The Honorable the Members of the Board of Regents


Johanna Duncan-Poitier


American Museum of Natural History: Master Plan Amendment to authorize a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and Master of Philosophy (M. Phil) degree program in Comparative Biology


October 11, 2006


Goals 2 and 4








Issue for Decision (Consent Agenda)


Should the Regents approve an amendment to the master plan of the American Museum of Natural History to authorize the museum to offer a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and Master of Philosophy (M. Phil) degree program in Comparative Biology?


Reason for Consideration


            Required by State regulation.


Proposed Handling


This question will come before the Board of Regents at its October 2006 meeting for final action.


Procedural History


Master plan amendment is required because this would establish the Graduate School of the American Museum of Natural History to offer its first degree-granting program.


Background Information


The American Museum of Natural History was chartered by the New York State Legislature in 1869. The charter was amended by the Regents as a cultural institution.




The Department has determined that the proposed program, if approved, would meet the standards for registration set forth in the Regulations of the Commissioner of Education.


It is recommended that the master plan of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, be amended, effective October 24, 2006, to authorize the Museum to offer a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and Master of Philosophy (M. Phil) degree program in Comparative Biology. This amendment will be effective until October 31, 2007, unless the Department registers the program prior to that date, in which case master plan amendment shall be without term.



Information in Support of Recommendation


Founded in 1869 as an institution of scientific research and education and chartered as an educational institution by the New York State Legislature, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is one of the world’s foremost centers of research and training in the natural sciences, the physical sciences, and anthropology.  Over the past four decades, the Museum has—in partnership with some of the nation’s leading universities—trained hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students as well as postdoctoral fellows.  In these partnerships—with such institutions as Columbia University, The City University of New York, New York University, and Cornell University—AMNH funds students and AMNH faculty members teach, advise, and supervise students in their laboratory and fieldwork and dissertation research.  The AMNH community currently includes 43 AMNH-funded graduate students and 35 postdoctoral trainees.  The AMNH now proposes to establish a Graduate School, which would grant the degrees of Ph.D. and M.Phil in Comparative Biology.  This new program, endorsed by current university partners, complements and strengthens existing graduate training partnerships, which will continue.


The proposed program aims to train the next generation of biologists through an integrative approach that focuses on the history, evolutionary relationships, and interactions among species.  Unlike much of biology, which tends to focus on a single exemplar organism or a small subset of model organisms, this approach mirrors the complexity of many of the most pressing and promising areas in science today and takes advantage of the AMNH’s unique and unparalleled resources, including its world-renowned collections; a legacy of excellence in field discovery and theoretical advances; a critical mass of scientists in the field of comparative biology; and a public mission, which lends invaluable social context, connection, and depth to students’ work.  The program defines comparative biology as the study of organisms broadly, relationships among organisms, and evolutionary biodiversity.  This is a field in which AMNH has existing strength and coverage and can demonstrate leadership to support a unique program that will attract and serve the very best students.  Thirty AMNH faculty members and the majority of the current graduate students work in this area.


Many university programs lack the kind of training required to equip tomorrow’s scientists with the broad perspective called for by the burgeoning and complex field of biology.  The Museum’s program will address this need through its new Ph.D. program in combination with its ongoing university partnerships.


The Graduate School faculty will consist of the 45 tenured and tenure-track scientists who constitute the Museum’s curatorial corps within the Divisions of Invertebrate Zoology, Vertebrate Zoology, Paleontology, Physical Sciences, and Anthropology, as well as some Ph.D. scientists working in AMNH research centers, and adjunct and visiting faculty from outside the AMNH.  (“Curator” is the term used in museum settings for tenured and tenure-track academic scientists engaged in collections-based research, supervision of collections, postsecondary teaching and advising, and public education, including exhibitions.)


