2018 Ph.D. Graduate Profile: Adolfo Lara

by AMNH on

Education posts

On October 1, the seventh 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 these soon-to-be Ph.D.s.


Adolfo Lara (Richard Gilder Graduate School) examines a specimen in a jar.
Adolfo Lara does a visual inspection of an anemone specimen from the Museum’s invertebrate zoology collection.
A. Wartelle

Growing up, Adolfo Lara thought he wanted to become a physician or work for NASA, two careers he saw on popular television shows. But when he entered college—the first in his family to do so—he discovered another path after a friend asked him to help out in a microbiology lab.

“I wasn’t aware there was this whole other world of being a scientist for people to pursue,” he says. “There was no TV show for that!”

This was the beginning of his journey into the field of evolutionary biology. As an undergraduate, Lara used DNA markers and entire genomes to study a plant pathogen that kills grape plants, a problem for the wine industry. As an intern at a health center, he studied retinal neurons and also mast cells in search of therapeutic allergy drugs for people with respiratory diseases. And while still a student at the University of Houston-Downtown, Adolfo participated in the Museum’s summer Research Experience for Undergraduates program, undertaking research with Associate Curator Estefanía Rodríguez in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology to help describe two new species of deep-sea anemones using well-established descriptive techniques and developing novel DNA markers unique to anemones.


Adolfo Lara (Richard Gilder Graduate School) stands in a lab at the Museum of Natural History, and looks at a slide.
A microscope slide of anemone tissue in a histology lab at the Museum allows Adolfo Lara to examine stinging cell secretions, called nematocysts, used for species level identification of anemones. 
A. Paasch

In 2013, he entered the Richard Gilder Graduate School’s doctoral program—during which he was selected by the National Science Foundation for its prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program—with Rodríguez as his Ph.D.-degree advisor and Curator Rob DeSalle, also in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, as his co-advisor. While working on his dissertation, Lara drew on his prior work in genomics, neurobiology, and evolution to ask and resolve innovative questions about the nervous systems of cnidarians, the group that includes sea anemones and jellyfish, with a view to use better reconstructions of the ancestral condition of neurological processing in animals to enhance understanding of complex brains like those in humans.


Adolfo Lara (Richard Gilder Graduate School) stands at a podium at the American Museum of Natural History.
While a doctoral candidate, Adolfo Lara explains his research to members of the Museum’s Junior Council at an event in LeFrak Theater.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Taking advantage of the Richard Gilder Graduate School’s novel curriculum, Lara also took part in a variety of educational outreach efforts, from a speed-science event at which he showcased Museum research and collections to a Facebook Live broadcast. It is important, he says, to share your enthusiasm for your work and inspire the next generation of scientists: “As someone once said, ‘Passion makes everything contagious.’ And it makes it fun!”