2015 Ph.D. Graduate Profile: Eugenia Gold

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Later this afternoon, the latest 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 new Ph.D.s prior to commencement, and today we introduce paleontologist Eugenia Gold. 

Woman at specimen lockers, paleontologist Eugenia Gold.
Ph.D. candidate Eugenia Gold, pictured here in the Museum's collections.
© AMNH/E. Gold

Eugenia Gold can’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t fascinated by dinosaurs. 

“I have liked them since the first memories I have,” she says. “When I was a kid, they started finding all these new dinosaurs in China and in South America.”

Growing up in Maryland, Gold would receive newspaper clippings of the latest South American fossil finds from her relatives in Argentina. Geographically close or not, everyone in her family could see that Eugenia’s passionate interest in dinosaurs was not just a phase.

Guided by this interest, she sought out ways to study dinosaurs in school. During high school the chances were few, but she later began research with paleontology professors in the College Park Scholars program at the University of Maryland. From there, she headed westward to complete a master’s degree at the University of Iowa. When she learned she had been accepted to continue her studies in the Museum’s doctoral program, she recalls, “I was ecstatic!”

Gold worked in Mongolia's Flaming Cliffs, one of the world's most famous fossil deposits.
© AMNH/E. Gold

While at the Richard Gilder Graduate School (RGGS), Gold worked with advisor Mark Norell, Macaulay Curator of Paleontology and chair of the Division of Paleontology, traveling with him for three weeks on one of the Museum’s famed summer expeditions to the Gobi desert of Mongolia. A storied locale for dinosaur paleontology—the first dinosaur eggs known to science were discovered there by Museum legend Roy Chapman Andrews in 1923—the rocky, open plains of the Gobi still yield treasures for paleontologists.

It was there that Gold unearthed a nest of dinosaur eggs and found a large deposit of sauropod dinosaurs, related to the lineage that gave rise to modern birds. For her it was a magical trip, combining everything Gold appreciates about nature: “camping out, building campfires, finding fossils.”

Back at the Museum, she continued to study dinosaurs, with a focus on their brains. Using various "landmarks" revealed by CT scans of the braincases of fossil theropods and their modern bird descendants, Gold was able to determine how dinosaur and bird brains evolved in size and shape over time. This research formed the basis for a portion of her dissertation, which will be published in the coming year.

“We see an expansion of the forebrain as we get closer [in evolutionary time] to birds,” she says. The brains also become more S-shaped instead of linear, in order to fit those larger forebrains—which are necessary for flight—into the skulls. 

Today, Gold is teaching human anatomy to medical students at Stony Brook University. Sometimes, she notes, the designs of our own bodies don’t seem to make sense; often, this odd architecture is retained from, or shared with, the body plans of our ancient vertebrate ancestors. It’s a past that, after decades of interest in, and study of, among the most charismatic of vertebrate groups, Gold is notably well-trained to understand and explain.