Comparable to university faculty, the AMNH Graduate School faculty members all hold doctorates and academic rank and are recognized worldwide for the excellence of their research.  They maintain active field and laboratory research programs in addition to conducting collections-based, specimen-based morphological, theoretical, and molecular studies at the AMNH.  They publish actively; the number of publications by AMNH scientists in peer-reviewed journals has grown through each decade of the 20th century, increasing an extraordinary 70 percent in the 1990s alone.  More than 500 publications by AMNH scientists are now published annually.  AMNH scientists are also active in securing external funding.  From 2000 to 2004 their federal research support more than doubled, and the faculty enjoys a submission-to-award rate for peer-reviewed grants of approximately 45 percent, twice the national average.


Of the 45 existing faculty members, 36 will be directly involved in the AMNH’s new Ph.D. program in Comparative Biology.  These AMNH faculty members, through the longstanding formal partnerships mentioned above with CUNY, Columbia, NYU, and Cornell, currently hold adjunct or full-faculty appointments at these universities, where they teach and advise students, and chair and serve on dissertation committees.  In the new Ph.D. program at the AMNH, they will teach courses, advise students, serve on committees, and chair or serve on dissertation committees. 


The curriculum is intensive, immersive, flexible, and field- and collections-based.  Students are required to complete a minimum of 62 credits through a combination of:






The course of study is four years (12-month program), and deemed realistic given the expected self-selecting nature of the student body.  Projections, however, allow for some students to extend to a fifth year.


AMNH expects to attract a group of highly motivated, exceptionally prepared U.S. and international students interested in an intensive experience and who have demonstrated a high degree of proficiency in undergraduate or prior graduate training and an interest in conducting original, creative research in one of the program’s areas of focus.  Students must have a bachelor’s degree and must submit transcripts, GRE scores, letters of support, and a written essay.  Final candidates will be interviewed. 


The program will be open to all applicants regardless of sex, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, or country of origin.  The Museum will make special efforts to recruit students from populations underrepresented in science, such as minorities and women.  To ensure excellent supervision and adequate financial support, the program will be limited to four to six new students each year and funded by the Museum.  By the fifth year, the Graduate School’s student population will reach its target of 18–22 students, with a faculty-to-student ratio of approximately 2:1. 


The AMNH Graduate School will be supported by unparalleled resources and first rate instructional facilities. These include AMNH’s vast and world-renowned collections—32 million specimens and cultural artifacts—as well as its Research Library, which holds nearly one-half million volumes among other holdings.


The Graduate School also will be served by significant existing instructional space and resources, which include at least ten existing classrooms and laboratories as well as numerous informal spaces (including cafeterias), located throughout the institution.  AMNH is exceptionally well equipped for research in comparative biology, with 10,000 square feet of molecular systematics laboratories, including a new laboratory that opened for operation in March 2006.  These labs house state-of-the-art equipment supporting many aspects of DNA analysis.  Other existing scientific facilities include a powerful parallel computing facility, a frozen tissue collection, an imaging and microscopy laboratory, and the Southwestern Research Station, a field station in Arizona, a facility that attracts top field biologists and their students from many universities annually. 


These existing facilities notwithstanding, the AMNH has developed a capital plan with the goal of creating within the existing AMNH campus a new “home” for the Graduate School, both in fact and in spirit.  The new space will meet the academic and social needs of the student community, providing them with places to work, collaborate, and interact informally.  The plan envisions renovating 4,000–5,475 square feet of contiguous space for the Graduate School.  An architectural firm has been hired and the planning phase has begun.  Students also will have access to resources at partner universities.


To date, AMNH has raised $54 million in funding for graduate training, which includes full funding for all students in the program. 


There is a growing need in academia, industry, government, and medicine for rigorously trained biologists to understand and interpret the social and scientific challenges of the 21st century and to take advantage of unprecedented new opportunities in environmental conservation, human health, and related fields.  The career success of students who have previously trained at AMNH is strong and points to the efficacy of the AMNH’s training programs and the preparedness of its students to enter and become leaders in the field.


            A site visit was conducted by a team of peer reviewers who found the AMNH to meet registration standards. A canvass was conducted of all doctoral degree-granting institutions statewide and all institutions in the New York City Region. Four responses were received expressing support for the program and one expressing no objection to the proposed program.