At August 20th’s SoNYC discussion, which this month is held in collaboration with the New York Academy of Sciences, we’re going to be focusing on science PhDs. Does the current PhD system need revamping to better equip researchers to continue in academia or to pursue other careers after graduating? In our latest series of guest posts on Soapbox Science, we’ll hear from a variety of contributors about how the current system works, where the gaps are, which additional skills they think PhD courses should incorporate and what their personal experiences have been. Follow and join in the conversations online using #PhDelta and share your thoughts in the comment threads on the blog posts too.
Alejandro Grajales is a third year student in the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History, focusing on the evolution and distribution of marine invertebrates. He obtained both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia. His research as a graduate student focuses on the diversity and evolution of sea anemones (Cnidaria:Actiniaria). His project involves an extensive fieldwork component, including localities in the Sea of Cortez, the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas, and both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Every year, about 5 million visitors walk the halls of the American Museum of Natural History to learn about prehistoric animals, ancient cultures, and the diversity of living creatures. For the last 3 years, I’ve been coming to the Museum too, but my end goal is to earn a Ph.D. As a student in the Richard Gilder Graduate School, I get to see the museum from a different perspective. Museum curators are my professors, with whom I get the opportunity to conduct research that ranges from population genetics and genomics to taxonomy and systematics. In addition, I get to engage in field expeditions to help expand the Museum’s collections, which already includes more than 32 million specimens.
The American Museum of Natural History is the only museum in the Western Hemisphere that can grant a Ph.D. The uniqueness of the Richard Gilder Graduate School or “RGGS” as we like to call it relies, in my opinion, on the flexibility of the program. RGGS students have the opportunity to design their own path through graduate school and this is only possible through very close interaction with the faculty members, as well as with the rest of the Museum’s staff. Another distinctive aspect of the program is its immersive approach.
Prospective RGGS students are encouraged to make contact with one of the curators before they apply to discuss their expectations and possible research project. In my case, I was advised to contact Dr. Estefania Rodriguez, one of the world’s few experts in the taxonomy and systematics of sea anemones. After a few exchanges, we both decided to focus on a specific group of sea anemones, the genus Aiptasia. This group of organisms has a complex taxonomic history, due to the lack of a comprehensive comparative study including all species within the group. Given that scenario, we focused on looking for potential funding for what became a very extensive and exciting field component of my dissertation. Whether or not this approach is advantageous is debatable, however, an early start allows both students and the principal investigators to focus on a concrete question and quickly move on to another important endeavor in graduate school — financing your research.
Courses at the RGGS are small, with each class typically containing four to six students. This enables very close relationships to form with the professor as well as with the other classmates. Among the courses offered by the RGGS, one called “Ethics, Grantsmanship and Communication,” takes extra advantage of the small class size. The main objective of this course is, as expected, to write a grant proposal. How does this course differ from similar courses on other institutions? Perhaps I cannot answer that question by comparing (not having attended such courses elsewhere), but rather by explaining how the proposals come to exist. Starting with just the title, your ideas are exposed and in some cases heavily scrutinized by all the members of the course through every step of the proposal-writing process. “Too long,” “Not interesting for a broad audience,” even “Start again,” – these are usual remarks during the course, which is led by Museum paleontologists and curators Mark Norell and John Flynn, both of whom have an extensive record of successful grants. Diversity is also a key aspect to the course, as RGGS students are often studying very different organisms, ranging from fish, lizards, and insects to dinosaurs. As a result, you learn how to appeal to a diverse range of scientists, a depiction of a real panel you might see at a funding agency like the National Science Foundation (NSF). This process is complemented with weekly visits from science journalists, scientific journal editors, and other professionals in the science communication field who give the students their perspective on how to appeal to a non-scientific audience while still maintaining accuracy. At the end of the course, the full proposals are evaluated by a review committee composed of three curators from different disciplines, who have many times been real panel reviewers — again a very close reflection of reality.
When the time for real grant submissions came, this intense preparation yielded results. I was able to get funding from NSF as well as other institutions to conduct a total of nine collecting expeditions in more than 12 countries across the globe. I’ve since sampled for sea anemones in localities in the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, North and South Atlantic Oceans, and the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. My work has revealed that what was previously thought to be a group of species might in fact be a single widespread, potentially invasive species. I attribute this success to the fact that RGGS helped me reach beyond the scientific community using my research ideas. Those communication skills also came in handy this spring, as I helped depict the biofluorescent glow of sea anemones in the Museum’s exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence and the newly created website luminescentlabs.org, which explores and explains the phenomenon of biofluorescence.
I will complete the program in about a year’s time, but RGGS has already provided me with a unique and valuable scientific experience. I have not only gained the opportunity to pursue my scientific goals, but also learned to communicate science in innovative ways. This is an invaluable skill today, when public awareness about scientific facts such as biodiversity loss or effects of climate change is paramount.