The Lerner-Gray Fund for Marine Research

The Lerner-Gray Fund for Marine Research

Full-size model of a blue whale is suspended from the ceiling, other ocean life dioramas in view surrounding it.

No trip to the Museum is complete without a visit to see the blue whale model.

©AMNH/D. Finnin

Over the course of many decades, three distinguished businessmen and passionate anglers and naturalists, Arthur Gray, Sr., his brother-in-law Michael Lerner, and Arthur Gray, Jr., made invaluable contributions to research programs in marine biology. In addition, each served as a Trustee of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Today, their dedication to the Museum and to marine science carries on. Since the establishment of the Lerner-Gray Fund for Marine Research in 1977, the AMNH has provided funding for young scientists through Research GrantsPostdoctoral Fellowships and Graduate Student Fellowships, thanks to generous initial gifts and the ongoing support of the Lerner-Gray Foundation and individual donors. A standing committee of the AMNH’s Richard Gilder Graduate School (RGGS), including distinguished Curators and representatives of the Lerner-Gray Foundation, recommend the awardees each year from among applicants reviewed and nominated by AMNH academic staff.

The Lerner-Gray Grants Program

The Lerner-Gray Grants for Marine Research provide financial assistance to highly qualified persons starting careers in marine zoology. Support goes to projects dealing with systematics, evolution, ecology and field-oriented behavioral studies of marine animals. The grants made from this program are generally between $1000 and $2,500. They are meant to act as seed money for new researchers. Research may be conducted at the AMNH or in the field. In 2015, 38 grants were awarded. Since the inception of the program, over 1700 Grants, totaling close to $2 million, have been awarded to doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers and other early career scientists from around the world.

Examples of recent research projects supported by the Lerner-Gray Fund grants include: 

- Habitat modeling and genetic signatures of postglacial recolonization of estuarine fishes through the Gulf of California
- The repeated evolution of bioluminescence across the evolution of pelagic lizardfishes (Aulopiformes: Alepisauroidei)
- Sand dollars (Dendraster excentricus) as ecosystem engineers, interactions with invasive seagrass, and resulting spatial patterns
- Examining the effects of ocean warming and invasive species on native marine fouling community assembling
- Reconstructing the trophic ecologies of ammonites from the cretaceous pierre shale
- Influence of ecology on genomic divergence in a highly mobile marine animal
- From reefs to hatchlings: Investigating the links between coral reef health and hawksbill sea turtle fitness


Lerner-Gray Fellowships also may be awarded to AMNH-affiliated postdoctoral fellows and graduate fellows supported by the Lerner-Gray Committee upon recommendation of the AMNH Science divisions, RGGS faculty and the RGGS Academic Affairs and Fellowships Committee. Details on these programs are available here for Graduate Fellowships and here for Postdoctoral Fellowships.

Recent Lerner-Gray Postdoctoral Fellows, American Museum of Natural History

james lamsdell pic

James Lamsdell, Lerner-Gray Postdoctoral Fellow

Research Advisor: Dr. Melanie Hopkins, Ph.D., Division of Paleontology

Research Focus: Evolution and ecology are quasi-independent hierarchical systems, the interplay of which shapes the trajectory of biological lineages throughout life’s history. Despite this, little is known about how these two systems interact in deep time, particularly during periods of biotic crisis and mass extinction. The late Devonian biotic crisis, a period defined by two potential mass extinctions at the end of the Frasnian (372 million years ago) and Famennian (358 million years ago) stages but characterized by approximately 40 million years of low speciation rates, is an ideal natural experiment through which we can explore these issues. Potentially caused by a rise in global sea level rates resulting in a breakdown in endemism and widespread biotic invasions, the forcing mechanisms behind this crisis and mass extinction mirror events projected for the modern environmental system. Given current projections of global sea level rise caused by human-mediated global warming, understanding the traits that lead to success or failure for groups during the late Devonian and subsequent recovery in the Carboniferous is important for projecting responses to the current biotic crisis and for informing and guiding conservation efforts. It has been shown that characteristics which affect survivorship across these events are heritable, and as such phylogenetic hypotheses of relationships are integral for such studies, as it is only through understanding the evolutionary history of groups that we are able to interpret patterns of ecological occupation before and after extinction events. This project seeks to elucidate changes in ecospace occupation throughout the Paleozoic for a number of marine arthropod groups including eurypterids, xiphosurans and trilobites, with a focus on the late Devonian and early Carboniferous. The overarching aim is to tease apart the role of ecological selection during the late Devonian biotic crisis and subsequent recovery and to test the generality of phylogenetic niche conservatism within lineages.

Biography: James Lamsdell received his BSc in Geology and Biology from the University of Birmingham in 2007 and his MSc in Palaeobiology from the University of Bristol in 2008, where he first began research into eurypterids. He completed his PhD at the University of Kansas in 2014, with his dissertation research concerning patterns in change of morphospace and evolutionary rate in eurypterids and trilobites during Palaeozoic mass extinctions. Prior to arriving at the AMNH he was a Postdoctoral Associate at Yale, where he described the earliest known eurypterids from the Middle Ordovician Winneshiek Shale of Iowa.


