Margaret O'Brien

PhD Student, Richard Gilder Graduate School


  • Ph.D. in Comparative Biology, Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History, anticipated 2021. (Primary Advisor: Dr. Frank Burbrink)
  • Master of Arts in Conservation Biology, Columbia University, May 2017. (Advisors: Dr. Nancy Simmons and Dr. Frank Burbrink; Thesis: Evolutionary Genomics of Thermoregulatory Regimes in Bats).
  • Bachelor of Arts in General Biology; minor in Chemistry, Manhattan College, May 2015.

Research Interests

Maggie’s research has broadly focused on understanding how changes to the genome influence complex traits in vertebrates. As a PhD student advised by Dr. Frank Burbrink and Dr. Cheryl Hayashi at the Richard Gilder Graduate School, Maggie is determining how genomic changes over evolutionary time influence reproductive modes in pit vipers. Although reptiles are widely known as egg-layers many have live-birth. In fact, most New World pit vipers are live-bearers rather than egg-layers. Maggie’s research employs whole-genome sequencing, gene family analyses and modern statistical models to determine how suites of genes that are associated with reproductive modes evolve across the snake phylogeny. She is also researching how the functions of these genes and their associated gene interactions and regulatory regions have evolved over time.

As a Masters student at Columbia University, Maggie researched the influence of a protein, leptin, on the evolution of different thermoregulatory regimes (hibernation, daily torpor and homeothermy) in bats. As an undergraduate intern with the Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the American Museum of Natural History in 2014, she developed ecological niche models to examine how climate change influenced distributions of bats in the West Indies over the past 20,000 years. While at Manhattan College during this time, she also researched the development of giraffe calf behavior at the Bronx Zoo.


Soto-Centeno, J. A., O’Brien, M., & Simmons, N. (2015). The importance of late Quaternary climate change and karst on distributions of Caribbean mormoopid bats. American Museum Novitates. 3847, 1-32.

Teaching Experience

  • Teaching assistant, undergraduate Environmental Biology I, Columbia University, September 2016-Jan. 2017
  • Wildlife Educator, summer camps in NYC for children age 2–13, The Nature Company, June 2015-September 2015