First US Museum to Award Ph.D. Degree: Dean John Flynn Assumes Helm at Richard Gilder Graduate School at AMNH
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
Who doesn’t know the American Museum of Natural History? Everyone’s been there—school children who’ve been making class trips since time immemorial, devoted family members shepherding little ones to exhibits, older students pursuing class projects. Though such groups constitute the overwhelming number of visitors to AMNH, they may not be aware of how much this over-a-century-old, world-renowned science exhibition space and research center has changed over recent years, having added spectacular new facilities, public education programs, and cutting-edge, collaborative associations with various institutions. Now, AMNH can also boast being the only museum in the Western Hemisphere with the power to award its own Ph.D. Its dean is Dr. John Flynn, and its new program—in Comparative Biology–is housed in the Richard Gilder Graduate School at AMNH.
Dean Flynn calls the new program, which is in the process of being accredited by the Board of Regents, a continuing chapter in the museum’s history as an educational institution. Its mission is to devote itself to innovative work that brings together academic, scientific, and communications expertise in order to train students for “the century of biology.” Among the academic institutions involved in the Comparative Biology program are Columbia, CUNY, Cornell, and NYU, but the list also includes 70 graduate students and post-doc fellows from other institutions who have been working in the scientific divisions of the museum. They are all now a part of the “broader” Richard Gilder School. The idea is that the new Ph.D. program will “complement”, not replace, existing collaborations. It is, says the dean, “a natural extension of the museum’s integrated mission in science and education” as well as in the training of the next generation of scientists and educators.
Dr. Flynn, who in addition to serving as dean of the Richard Gilder Graduate School also holds the title of Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals, is, needless to say (but delighted to say), “excited” by the “challenge” to lead such a “novel” enterprise. Westchester born and bred, he recalls how he used to come to the museum with his family and how he developed an abiding love for the institution. Though he had always “avoided senior administrative posts,” the opportunity to head up an initiative in Comparative Biology that would speak to interests he had cultivated all his professional life was impossible to resist.
Dr. Flynn has a B.S. in Geology and Geophysics from Yale and an M.A., M. Phil. and Ph.D. from Columbia University, with concentrations in mammalian paleontology and paleomagnetism. After receiving his doctorate, he took up professorial duties at Rutgers University and then went on to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for 17 years. A prolific author of peer-reviewed scientific articles, his work at AMNH has centered on integrating research with exhibitions and educational programs, including promoting the museum’s significant fossil mammal collection.
Though “Comparative Biology” might not yet be sufficiently understood by the general public, the AMNH website may help. It describes the program as “a multidisciplinary study of organisms, including anatomy, ecology and genetics, relationships among organisms, and evolutionary biodiversity.” Dean Flynn gives an example: a biologist might study a mouse or frog, whereas a comparative biologist would look at all mouse or frog species and their environments, seeking to structure models of these organisms as they occur in different cultures in order to study the “interconnectedness” of all species. Another example is the Human Genome Project: how do human genes relate to the genes of other living creatures?
Although the Richard Gilder Graduate School has only five starting students (two women, three men), Dean Flynn’s vision includes attracting under-represented groups and strengthening ties between the museum and schools with large minority populations. If success can be defined as placement and reputation, the dean is most sanguine about the outlook. Museums, universities, and non governmental organizations in this country and abroad would welcome Richard Gilder Graduate School students with open arms, knowing the museum’s reputation and knowing many of its curator faculty who lead a number of the museum’s 120 annual expeditions.
The accelerated four-year, 62 credit curriculum includes core, elective, and research courses, including a course in writing grants. The dean points with pride to the fact that the school’s first international student, from Sweden, who has been working on genomes, wrote a proposal that has made it to the final round. #