Peabody Curators Foster Wonder Through Science

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Growing up in Flushing, Queens, Martha Muñoz was fascinated by the natural world but few places to indulge in it.

Imagine being a nerdy little boy obsessed with nature with so little access to green spaces, ”said Muñoz, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the Yale Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Where were the opportunities? “

For Muñoz, the nearby American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan has become a favorite haunt, fueling his passion for nature with its evocative exhibits showcasing the Earth’s biodiversity.

I could transport myself under the ocean or in the Amazon, ”she said. “The best museums stimulate wonder this way.”

Today, Muñoz is Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, where her research focuses on the role of behavior in the evolution of reptiles and amphibians and where she works with museum staff to inspire a new generation of scientists. .

She is one of four women scientists who have been appointed to Peabody’s conservation staff since 2015, joining botanist Erika Edwards, paleontologist Pincelli Hull and anthropologist Jessica Thompson. All four conduct research that explores the mysteries of life on Earth.

And they do so at an exciting time, as the Peabody Museum is undergoing a major renovation that will renew and expand its public galleries while improving access to its collections for teaching and research.

They are exceptional academics, ”said Peabody Director David Skelly, Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology. “Each contributes to the development of the museum’s programming and public exhibits, but their research, while very different in subject matter, improves our understanding of how life adapts to an ever-changing world. This purse is the bread and butter of a natural history museum.

How life persists in a changing world

Whether studying plant life in Mexico’s cloud forests, fossilized plankton, Stone Age artifacts, or Caribbean lizards, each curator has questions about how life evolves and endures. The knowledge and insights gained from their work could potentially inform solutions to climate change and other global environmental challenges, Skelly said.

Edwards, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, studies how plants have evolved, adapted to different environments, and diversified across the landscape. She is particularly interested in variations in photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into sugars.

Around 30 million years ago, there was a sharp drop in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which means plants had less CO2 diffusing into their cells, ”said Edwards, curator of botany. “What they have done in response, perhaps hundreds of times independently, is to develop carbon concentrating mechanisms that allow photosynthesis to occur more efficiently.”

She is also working with Yale colleagues across disciplines to accelerate basic biodiversity research on a global scale.

Considering that we are now living in the midst of yet another mass extinction, we need to better prioritize efforts to build the Tree of Life and provide a more complete picture of how species relate to each other ”, a- she declared. “We have the impression that every time we are in the field, we meet a species new to science. “We should implement and share rapid gene sequencing technologies in the field to get data immediately. Yale and other institutions should train and equip scientists around the world so that they can do this and other important work independent of historic centers of scientific power. “

Hull, assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences, is interested in how ocean ecosystems have responded to environmental changes over a large time scale. His job often involves analyzing microscopic fossils taken from the seabed to piece together the history of the oceans and better understand how life persists.

One of the amazing things about life on Earth is that it has been around for so long despite massive changes on the planet, ”said Hull, assistant curator of invertebrate paleontology. “There is a lot of hope in the fossil record regarding how life lasts in the face of substantial, if not catastrophic, change.”

Thompson, assistant professor of anthropology, specializes in human evolution. Since 2009, she has been leading a project in Malawi in East Africa examining how social interactions between ancient hunter-gatherers changed in response to the major environmental changes that occurred at the end of the last Ice Age. She is the co-author of a recent study drawn from her fieldwork in Malawi that uncovered the first evidence that humans have altered the ecosystem with fire. She recently traveled to Ethiopia to study the fossils of what may be the food remains of our early ancestors.

I will be looking for evidence of butchery, such as cut marks on bones, from times much older than the Malawi project, ”Thompson, deputy anthropology curator, said days before her trip. “It will be exciting.”

Muñoz studies the “drivers and brakes” of evolution, seeking to understand the uneven pace of evolution. “Some traits and lineages accelerate down the evolutionary highway, while others appear to be stranded for millions of years as if stranded on I-95 during rush hour,” he said. she declared.

Part of his research focuses on the anole lizards inhabiting the Caribbean islands. His research team found that although anole species exhibit large variations in their physical structures and visible characteristics, their physiology – the way they regulate critical functions internally – evolved much more slowly. Living in the stable Caribbean climate gave them the behavioral latitude to regulate or control their body temperature more easily, thereby reducing their need for physiological adaptations, she said.

The beating heart of science ‘

Exhibits in the Peabody’s public galleries represent a small percentage of the museum’s collection of more than 14 million objects representing approximately 4 billion years of geological, biological, and human history.

The main reason we have all these jars of pickled frogs or pinned butterflies is because an academic was using them to answer questions, ”Skelly said.

Peabody curators, who are appointed by Yale faculty, expand the collections through their research and work with museum staff to maintain the collections and ensure they are accessible to researchers. The Conservatives are doing the latter task as a by-product of their work on the ground. Hull could collect fossilized foraminifera Рsingle-celled marine organisms Рfrom the ocean floor in a core. Edwards could contribute plant species found in the forests of Oaxaca, and Mu̱oz could collect Appalachian salamander specimens.

Artifacts unearthed by Thompson in Malawi and other African countries remain permanently with the governments of their countries of origin, although they may be on loan temporarily for research. (At Yale and institutions around the world, the roles and methods of building museum collections are being reexamined in light of concerns about colonialism, ethical research practices, and the meaningful establishment of a global scientific capacity building.)

Peabody’s collections staff help curators store and understand the material collected, for example by developing special computer software to enable better analysis. That medium is a godsend, said Hull, who often finds himself trying to extract data from microscopic fossils embedded in the sediment.

We’re very fortunate to be Conservative at Peabody because it allows us to work with incredibly knowledgeable people in a variety of fields to help solve important issues, ”she said.

The ingenious staff are also helping researchers extract new data from ancient specimens using cutting-edge technologies and approaches, such as using CT scans to visualize the internal structures of a preserved creature, Muñoz said.

There is so much we can learn from figuratively and literally dissecting the specimens that inhabit these collections, ”she said. “Specimens may not have a beating heart, but they are the beating heart of science.”

The Peabody is a leader among natural history museums nationwide in digitizing its collections, enabling researchers around the world to access high-resolution images and associated data from collectible documents online. .

Curators don’t just work in their labs or in the field. They participate in the museum’s public programming, give lectures on their research or work with the museum’s Afterschool EVOLUTIONS program for local high school students. They also consult with staff on the museum’s exhibits, playing a particularly important role in preparing for exhibits that Peabody’s guests will enjoy once its public galleries reopen in 2024.

Thompson is working with staff to redesign the museum’s archaeological exhibits with an emphasis on creating a new human origins room.

I am impressed with the amount of discussion and the careful attention that goes into every decision, ”she said. “There are so many difficult questions to deal with. The history of human origins is mainly African history for most of our evolution. How do you present this to people of African descent and to people who are not? Do they view this story in different ways because they connect to this part of the world differently? “

These are the kinds of questions each of the curators raises as they help develop narratives for the soon-to-be-renovated museum galleries, with an emphasis on inclusiveness while accurately depicting the science of a way that will arouse wonder.

Like anyone who visited the Peabody before the renovation, Thompson had a favorite exhibit: a section of rock from Italy with a layer of sediment marking the limit of the Cretaceous and Paleogene extinction when a comet or asteroid s ‘crashed into Earth, wiping out three-quarters of all species 66 million years ago.

It amazes me every time I see it, ”she said.


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