Christopher Martinez, Lerner-Gray Postdoctoral Fellow and Gerstner Program Scholar

Research Advisor: Dr. John Sparks, Ph.D., Department of Ichthyology, Division of Vertebrate Zoology

Research Focus: I am broadly interested in the evolution of form and function and enjoy applying morphological analyses in different systems. During my Ph.D. I assessed the diversity of pectoral fin shape in batoids and also linked sexual dimorphism in skate fins to the development of their reproductive organs. Currently, my research as a Gerstner Scholar is focused on understanding modes of oral jaw diversification in teleost fishes. I am primarily working on two of the lesser-known cichlid subfamilies, Etroplinae and Ptychochrominae. Etroplinae includes two genera, Etroplus of India/Sri Lanka and Paretroplus, whose species are endemic to Madagascar. Ptychochrominae consists of five genera that are also endemic to Madagascar. Variation in overall body form and jaw morphology is larger in the ptychochromines, although etropline cichlids also display interesting morphological patterns that appear to be habitat specific.

I am using geometric morphometrics to quantify and compare morphological diversity of body shape and internal structure of oral jaws between the two cichlid subfamilies. In addition, I am evaluating jaw variation in terms of a four-bar linkage system, which has been used as a model for jaw mechanics in a number of fish groups. As an essential component of this research, we are currently updating the phylogenetic relationships of Malagasy and South Asian cichlids in order to estimate ancestral states of jaw form and their corresponding functional properties. This information will be used in a modeling framework that is designed to simulate hypothetical morphological pathways that represent transitions between functional states of ancestors to that of their descendants. Due to the complex nature of the form-function relationship in four-bar linkages, we expect starting ancestral morphologies to be a vital determinant of the ability and ease by which a species may respond to selection for new functional states. This research will give us valuable context with which to understand current jaw diversity and will also provide a framework to pursue a number of questions. For instance, among species whose jaws are suited to a diet of snails (durophagy), which is most likely to evolve the ability to capture mobile prey (e.g. piscivory)?

Biography: Christopher Martinez received his B.Sc. from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2006 where he researched a mutualistic relationship between corals and amphipods. He completed his Ph.D. at Stony Brook University in 2014, with his dissertation research concerning the morphological diversity of batoid fishes (i.e. skates and rays) and also spatial modeling of marine communities.


Aaron Heiss, Lerner-Gray Postdoctoral Fellow and Gerstner Program Scholar

Research Advisor: Dr. Eunsoo Kim, Ph.D., Division of Invertebrate Zoology

Research Focus: My research focuses on the morphology and evolution of protists (those eukaryotes that are not also plants, animals, or fungi). I am particularly interested in organisms from 'orphan' lineages (those without known close relatives) and those representing ancestral forms, which in most cases are unicellular, heterotrophic flagellates.

My studies in morphology have centered around the use of transmission electron microscopy (TEM). I use serial sections from a single cell to make a computer-based model of the cytoskeleton, referring to series from additional cells for consistency. I combine this with observations using contrast-enhanced light microscopy (LM) and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to produce a comprehensive view of the cell’s structure. One exciting development of this is that my models can be made into physical objects through the use of 3D printers and related technology. Physically or virtually, these models can be compared with one another, as well as with models developed from previous research, to give an idea of the evolution of the morphology of the eukaryotic cell.

That comparison requires a solid evolutionary framework, which is unfortunately lacking in many critical cases. Molecular phylogenies (evolutionary trees based on genetic data) have proven surprisingly dependent upon such factors as selection of gene, which organisms are included, the method used to translate genetic data into a tree, and the individual researcher’s often-subjective preparation of that data. Rather than solid answers, the last few decades of phylogenetic research have given us a series of (usually) increasingly consistent hypotheses. In some cases, such as the relationships amongst the major eukaryotic lineages, those hypotheses remain tentative. One factor that remains definitely lacking is representation of the same groups that I am most interested in. To that end, I sequence genetic data on both the small (individual gene) and large (transcriptomic) scales. In addition to solidifying our understanding of the relationships of major lineages, the trees that I generate also yield both questions and (sometimes) answers about the evolution of critical features of the eukaryotic cell.

The data that we are able to obtain from any organism is contingent upon that organism being sampled in the first place. Surprisingly, new organisms, representing very deeply divergent lineages, continue to be discovered on an almost-regular basis.  In some cases, organisms are rediscovered after decades of not having been reported; in others, completely new lineages are found that had not been anticipated. I have been sampling the environment for such organisms, discovering and culturing both new and rediscovered strains, and assisting others with similar work. This provides the raw material for my ongoing phylogenetic and morphological studies.

Biography: Aaron Heiss completed his B.S. in Biology at Portland State University in 2002. He then worked in PSU’s Museum of Vertebrate Biology for two years, until starting graduate school. He earned an M.Sc. in Botany from the University of British Columbia in 2006, working in the lab of Dr. Patrick Keeling, and a Ph.D. in Biology from Dalhousie University, working under Dr. Alastair Simpson. After additional work in Dr. Simpson’s lab as a postdoctoral researcher, he was awarded a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science postdoctoral fellowship, for which he spent eight months in Japan at the University of Tsukuba. His research at the American Museum of Natural History has been an extension of his work in Japan.

Earlier Lerner-Gray Postdoctoral Fellows

Joanna Wolfe 2012 - 2014
Isabelle Kruta 2012 - 2014
Isabella Kappner 2008 - 2010
William Leo Smith 2005 - 2007
Stefan Richter 2004 - 2005
Claudia Arango  2002 - 2004
Kevin Tang 2002 - 2004
Kirsten Jensen  2002 - 2004
Gonzalo Giribet 1997 - 1999
Marta de Maintenon 1998 - 1999
Daniel Janies 1996 - 1998
Diane Bridge 1994 - 1995
Anthony Gill 1992 - 1993