned animals-fishes, sharks and rays, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The new Division of Vertebrate Zoology was established to bring together diverse specialists in these groups. In recent years, several major collections of vertebrates have been completely catalogued in computer databases, which greatly improves access, organization, and analysis. With the completion of computer cataloguing of the bird collection, the Museum will be able to offer a vertebrate computer database of unprecedented scope, a digital record of over 3.5 million specimens. As many vertebrate species represent critical or "keystone" species in the world's ecosystems, this database will have significant applications in evolutionary and systematic biology, ecology, and conservation. On other fronts, the Museum's vertebrate zoologists have conducted field sampling and analyses of the fascinating and unique animal communities in Madagascar, the Amazon rain forest, the South American Andes, central Africa, Southeast Asia, and many more. Working in collaboration with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, Museum vertebrate zoologists have marshaled evidence important to understanding and securing endangered species and habitats. These include comprehensive studies of fishes in rare freshwater ecosystems, and efforts in conservation genetics on endangered species of birds, carnivores (such as tigers), and whales.
Exploring the vast diversity of the invertebrates
Non-vertebrate animals represent the majority of all organisms identified and recorded in Earth's biota. Insects alone account for roughly one million of the 1.6 million organisms thus far named by science. Through the 20th century, Museum research on invertebrates assembled and developed a large number of important monographs, as well as some of the world's premier collections of termites, true bugs, beetles, moths, butterflies, bees, true flies, spiders, mollusks, crustaceans, and echinoderms. Recent developments include the assembly of a world-class collection of amber, which preserves fossil insects and other organisms in extraordinary detail. Invertebrate Zoology curators are also responsible for the launching of the Museum's new frozen tissue collection, The Ambrose Monell Collection for Molecular and Microbial Research, a key resource of the Institute for Comparative Genomics.
Another major accomplishment is the synthetic study of the major evolutionary relationships of insects and their arthropod relatives that incorporates a mass of data on DNA sequences and morphology of living and fossil species. This effort requires high-speed massive computation with the Museum's new cluster computer facility. Invertebrate specialists have also received significant NSF support for work on diverse threatened groups of species for which there is very little expertise. Included here are leeches, whose biology and evolution have important implications for medicine in the development of anti-coagulants and tumor inhibitors. Recent work on mollusks in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas is critical to understanding the dynamic evolution of these endangered ecosystems, an important scientific foundation for conservation action. Finally, gene studies of development and phylogeny in model organisms, such as the much-studied species of drosophilids, the fruit flies, offer new insights into understanding gene function and evolution.
Digitization of the Library collections
With the appointment of the Harold Boeschenstein Director of Library Services and the support of a major grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Museum has embarked on an ambitious program to digitize a significant portion of its massive holdings. The goal of this program is to effectively integrate digital information on text, illustrations, maps, and other objects with the vast storehouse of information of the Museum's collections. The first phase of the project is focused on the Museum's significant and well-known expeditions to western and central Africa and the resultant biological and cultural studies. This is intended as a demonstration project that will spawn tools useful in a broad range of efforts to integrate, organize, and improve access to natural history databases. The Library's digital database will benefit researchers worldwide, and particularly in the developing world, where access to such information is severely limited.
The above are only a sample of the initiatives currently underway at the Museum that are intended to define the institution's leadership in 21st-century science. This is a time of unprecedented disclosure of the secrets of the gene, the biota, and the history and workings of the earth, the planets, and the universe. Technologies in computation, imaging, genomics, and comparative biology that are now readily adopted in Museum science seemed more like alchemy only a few years ago. Traditional assumptions about the history and interactions of humankind are broadly disarmed by the changing modern world of cultural interrelationships. And now, as never before, the kind of science fostered by the Museum is needed to define effective stewardship for Earth's eroding natural environments. In these exciting and challenging times, the Museum will continue to seize extraordinary opportunities to transform our scientific vision into meaningful results, a strategy that has served the Museum throughout its history.
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