2017 Ph.D. Graduate Profile: Amber Paasch

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On September 27, the sixth 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 the soon-to-be Ph.D.s.

Amber Paasch was first drawn to genetics in a college biology class she took as an undergraduate at California State University, Los Angeles. Then, hands-on work in a plant genetics lab steered her away from human biology to botany.


Paasch holds up a liquid specimen in a tube with a gloved hand.
Paasch holds a tube of millions of microscopic algae in front of the incubator in the Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics.
Courtesy of A. Paasch

“Plants are so much weirder than animals!” says Dr. Paasch, 30, who will be receiving her Ph.D. degree in Comparative Biology from the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School (RGGS) on September 27. “I didn’t realize how interesting they were, how diverse.”

Through college and while earning her Master’s degree at Cal State L.A., she studied the abundant unique plant life of Southern California, including Syntrichia caninervis, a moss in the Mojave Desert that can survive without water for 100 years. At the Museum, Paasch worked with Associate Curator and Associate Professor Eunsoo Kim to research microscopic green algae that eat bacteria instead of relying only on photosynthesis, to find out what we can learn from them about the evolution of chloroplasts.

Aside from academics and research, Paasch also helped with public outreach. She contributed details about the desert moss to the Museum’s Life at the Limits exhibition and set up a microscopy booth for elementary schoolchildren at the annual Family Party. She also served as a mentor for college students in the longstanding Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the Museum. And she took a leading role in getting the Museum actively involved in the annual Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science conference, which advises and supports minority students applying to graduate school.

“It is necessary to broaden participation of underrepresented groups in science, and I am working to help remove barriers to academia for ethnic and racial minorities, and women,” says Paasch.


Paasch stands inside a research vehicle wearing a puffy, full-body suit.
During fieldwork in the Bermuda Triangle, Paasch dons an emergency survival suit aboard the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science research vessel. 
Courtesy of A. Paasch

With a four-year research and mentorship fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, Paasch will return next month to California to start post-doctoral research in Katie Pollard’s bioinformatics lab in the Gladstone Institutes at the University of California, San Francisco. There, one of the central lessons of her time at the Gilder Graduate school should stand her in good stead. Paasch says Dr. Kim has always encouraged her to avoid being pinned down to a single species, and instead to approach analyses of traits and relationships through a wider lens.

Says Paasch, “Rather than the organism being studied, what’s important are the questions we are asking.”