Ph.D. Profile: Zac Calamari

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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.

The first time Zac Calamari stepped foot in the American Museum of Natural History as a dinosaur-obsessed 11-year-old, he took one look around and said, “This is where I want to work!” 

 

Young Zac stands in the middle of a massive pair of antlers that are mounted on a log cabin wall.

Calamari showed an early interest in his field at Alaskaland, now Pioneer Park, in Fairbanks, Alaska.

© T. Calamari


Fast forward and he has spent the past four years at the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School working toward his Ph.D. degree in Comparative Biology, to be awarded at a ceremony on September 27.

His journey was not without twists and turns. Calamari, now 28, dropped dinos and, as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, initially majored in history with a focus on medieval Japan. But while on a geology field trip to the Rocky Mountains, he couldn’t help but marvel at the age of the specimens—and decided to return to science. “I was up in the mountains breaking open rocks,” he said, “And realized history is a few thousand years old but these rocks were hundreds of millions of years old!”

 

Zac sits in rocky soil, surrounded by brushes, chisels and other tools as he works on removing a fossil from the surrounding dirt.

Zac with the skull a of large perissodactyl, possibly a fossil tapir, found during his 2016 field trip to Washakie Basin, Wyoming. 

© R. Pian


After graduating with a double major in Geological Sciences and History, he stayed on in Ann Arbor to study mammoth tusks and participate in research on the comparative morphology of two remarkably preserved baby mammoth mummies, Lyuba and Khroma.

 


He entered the Museum’s doctoral program in 2013, where he concentrated on shape development and gene expression of skull appendages—or “head gear,” as he likes to call it—of even-toed hoofed mammals such as moose, pronghorns, cattle, antelopes, deer, and giraffes. 

Besides fulfilling his boyhood dream, coming to the Museum offered Calamari a chance to work with his mentor, John Flynn, who is dean of the Richard Gilder Graduate School and Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals in the Division of Paleontology. Calamari was also drawn by the Museum’s massive collections, world-class natural history library, and dedication to public outreach.

“Here, public outreach is built into what we do,” says Calamari.  “Sharing what we know is the point.”

Over the course of his four years, Calamari has done his share, explaining his work to students from the John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, children in the Museum’s Discovery Room for the Meet the Scientist program, and on several live segments on the Museum’s Facebook page where, he says, “In 15 minutes, 20,000 people heard me talk about horns and antlers!”

 

 

In mid-October, Calamari starts postdoctoral work in Ophir Klein’s biomedical lab at the University of California, San Francisco, shifting his research focus to different head hardware—gnawing rodent teeth that grow forever—in the hope of understanding the evolution of this trait and identifying medical applications for humans.