School Days Influences: A Career at the Museum
For more than 150 years, AMNH has cultivated curiosity about our world and expanded our understanding of it. Seven current curators share the educational and personal journeys that led to them to work at this world-class research museum.
In 2019, New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) celebrated its 150th anniversary by welcoming five million visitors, making it America's second most-visited museum, behind only the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since its founding in 1869, generations of science lovers—especially schoolchildren—have come to see famous fossils like its impressive T. rex, the full-size blue whale model suspended over the Hall of Ocean Life, and evocative dioramas recreating the natural habitats of the world’s flora and fauna. (Its must-visit status hit the stratosphere after the runaway success of the Night at the Museum films, which were shot in the museum.) But with more than 32 million specimens and objects in its collection, only about 3% are ever on display at any given time in its 45 exhibition halls.
But visiting AMNH is about more than seeing fossils, mammals, birds, fish, and invertebrates we might only read about in books. There are plenty of opportunities for visitors to deepen their understanding and appreciation of the natural world, from the institution’s research library to expert-yet-accessible information panels and exhibition text. And the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which includes the Hayden Planetarium, takes the experience off-planet. Soon, there will be even more spaces to explore, with the 230,000 square-foot Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation expected to open in 2022.
Working scientists benefit from AMNH, too, which serves as a center for continuing research into anthropology, zoology, paleontology, and physical science. Prior to the pandemic, AMNH received around 900 research visits from international scholars. There are also more than 200 resident researchers studying the vast AMNH collections. And we haven’t even mentioned the expert curators and staff working at AMNH every day.
What does it take to work at this world-class research museum? To find out, The Elective spoke with a cross-section of AMNH division curators about their educational experiences, including Melanie J. Hopkins, Curator-in-Charge, Invertebrate Paleontology, Division of Paleontology; Jin Meng, Curator-in-Charge, Fossil Mammals, Division of Paleontology; Rebecca Oppenheimer, Curator, Department of Astrophysics; Estefanía Rodríguez, Curator of Marine Invertebrates; Nancy B. Simmons, Curator-in-Charge, Department of Mammalogy; Melanie L.J. Stiassny, Herbert R. and Evelyn Axelrod Research Curator, Department of Ichthyology; and Lorenzo Prendini, Curator of Arachnida and Myriapoda, Division of Invertebrate Zoology.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
The American Museum of Natural History's iconic blue whale model, hanging above the Hall of Ocean Life.
Where did you go to high school? What habits or hobbies did you develop during your high school years that now contribute to your work as a curator?
Melanie J. Hopkins: I went to George Washington High School in Denver, Colorado, where I was enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program. During high school, I spent a lot of time at the Denver Museum of Natural History, now the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, both as a volunteer and as a part-time employee, primarily assisting with educational programs.
Jin Meng: I went to a high school in Guiyang City, Guizhou Province, China. One hobby I had was drawing. By drawing I think I learned how to observe and understand the structure and shape of an object and present the object on paper. This is extremely helpful for me to work on the morphology of a fossil. Moreover, I drew figures of fossils that were published in my research papers.
Rebecca Oppenheimer: I attended the Horace Mann School in the Bronx. During high school, I think the most important parts that truly gave me a foundation for my future work were a real interest in language and writing, as well as science. I really admired good books and stories, especially if they were about or included science. I was also quite active in set-design in our theater. Ultimately, as a scientist, I would build things and write constantly. Scientists are rated on what they write, so developing an early skill in writing was a huge help for my career. I also did some independent projects and competed in some science competitions.
Estefanía Rodríguez: I grew up and went to high school in Southern Europe, in Seville, which is in the south of Spain. It was during these years that I discovered my love for biology, but apart from really enjoying my biology classes there was nothing at the time that contributed to my current curatorial work.
