Ph.D. Graduate Profile: Anna Holden main content.

Ph.D. Graduate Profile: Anna Holden

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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.

Anna Holden (Richard Gilder Graduate School student) in the field.
Anna Holden searches leaf litter near the James River in Virginia for earth-boring dung beetles (Geotrupidae).
A.V. Evans

A serendipitous trip as a child to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., set Anna Holden on a path to a career in Quaternary entomology, the study of insects from about 2.6 million years ago to the present.

Armed with a combined B.A. degree in biology and studio arts and a master’s degree in museum studies, Holden worked at numerous museums before arriving at the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School as a Ph.D. student in 2014. “Not only did the Gilder School have the facilities, material resources, and curators—just beyond extensive support—the program allowed me to develop my own path,” says Holden.

Anna Holden wears a headlamp to investigate specimens drawn to a hanging sheet.
At the same field site in Virginia, Anna Holden points to numerous insects drawn to a night light sheet.
A.V. Evans

As a doctoral candidate at the Museum, she conducted research on fossil and modern beetles at Rancho La Brea Tar Pits—one of the world’s richest Late Pleistocene-to-Holocene fossil sites—that revealed that the climate and ecosystem of pre-historic Los Angeles likely was very similar to modern environments today. Among her results: the finding, based on generating high-precision radiocarbon dates and analyzing an extensive amount of fossil insects from the tar deposits, that southern California’s climate has been relatively stable for at least 50,000 years except during the Last Glacial Maximum approximately 26,000 to 19,000 years ago.

Anna Holden stands near fungus growing from a tree, holding a jar to capture fly specimens.
Holden collects fungus-eating flies in California’s Berkeley Hills.
J. Gross

In graduate school, Holden’s advisor and co-advisor were Peter J. Solomon Family Curator James Carpenter and Division Chair in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology and Curator Ross MacPhee in the Division of Vertebrate Zoology, and she was closely mentored on her insect faunal work by Quaternary entomologist Dr. Scott Elias from Royal Holloway, London.

Now, as project manager for the African Natural History Research Trust, she is applying her skills as a Quaternary research scientist to target the best places to study African insect biodiversity and conserve critical habitats that are rapidly disappearing. “Science is a team sport,” Holden says. “I just love the collaborative nature of what I do.”