2018 Ph.D. Graduate Profile: Spencer Galen

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.

Spencer Galen and Ana Luz Porzecanski work at table preparing specimens, as the sky darkens over Alejandro de Humboldt National Park in Cuba.
Spencer Galen with Ana Luz Porzecanski, right, director of the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, on the Explore21 2015 expedition in Cuba.
P. Sweet

“I have always been a naturalist at heart,” says Spencer Galen, who, having completed his graduate studies at the Museum, is headed to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia where he’ll be a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow. “As a kid, I learned the names of all of the birds, butterflies, and dragonflies that lived in the forest behind my house. But birds were always my primary interest.”


Spencer Galen speaks to participants of the Museum Birdwalk as they walk through Central Park.
While a graduate student at the Museum, Spencer Galen leads The Metropolitan Society of Natural Historians on a spring bird walk through Central Park in May 2017.
MSNH/M. Chen

The focus of Galen’s master’s degree was the study of parasites infecting birds. So, when he decided to continue this research for his doctorate, he chose the Richard Gilder Graduate School specifically to work with Susan Perkins, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology and a leading expert in the evolutionary relationships of malaria parasites.

Working with Perkins as his principal advisor, Galen led a research analysis recently published as the most comprehensive Tree of Life to date for malaria parasites, generating some of the first genetic data for malaria species from poorly studied evolutionary lineages—such as those infecting deer, turtles, bats, and numerous species of birds—that were missing from previous analyses.


Spencer Galen prepares specimens at a small table, Humboldt National Park in Cuba is in view behind him.
Spencer Galen prepares materials to collect blood samples from birds and lizards during the Museum’s Explore21 2015 joint expedition with the Cuban National Museum of Natural History to Alejandro de Humboldt National Park in Cuba.
P. Sweet

In 2015, Galen participated in a joint expedition by the Museum and the Cuban National Museum of Natural History to Cuba's Alejandro de Humboldt National Park.

“I got to meet so many incredible Cuban scientists,” says Galen. “I feel that trip really open the opened the floodgates for sharing ideas, and I was excited to be a part of the beginning of a new era of collaboration.”

In 2016, he organized a trip with Paul Sweet, the Museum’s collections manager for the Department of Ornithology, to central Alaska, an expedition that led to another recently published paper integrating ecological and genetic data to identify species within the avian malaria parasite genus Leucocytozoon. But the field work also gave Galen a chance to savor other aspects of his childhood love: the outdoors.

“We drove the historic Denali Highway, a barren stretch of dirt road that cuts through the middle of Alaska that truly feels wild,” he says. “We spent those summer weeks watching moose, watching out for fresh grizzly bear tracks, and wondering when the sun would ever set. It never did!”