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Museum Program Pairs Teens with Scientist Mentors

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SRMP students Anika Rastgir and Caitlin King study ceratopsian skull shapes with a Museum scientist. © AMNH/D. Finnin

Ailan Hurley-Echevarria removed a pebble-sized piece of dark amber from the variable speed grinder-polisher and looked at the now-smooth and clear surface under the dissecting microscope.

“I think there’s something here in the corner,” he said.

Hurley-Echevarria had uncovered an ancient biting midge (Ceratopogonidae) which had been trapped in amber about 52 million years ago, perhaps after feeding on an Eocene mole or other small mammal in the prehistoric tropical jungles of India.

Within the first few weeks of their investigation of the Cambay amber deposit, a collection of ancient tree resin recently excavated from western India, Ailan and research partner Charlotte Isaac had already discovered a number of significant ancient invertebrates. They uncovered a spider that may be the oldest recorded member of the family Pholcidae as well as the earliest representatives of highly social insects such as rhinotermitid termites. Their mentor, Paul Nascimbene, a scientist in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology, ticks off the list of hidden treasures revealed through their work: 62 diverse ants, five complete termites, some remarkable flowers, and four bees, including a Protobombus, an early bumblebee.

What is even more remarkable is that both Hurley-Echevarria and Isaac are 17-year-old high school students whose discoveries took place in the Museum’s state-of-the-art laboratories. They are among about 40 students from high schools across New York City who participate in the Science Research Mentoring Program (SRMP), a two-year project that pairs teens, mostly from groups underrepresented in the sciences, with Museum researchers. The students work in Museum laboratories with mentors from the Center for Conservation Genetics, the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, the Department of Ornithology, the Department of HerpetologyDivision of Paleontology, and the Microscopy and Imaging Facility on projects that range from identifying parasites in Amazonian river turtles to studying the diversity of snakes in Southeast Asia.

“The collaboration between students and scientists can do a lot to make science education fresh and relevant. It makes it more about the real process of discovery,” says Hilleary Osheroff, director of the program. “Giving these kids the chance to build one-on-one relationships with actual scientists, to see what it’s like to work in a real lab, is one of the best possible exposures you can have.”

SRMP students Anika Rastgir and Caitlin King, for example, are exploring dinosaur diversity. Under the supervision of Steve Brusatte, a graduate student advised by Curator Mark Norell in the Division of Paleontology, they are studying the evolution of skull shape in ceratopsians, the group of horned dinosaurs that include Triceratops. Their project tracks ceratopsians from the Jurassic, when the animals had small frills and horns, to the Late Cretaceous, when enormous species like Triceratops were many ecosystems’ largest herbivores. Using statistical programs to model and quantify complex skull shape of each species, Rastgir and King have so far mapped over two dozen landmark features on each of the 30 ceratopsian skull photos they “collected” from literature. “This will allow us to see whether the diversity of skull shape changed over time, and exactly what features of the skulls changed,” says Brusatte.

Working with Rebecca Rudolph, manager of the Microscopy and Imaging Facility, students Ivan Ibarra and Dale Prentice are learning to study and conserve delicate specimens using the Museum’s new high-resolution computed tomography (CT) scanner. In addition to examining specimens that include bat skulls and primate teeth, the students have developed a low contrast imaging protocol for investigating soft tissue specimens.

“Their work helps us to define best practices and techniques for a large portion of the work we do here in the lab,” says Rudolph. “Much of the work they do will continue to be implemented when they are off tackling bigger and better projects in college and beyond, which is a fine reward for all of their efforts in SRMP.”

For more information about the National Science Foundation (NSF)

Science Research Mentoring Program, visit

The Science Research Mentoring Program is supported by the National Science Foundation.

Generous support for this program is provided by Wells Fargo.

Additional support for this program is provided by the

Louis and Virginia Clemente Foundation,

the Adolph and Ruth Schnurmacher Foundation,

and the Charles and Mildred Schnurmacher Foundation.

This story originally appeared in the Summer issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.