2014 Ph.D. Graduate Profile: Alejandro Grajales

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On October 27, the third cohort of graduates from the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School—the first Ph.D.-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 the soon-to-be minted Ph.D.s this week (read other profiles here, here, and here).

Alejandro Grajales’s love affair with the oceans started 22 miles off the Pacific coast of Colombia, on the island of Gorgona.

Florianopolis Brazil
Alejandro Grajales in Florianópolis, on the southeastern Atlantic coast of Brazil.
©Alejandro Grajales

Then in college, Grajales, who is receiving his Ph.D. in comparative biology from the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School on October 27, was taken on his first SCUBA dive by a group of friends.

Formerly, notes Grajales, Gorgona served as the “Colombian Alcatraz,” an island prison for potentially dangerous offenders.  But today it is a national park renowned for its endemic species, found nowhere else on Earth, and Grajales was fascinated by the invertebrates he saw on that first dive—even if the setting, particularly at night, was a bit eerie.

Sardina Italy
Grajales readies for a dive on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.
© Alejandro Grajales

Coming from a family of medical doctors, Grajales, who hails from Colombia, knew he would probably go into science. He studied the biology of corals in college and in graduate school at the Universidad de los Andes, in Bogotá, Colombia. But before coming to the Richard Gilder Graduate School, he conferred with Gilder Assistant Professor and Assistant Curator Estafania Rodriguez and decided to study the evolution of a related group of cnidarians: sea anemones within the genus Aiptasia.

Unspooling the seemingly complex pattern of relationships among species in this group became a goal of Grajales’s time in graduate school. In four years, Grajales travelled widely in pursuit of the sea anemones he studied. A National Science Foundation (NSF) grant brought him from seaside United Kingdom to Cape Verde, Africa, and from Spain to Israel. On each trip he, like many peripatetic researchers, would first telephone scientists working locally, who would often facilitate his research by helping him find boats to dive from and locate the best sites for finding important scientific specimens.

Sea anemone habitat in Florianópolis, Brazil
©Alejandro Grajales

In all, he visited 12 countries during nine field expeditions for his doctoral research. And, happily, his work proved fruitful— yielding many publications and revealing, for one thing, that “what was previously thought to be a group of species might in fact be a single widespread, potentially invasive species,” as Grajales wrote in a blog post about his graduate work on Nature.org.

This month, Grajales will travel once again from Colombia to New York to participate in the commencement ceremonies.