Last April, Astoria native and City College valedictorian Antonia Florio got the news of a lifetime.
Florio, 22, is one of only five students selected for the inaugural class at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.
The museum is the first in the nation to offer a doctoral program. Students at the Gilder School will draw upon the museum’s 140-year history and vast collections, focusing on comparative biology, a field of study that seeks to find the origins of life on our planet.
The museum, founded in 1869, provides a unique backdrop that includes 270,000 mammal specimens, 2,000 dinosaur fossils, eight mounted African elephants and a life-size model of a blue whale, among many other natural wonders.
Located on the fifth floor on the 77th Street side of the museum, the Gilder school complex includes a teaching lab, lecture hall and a two-story atrium lounge and mezzanine.
“Antonia is the only local student,” said John Flynn, dean of the Richard Gilder Graduate School. “The other four students hail from universities in North Carolina, Oregon, Washington State and as far abroad as Sweden.”
All students attending the school receive full fellowships as well as research budgets, according to Flynn.
Florio majored in biology at City College and initially planned to become a veterinarian. An avowed animal lover, she dabbled in work both as a volunteer and later as a paid veterinary assistant. But Florio would eventually decide that working with animals wasn’t exactly where she envisioned spending her career.
“As an undergrad at CCNY, I volunteered at several science labs doing research on beetles and fish,” Florio said, “and strangely enough, I really enjoyed that research.”
After Florio’s father read a newspaper story about the graduate school, he encouraged her to apply. In the meantime, Florio participated in an AMNH Summer Research program investigating fish in Africa’s lower Congo River in 2007.
The program will likely take four years to complete. Her current research will include six months abroad studying the effects of climate change on chameleons from Madagascar, using the island as a natural laboratory to study the origins of new species.
After completing her first semester last fall, Florio said that the experience was both challenging and enlightening. “I’ve learned so much that it’s actually scary,” she said. “I’m now talking about science in a completely different way.”
Given her overwhelmingly positive experience thus far, Florio is surprised there are not more students trying to get into the school. “It’s a great program and the fact that it’s fully-funded is a definite plus …especially with today’s economy,” she said. “Knowing that I will graduate from the program and not be in debt is a great feeling.”
The program’s combination of education and research was of particular interest for the young graduate student. “The educational aspect of the program is great with its staff of curators who also serve as faculty … including the museum itself with its millions of specimens and artifacts,” Florio said. “The research abroad is truly a unique component and once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Florio believes people need to be better educated about the environment. “We’re all connected to the environment,” she said. “The well-being of other things, such as chameleons in Madagascar, are connected to our own well-being and I hope one day to help more people realize that their actions have far-reaching effects.”