American Museum of Natural History Careers

A career at the museum

Collections and disciplines

Opportunities at museums are largely confined to natural history. Museum research is driven, and often defined, by institutions' specimen collections — extensive libraries of natural history objects that are conserved and catalogued. The physical sciences are more likely to be encountered at science centres, which are more hands-on than collection-based. Life sciences tend to be overrepresented, particularly zoology. A large natural history museum might employ ornithologists, mammalogists, entomologists and ichthyologists, along with botanists, archaeologists, geologists, astronomers and palaeontologists.

Some larger museums do have impressive labs. The genomics labs at the AMNH, for example, are enabling John Flynn, chair and curator of fossil mammals, and his collaborators to sequence 30 genes for every species of living carnivore. But that's rare. More often, a museum scientist in need of a molecular-biology lab must collaborate with a university researcher, says Spencer Lucas, interim executive director at the Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque, New Mexico. So scientists at smaller museums find inventive ways to get data and scrutinize specimens with the latest technology. "We take specimens into the local hospital late at night, " says Thomas Williamson, curator of palaeontology at the New Mexico museum. "If someone comes into the ER with a head trauma, the doctors pull our fossil out of the CAT scanner."

The advent of genomics has translated into new ways to look at material in collections, whether studying Neanderthal DNA or using genomics to catalogue specimens as part of conservation-biology projects. This should mean new job opportunities for scientists at museums, according to John Bates, chair of zoology at the Field Museum in Chicago. But those new studies require support.

John Flynn is part of a project to sequence mammalian genes at the American Museum of Natural History.R. MICKENS

A career at the museumFortunately, private funds and earned revenue are helping to sustain museums, says Alan Friedman, former director of the New York Hall of Science. For example, the US4-million renovation project under way at the California Academy of Sciences since 2005 will see the museum reopen later this year. The project, including a 'living roof' of plants, was funded by donations, membership fees, and the city and state.

More than academic

The path from museum research to exhibition design can offer opportunities not feasible in the academic environment. Dennis Blanton, curator and archaeologist at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia, recalls how an accidental observation led to an interdisciplinary study and a novel exhibition. Last summer Blanton discovered a local riverbed exposed by drought. He morphed from archaeologist to palaeontologist when radiocarbon dating revealed the sediments to be about 35, 000 years old. "The ecosystem had never been seen before, " he says. Sedimentologists and other experts were brought in and many botanical specimens analysed. The result was an exhibition showcasing a 'virtual walk' in a 35, 000-year-old Georgia forest. "The museum embraced the discovery and allowed me to pursue analysis, " he adds.

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American Museum of Natural History: Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, NY, 10024-5192. Phone: (212) 769-5606.

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