Degree With Difference

Beyond the noisy throngs marvelling at the dinosaurs, the American Museum of Natural History takes on an entirely different character.
The neatly labelled metal lockers that line the hallway are much like the stacks of a research library, except that instead of books there are many of the museum’s millions of specimens, from ants in amber to dry-mounted birds. Signs point the way to invertebrates, entomology and ornithology. This is the home of the Richard Gilder Graduate School, whose 13 students are earning doctorates in the specialised field of comparative biology, teasing out what fossils from the Gobi desert have to reveal about the evolutionary tree of life. The museum is the first in the nation accredited to offer a doctorate in its own name.
But around the country, all kinds of museums are venturing deeper into the world of education, finding new ways to use their collections in research and teacher training, and bringing in more students. Many have entered into partnerships with local universities.
And it may not be long before others try to follow the natural history museum’s lead in offering their own degree. “We’ve had inquiries from quite a few other museums, and they’re watching what we’re doing with interest,” says John Flynn, the paleontologist who is dean of the Gilder Graduate School. “Many museums already have a lot of what you need — the collections, the curators, the libraries, the tradition of research.”
The American Museum of Natural History, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, also has built online graduate courses in science that are used for credit by eight colleges and universities, and was recently approved to participate in a state-financed pilot programme in which it will develop and offer a masters in teaching for earth science.
“There’s been a redefinition of the schoolhouse, as the roles of different institutions are being blurred,” says Ellen V. Futter, president of the museum.
All told, about 100 graduate students, including visiting students from the museum’s longtime partner universities and postdoctoral fellows, roam the fifth floor. Gilder accepts only four or five students a year, an eclectic group of American and international scholars, some straight from college, some with masters degrees and years of work experience as a veterinary technician or a high school biology teacher.
In many ways, the graduate programme at the American Museum of Natural History is different from the rest. It is of four years’ duration instead of the usual five. And most students go on extended field trips around the globe.
For Shaena Montanari, a third-year palaeontology student interested in chemically analysing dinosaur fossils to learn what they ate, the Gobi desert has been a treasure trove of specimens. The quest to map and fill in the evolutionary tree of life is both the hallmark of the museum’s scientific programme and the focus of most of the students’ research. Dawn Roje, a first-year student researching flatfish, says having a common interest is one of the pleasures of the programme.
“I’ve been to university, and in a big biology department my interests wouldn’t be in the mainstream,” says Roje, who is going to Madagascar in the fall to gather tissue samples. “Here we all share an interest in phylogenetics. We’re all into that tree-of-life thing.”
Elective courses change from year to year, depending on students’ interest. This year’s offerings include a field course in Mexico on parasitology and another on major events in vertebrate evolution. And because many will move on to academia, students are required to complete two teaching stints, one as a teaching assistant in a university course and another that can be in a less formal setting, like one of the museum’s education programmes.
“In most university biology departments, they want graduate students to teach the big introductory premed classes,” says Sebastian Kvist, a third-year student from Sweden whose study of leeches has taken him to Mexico, Canada and New Jersey. “Here,” he says, “there are a lot of choices.”
Given the size of the programme, with 50 or more applicants a year, it is an achievement just to be admitted. The doctoral students get full support — tuition, a stipend and at least $2,000 of unrestricted research money, which can be supplemented by grants or further support from the school. Gilder, the brokerage founder who is the museum’s largest donor, provided a $50 million endowment for the school. The students get to work closely with the curators -— the museum’s tenured scientists, the equivalent of full professors at a university.
Most have access to the specimens gathered over the 142 years of the museum’s history, shelves crammed with wet samples. There are endless halls of insect specimens, and rooms where fossils are carefully brushed out of the sand they were buried in. There are state-of-the-art molecular labs and an imaging lab in which students can take CT scans of a rotating specimen and magnify them — the better to count how many scales a lizard has on its legs.
Indians Welcome
The PhD programme in comparative biology at the Richard Gilder Graduate School (RGGS), American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York is the first time such an initiative has been taken by a museum in the US. W. Taylor Johnson, administrative director of the school, spoke to Sayantani Sen about the course. Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Does the RGGS admit Indians? What financial aid can an Indian student expect?
A: Of the 17 students currently enrolled in the PhD programme in comparative biology, five are international students. There are currently no Indian students at the school. Students in this programme are typically fully supported with tuition, stipends, health benefits, computer and a budget for undertaking research.
Q: What are the requirements for an Indian student?
A: The requirements for all foreign students include:
 Bachelor of arts or bachelor of science, or equivalent degree, from an accredited institution
 Official transcripts [marksheets] from all undergraduate / graduate institutions attended
 Score of the general Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is required. The exam should have been taken within the past five years; GRE score in biology is recommended
 Three letters of recommendation
 Essay describing research interest or experience
 Score of English proficiency tests such as Test of English as Foreign Language (Toefl) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS), taken within the last two years
Q: What are the job opportunities post a PhD in comparative biology?
A: Degree holders can do postdoctoral research or work as museum curators. Governments and other agencies, particularly in the developing world, also require expertise to conduct biotic surveys and biogeographic studies necessary for biodiversity conservation and environmental planning. Private sector opportunities include working in the fields of biotechnology, food and health. You can also do pharmaceutical research and development, environmental consulting and bio-defence. Graduates may take up public advocacy in research policy organisations, policy bodies, and non-governmental organisations.
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