Nancy B. Simmons: I grew up in Colorado Springs where I went to William J. Palmer High School, a public high school right on the edge of downtown. Colorado Springs was a fairly small city then, and there was a lot of open space around. I had many opportunities to go camping and hiking in the nearby mountains, and I had a park with a stream running through it near my house. I couldn’t get enough of being outdoors. I loved collecting natural objects in the woods and streams, and also catching animals like snakes, frogs, insects, and small fish. Once I caught or found something, I always wanted to learn as much as I could about it. My favorite books were field guides. I might bring living creatures home to stay in my aquarium for a while before I would release them, but the other things—bones, antlers, feathers, rocks, and fossils—I kept in a set of labeled boxes in my own collection. If you’d asked me then what I wanted to be when I grew up, I probably would have said “a naturalist” although I knew that wasn’t a profession anymore. I was fascinated by evolution, and I wanted to understand how everything in nature came to be the way that it is.
I don’t remember much about the classes that I took in high school but I do remember a few inspiring teachers. The best was my English teacher, who helped me learn how to write well and who inspired a love of reading and communicating that has stayed with me to this day. Learning to write well is an absolutely essential skill for many jobs, and one that is often overlooked in the education of scientists. I have always been grateful that I had a teacher who cared more about how I wrote than what I wrote about.
Melanie L.J. Stiassny: My high school was in the so-called green belt of London, England, and after a short bus ride from my home I would walk a mile or so across green fields to get to the school. Most of my hobbies involved animals in one way or another. I was a keen horse rider and spent a lot of my free time around horses. At home we had a lot of pets—the usual cats and dogs, but also rabbits, ducks, some lizards, and an aquarium stocked with fishes that I collected from ponds in the neighborhood.
Lorenzo Prendini: I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and matriculated from De La Salle Holy Cross College. I spent much of my spare time in high school collecting and studying arachnids, insects, and reptiles, as well as bird-watching and botanizing—identifying trees, grasses, and other plant life—in the biodiverse South African veld (savanna-grassland).
American Museum of Natural History curators (from left) Estefania Rodriguez, Jin Meng, and Nancy Simmons
Where did you attend college/university, and what sorts of skills did you develop during your time there that you now utilize in working as a curator?
Hopkins: I attended Stanford University where I majored in geological sciences and minored in studio art. Later I attended the University of Chicago for a PhD in geophysical sciences with a focus on paleobiology. While a graduate student, I curated the paleontology teaching collections, which included reorganizing and cataloging specimens. This project also motivated in me a curiosity about the history of natural science collections. I was also an intern at the university’s Center for the Presentation of Science, working on exhibit and demonstration development for local science museums. I continue to use these collections management and educational skills as a curator, in addition to everything I learned about conducting field work, scientific research, and grant writing.
Meng: I went to Peking University, Beijing, China, and majored in paleontology. In addition to all of the knowledge and skills used in paleontology—collecting and preparing specimens, cataloging specimens, photographing and drawing, computer analysis, which was very primitive at the time—the most useful skill is English: how to read and write and write with clarity to convey my interpretation of fossils.
Oppenheimer: For undergraduate I went to Columbia, right here in New York. Very soon after starting I met Professor David Helfand, who took me into his team to begin some of my first new scientific research. It was so much fun to think about some new problem no one had ever solved before and to try myself, see what I might be capable of. Of course, being among all the other researchers at Columbia enabled me to learn early on what research is like and how some of the best in the world do it. For my graduate work, I went to the California Institute of Technology to become a full-fledged independent researcher when I earned my PhD.
Rodríguez: I went to the Universidad de Sevilla in Spain. During my middle years I learned SCUBA diving, which allowed me to appreciate marine invertebrates and their diversity. It was also during those years that I became an intern in the zoology department and started to help different professors with an array of research activities. I became familiarized with collections of marine invertebrates and how to take care of them. During my last year, I started sorting out and studying a collection of Antarctic sea anemones. That would be the beginning of my career.
