2018 Ph.D. Graduate Profile: Allison Bronson

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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.

Allison Bronson (Richard Gilder Graduate School) in the field in Wyoming.
Allison Bronson collects Devonian fishes in Cottonwood Canyon, Wyoming, where she traveled with a group of paleobotanists from her alma mater, Humboldt State University, who were searching for early land plants.
K. Matsunaga

Allison Bronson can tell you the exact moment she chose her career path: she was 8 years old, standing in a salt marsh on a trip with her grandmother. She recalls, “A ray swam by my foot, and I thought, 'This is it! I’m going to be a shark scientist!'”           

Fast forward 20 years and Bronson has done just that, using cutting-edge techniques to study evolutionary relationships among ancient sharks and even identify a fossil once thought to be a plant as, more likely, a 70–85-million-year-old cartilaginous fish. Her innovative analyses using 3D reconstructions from high-resolution micro-CT scanning in the Museum’s Microscopy and Imaging Facility enabled her to visualize the cranial anatomy of living and fossil fishes, and reconstruct how ancient sharks moved their jaws when feeding.

Now teaching Introductory Zoology and an Ichthyology lab, and pursuing research at her undergraduate alma mater, Humboldt State University in northern California, Bronson first came to the Museum in 2013 as part of the Museum’s National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program. At the time, she worked with paleontologist John Maisey, now curator emeritus, who subsequently would become her doctoral advisor at the Richard Gilder Graduate School. 

The Museum’s doctoral program in Comparative Biology was a natural next step for her. “I love to work with collections, particularly holotypes or really old specimens I’ve recognized from figures or papers—seeing them in person never got old for me,” she says. “I liked the social environment of the Museum—the nerd paradise that is the American Museum of Natural History—and I liked that you can complete a Ph.D. (degree) in four years flat.”

Allison Bronson speaks from a podium, text is visible on the screen behind her and describes the evolution of fossil fishes.
Allison Bronson defends her doctoral thesis, “New Methods for Ancient Sharks: Anatomy and Fossil Chondrichthyans from North America,” on June 1, 2018 in the Museum’s Linder Theater.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

While a graduate student, Bronson also took advantage of unique opportunities for educational outreach, giving collections tours to students of all ages, explaining shark evolution for the children’s website OLogy, and answering questions about shark fossils for Museum audiences on Facebook Live. She was also one of the paleontologists featured in the "Six Extinctions in Six Minutes" episode of the Museum’s award-winning Shelf Life series, discussing the end-Devonian mass extinction about 360 million years ago and the giant placoderm Dunkleosteus that prowled the ancient oceans before the extinction event.