2013 Ph.D. Graduate Profile: Antonia Florio

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Antonia Florio spent her childhood in Queens, New York, “saving” flies that flew into her apartment.

She generally adored living things, and though she wanted to be a veterinarian, she eventually gravitated toward biological research instead.

Antonia Florio
Antonia Florio examines a Furcifer lateralis chameleon—one of the species she studied in Madagascar—in the Museum's Department of Herpetology.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

The class of 2008 valedictorian of the City College of New York (CUNY), where she was also a member of Macaulay Honors College, Florio first came to the Museum as an undergraduate on a National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Undergraduate Experience (REU). “That was the first time I realized that the Museum was more than a public space—it was also a research institution,” she says.

Florio returned as a graduate student in 2008, working closely with her adviser, Richard Gilder Graduate School Associate Professor Chris Raxworthy, who is an associate curator in the Department of Herpetology and has been traveling since 1985 to the island of Madagascar to study reptiles and amphibians. Though as an undergraduate Florio had studied beetles and fishes, she happily switched to chameleons, many species of which are found only on that island. Spending months doing fieldwork in Madagascar, she says, “I did so many things for the first time: catching a chameleon; speaking French; dealing with permits—in French!” Other fieldwork while at the Richard Gilder Graduate School included coursework studying parasites in Mexico with Mark Siddall, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology.

Carpet chameleon (Furcifer lateralis)
A beautiful Furcifer lateralis chameleon
Courtesy of Antonio Florio

But Furcifer lateralis, or the “carpet chameleon,” of Madagascar—so named for its color patterns resembling sumptuous Persian carpets—became her focus. For her dissertation, she used genetic, morphological, and environmental data in order to better understand how new species are formed.  She was also able to determine that the three species of Furcifer chameleons she’d studied in Madagascar, actually represented a complex of seven distinct species.

Antonia Florio
In Madagascar, Antonia Florio holds a "carpet chameleon" (Furcifer lateralis)
Courtesy of Antonia Florio

Today, Florio works at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center managing the Urban Barcode Project. She credits her experience as a teaching assistant while at the Richard Gilder Graduate School with helping give her the confidence to jump into developing her own curricula, facilitating high school students’ research, and teaching “nonstop.” Florio is also a research associate at the Museum. 

On September 30, 2013, the first graduates of the Richard Gilder Graduate School will receive Doctor of Philosophy received degrees in Comparative Biology at the inaugural commencement for the program, the first Ph.D.-granting program for a museum in the Western hemisphere. We profile the newly minted Ph.D.s:

John Denton | Bryan Falk | Antonia Florio | Shaena Montanari | Edward Stanley | Isabelle Vea