Simmons: I went to Pomona College in Southern California, which is a small liberal arts school. I discovered when I got there that to be a biology major required so many classes that I wouldn’t have time to take geology classes, and that to be a geology major required so many classes that I wouldn’t have a chance to take much biology. So I became an anthropology major, which had fewer requirements plus interesting classes in primate evolution and behavior. I was also fascinated by archaeology, and I signed up for a summer at an archaeological field school, which was my first introduction to fieldwork. The basics that I learned there about how field science and collecting are done—and how the scientific questions you ask are as important as what you actually do in the field—are lessons that I’ve never forgotten. That was also where I learned to keep field notes, a skill that is essential for anyone who does fieldwork.
Stiassny: I went to the University of London for both my undergraduate and graduate studies. Although I was based in London, because my major was zoology, my studies included field trips where I was able to observe and study animals in nature. And as a graduate student specializing in the evolutionary biology of African fishes, I spent time in Africa collecting, identifying, and studying fishes in their natural habitats before returning to London to study their anatomy in detail.
Prendini: I attended the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, for my undergraduate B.S. degree, majoring in botany and zoology. I then moved to the University of Cape Town for a BS, Honours degree, and stayed on for a PhD. My undergraduate and graduate degrees equipped me with the theory and practical skills needed for a career in the biological sciences. During my PhD, I was fortunate to spend considerable time in the field and in natural history museums in South Africa, Europe, and the U.S., which exposed me to the importance of natural history collections as archives of the natural world, and instilled a desire to pursue a career as a biologist working in a natural history museum.
American Museum of Natural History curators (clockwise from top left) Melanie Stiassny, Rebecca Oppenheimer, Lorenzo Prendini, and Melanie Hopkins
Looking back, was there something unique about your particular college/university’s campus environment, geography, or regional culture that impacted the development of your curatorial skills?
Hopkins: The evolutionary biology/paleobiology community at the University of Chicago was highly connected across different disciplinary departments and there were strong ties with other institutions in the city, including the Field Museum of Natural History.
Meng: As a native Mandarin-speaking person, I think a second language—Chinese in this case—certainly impacted my career for the reason that you can access literature in a different language to give you a broader view of what has been done in the world about things you are interested in. It also allows me to do fieldwork in Asia relatively easier.
Oppenheimer: For college, I wanted to be in New York City, partly because of the enormous diversity, and because it was a simple subway ride to all kinds of theater, museums, nightlife and interesting people. That environment, I believe, fosters a kind of openness and curiosity that I truly value. Openness to other types of thought and perspective is critical to being a good curator and scientist.
Rodríguez: The relative proximity to the coast allowed for marine research to be done at our university. This, paired with the large amount of unknown invertebrate diversity and the fact that systematics is a relatively affordable science influenced the research lines I was exposed to. But I think the most unique factor that influenced my career boils down to my professor and his passion for research and the importance of collections. By the time I was doing my master’s, we maintained a collection of anthozoans of more than 5,000 specimens in the lab.
Simmons: Going to a college or university in a region with a lot of natural and cultural resources is a big plus. I’m not sure how I learned about it, but during college I got a volunteer position at the George C. Page Museum nearby in Los Angeles. That’s the museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. I would drive over a couple of times a week and spend the afternoon in their preparation laboratory, cleaning tar off of the bones of extinct animals. It was not glamorous work but I loved every minute of it, especially handling the bones. That was also my first behind-the-scenes view of how a museum collection is organized.
Stiassny: Because my PhD program at the University of London was undertaken in partnership with the Natural History Museum, I was based at the museum and spent most of my time in the fish collections working under the supervision of museum curators. This gave me the perfect opportunity to learn all the details involved in curation at a natural history museum, as well as the more typical university-acquired skills.
