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Going to Graduate School at the Museum

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Photo: © AMNH/D. Finnin

For an extraordinary group of New York City students, going to class means passing a Neanderthal skeleton, a 94-foot-long model of a blue whale, and a family of brown bears — and that’s just on the first floor.

These are the 13 students now enrolled in the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History, which in 2006 became the only American museum—and the first museum in the Western Hemisphere—with the authority to grant the Ph.D. degree. In 2008, the Museum made history by enrolling its first class. Just last year, the New York State Board of Regents granted full institutional accreditation to the Richard Gilder Graduate School, a landmark decision that recognized the strength of the new program and the Museum’s long track record of training graduate students in partnership with leading institutions that include Columbia University, New York University, Cornell University, City University of New York, and Stony Brook University.

The Museum’s inaugural doctoral program is in comparative biology, with an interdisciplinary emphasis spanning the origins, history, and diversity of life on Earth. Here, the Richard Gilder Graduate School students—who come to study from all over the world—have several distinct advantages. The Museum’s internationally recognized staff of curators and other scientists are their faculty. The Museum’s world-renowned collections of more than 32 million specimens and cultural artifacts are available for their research projects. The Museum’s active field work program offers students the opportunity to conduct research all over the globe. And some of the most advanced, state-of-the-art scientific facilities in the world are available on site at the Museum.

“We can offer our students exceptional research opportunities and support to help them succeed in our accelerated Ph.D. program,” says John Flynn, dean of the Richard Gilder Graduate School, who is also a curator in the Division of Paleontology. “This includes our unique academic strengths in faculty, collections and laboratories, as well as the resources and assistance provided by the entire Museum-wide community.”

With all that the program has to offer, graduate students have a broad range of training opportunities to carry out original research. Edward Stanley, who studies African “girdled lizards” (Cordylidae), draws on the Museum’s world-class collection of squamate reptiles, frozen tissues in the Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection, and state-of-the-art CT machine. Shaena Montanari has access to an unparalleled collection of specimens from the Museum’s paleontology collections and uses advanced fossil preparation methods in her study of the diet and metabolism of dinosaurs. And for the last two years, she has traveled to the Gobi desert on field expeditions with Museum faculty—just another example of how coming to school at the Museum is, in fact, a gateway to an exciting, bigger world.

Learn more about the Richard Gilder Graduate School.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the magazine for Museum Members.