Prendini: The University of Cape Town is situated on the slopes of Table Mountain in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Being surrounded by the incredible biodiversity in South Africa—the Cape Floristic Region is one of the world’s six floral kingdoms—as well as the history of science and natural history museums in South Africa—the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town is one of the oldest on the African continent—predisposed me for a career as a museum curator, in charge of studying biodiversity, and of maintaining and building natural history collections for future generations. The realization that this biodiversity was disappearing in my lifetime due to human activities made the need to discover and document it all the more urgent.
Among the most popular exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History is its exquisite Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.
How long after college graduation did you begin your curatorial career? Did you develop any habits or skills in the interim period that you utilize today?
Hopkins: Between college and graduate school, I worked at the U.S. Geological Survey. My job responsibilities included literature review, field work, sample preparation, database entry, and data analysis. All of these skills I continue to use as a curator. After graduate school I spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Field Museum in Chicago and then two years as a postdoc in Germany, first at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and then at the Friedrich–Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. In addition to expanding my research program, working at the Field Museum gave me the opportunity to put some of the informal education skills I’d learned as a graduate student into practice. Working in Germany gave me the opportunity to meet many new people working in paleobiology and museums, and expanded my view on how scientific labs and institutions may be organized. From there, I moved to New York to join the curatorial staff at the American Museum of Natural History.
Meng: It took me a while to get this curatorial position after my college graduation. I went to graduate school at Columbia University and did three terms of postdoctoral research: at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian; the University of Alberta, Canada; and AMNH. I landed my first job at the University of Massachusetts before I came to this position—more than 15 years. Patience and persistence were what I learned as habits and skills, which still work for me today.
Oppenheimer: After Columbia, it took me just under five years to complete my PhD at Caltech. This, of course, is the time when one trains to be an independent scientist. I then did postdoctoral research at UC, Berkeley and AMNH. It was about five years after graduate school that I was hired to the curatorial faculty at AMNH. All these steps, and simply practicing as a research scientist on many different projects, were critical to what I do now. I also wrote various pieces about my work for a general audience and gave talks about science to hone my teaching and education skills. I should point out that writing and research are art forms. Anyone practicing these arts professionally is constantly improving simply by doing them. It’s a lifelong endeavor of constant self-improvement and learning.
Rodríguez: After graduating from university, it took about nine years until I began my curatorial career: almost seven years of Ph.D. followed by a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Ohio State University. During all this time, I continuously worked with collections of sea anemones around the world in one way or the other, collecting, preserving, and curating new material, visiting several museums to examine old material, and studying these collections.
Simmons: Curator jobs in natural history museums usually require a PhD and postdoctoral experience, so there are a lot of years between college and landing a curator job. I didn’t get hired as a museum curator until nine years after I graduated from college. I got my PhD at the University of California at Berkeley. My graduate studies were focused on conducting original research, working in the university’s paleontology museum, and learning how to teach at a university level. My research was focused on evolutionary biology of an extinct group of mammals, but once I completed my PhD I realized I wanted to work on living organisms. I applied for a postdoctoral research position at the American Museum of Natural History to do an entirely new project on a completely different group of animals—bats—and I was lucky enough to get it. A couple of years later I had the chance to start a field project on bats in South America, and I found that I really enjoyed it. I never expected to work on bats for the rest of my career, but that’s how it has turned out. I also never expected to end up as a curator at AMNH, but my background in specimen-based research, museum collections, and fieldwork turned out to be just the right mix to qualify me for the job.
Stiassny: After graduating from my PhD program at the University of London I went to the Netherlands as a postdoctoral fellow at the Leiden University and the national natural history museum, which was also in Leiden. After two years as a postdoctoral fellow, I got my first job, which was in the U.S. as an assistant professor and assistant curator at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. Four years later I left Harvard and joined the curatorial faculty at the American Museum of Natural History, where I am a curator of fishes.
Prendini: I was appointed curator of Arachnida and Myriapoda at the American Museum of Natural History, where I had spent several months as a visiting student during my PhD, before graduating. I emigrated to the U.S. from South Africa after my PhD was conferred.