Peabody curators stimulate wonder through science
Growing up in Flushing, Queens, Martha Muñoz had a fascination with the natural world but few places to indulge it.
“Imagine being a nerdy little kid obsessed with nature and having so little access to green spaces,” said Muñoz, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Where were the outlets?”
For Muñoz, the American Museum of Natural History in nearby Manhattan became a cherished outlet, fueling her passion for nature with its evocative exhibits highlighting Earth’s biodiversity.
“I could transport myself under the ocean or into the Amazon,” she said. “The best museums stimulate wonder that way.”
Today, Muñoz is an 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 the museum’s staff to inspire a new generation of scientists.
She is one of four women scientists who have been appointed to the Peabody’s curatorial 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 are doing so at an exciting time, as the Peabody Museum undergoes a major renovation that will renew and expand its public galleries while enhancing access to its collections for teaching and research.
“These are outstanding scholars,” said Peabody Director David Skelly, the Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology. “Each contributes to developing the museum’s public programming and exhibits, but their research — while differing widely in subject matter — improves our understanding of how life adapts to an ever-changing world. That scholarship is the bread and butter of a natural history museum.”
How life persists in a changing world
Whether they’re studying plant life in the cloud forests of Mexico, fossilized plankton, Stone Age artifacts, or Caribbean lizards, each of the curators is pursuing questions about how life evolves and endures. Knowledge and insights gleaned from their work could potentially inform solutions for climate change and other global environmental challenges, Skelly said.
Edwards, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, studies how plants have evolved, adapted to different environments, and diversified across the landscape. She is especially interested in variations in photosynthesis, the process through which plants transform sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into sugars.
“Roughly 30 million years ago, there was a steep decline in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which means plants had less CO2 diffusing into their cells,” said Edwards, curator of botany. “What they’ve done in response, perhaps hundreds of times independently, is to evolve carbon-concentrating mechanisms that allow photosynthesis to happen more efficiently.”
She is also working with Yale colleagues across disciplines to ramp up basic biodiversity research globally.
“Considering that we are now living in the midst of a new mass extinction, we need to better prioritize efforts to build the tree of life and provide a more complete picture of how species are related to each other,” she said. “It feels like every time we’re in the field, we come across a species new to science. “We should be implementing and sharing technologies for rapid gene sequencing in the field to obtain data immediately. Yale and other institutions should be training and equipping scientists from around the world so that they can do this and other important work independently of the historical centers of scientific power.”
Hull, assistant professor of Earth & planetary sciences, is interested in how ocean ecosystems have responded to environmental change over a vast time scale. Her work often involves analyzing microscopic fossils collected from the seabed to reconstruct the history of the oceans and extract a clearer understanding of how life persists.
“One of the amazing things about life on Earth is that it’s existed for so long despite massive changes to the planet,” said Hull, assistant curator of invertebrate paleontology. “There’s a lot of hope in the fossil record concerning how life endures when faced with substantial, and even catastrophic, changes.”
Thompson, an assistant professor of anthropology, specializes in human evolution. Since 2009, she has led a project in Malawi in eastern Africa examining how the social interactions between ancient hunter gatherers changed in response to major environmental shifts that occurred during the end of the last Ice Age. She coauthored a recent study drawn from her fieldwork in Malawi that uncovered the earliest evidence of humans changing the ecosystem with fire. She recently travelled to Ethiopia to study fossils of what could be the food remains of our earliest ancestors.
“I’ll be looking for evidence of butchery, such as cut marks on the bones, at much older time periods than the Malawi project,” said Thompson, assistant curator of anthropology, a few days prior to her trip. “It’ll be exciting.”
Muñoz studies the “motors and brakes” of evolution, seeking to understand evolution’s uneven tempo. “Some traits and lineages are speeding on evolution’s autobahn, while others seem to be stalled for millions of years as if they’re stuck on I-95 at rush hour,” she said.
Part of her research focuses on anole lizards populating Caribbean islands. Her research team has found that while anole species have great variations in their physical structures and visible features, their physiology — how they regulate critical functions internally — has evolved much more slowly. Living in the stable Caribbean climate has given them the behavioral latitude to thermo-regulate, or control their body temperature, more easily, reducing their need for physiological adaptations, she said.
‘The beating heart of science’
The exhibits in the Peabody’s public galleries represent a tiny percentage of the museum’s collection of more than 14 million objects representing about 4 billion years of geological, biological, and human history.
“The main reason that we have all those jars of pickled frogs or pinned butterflies is because a scholar was using them to answer questions,” Skelly said.
The Peabody’s curators, who are appointed from Yale’s faculty, both expand the collections through their research and work with the museum’s staff to maintain the collections and ensure that they are accessible to researchers. The curators accomplish the latter task as a byproduct of their fieldwork. Hull might collect fossilized foraminifera — single-celled marine organisms — from the ocean floor in a core sample. Edwards might contribute plant species found in the forests of Oaxaca, and Muñoz might gather salamander specimens from Appalachia.
The artifacts Thompson excavates in Malawi and other African countries remain permanently with the governments of their countries of origin, although they may be loaned temporarily for research. (At Yale and institutions worldwide, the roles of museum collections, and the methods for building them, are being reexamined in light of concerns about colonialism, ethical research practices, and the meaningful establishment of global capacity-building in science.)
The Peabody’s collections staff assists the curators in both storing and making sense of the collected material, such as by developing special computer software to enable better analysis. This support is a boon, said Hull, who often finds herself trying to pull data from microscopic fossils embedded in sediment.
“We’re very lucky to be curators at the Peabody because it allows us to work with incredibly knowledgeable people in various domains to help tackle important problems,” she said.
The resourceful staff also helps researchers draw new data from old specimens using cutting-edge technologies and approaches, such as by using CT scans to view a preserved critter’s internal structures, Muñoz said.
“There's so much that we can learn by dissecting figuratively and literally the specimens that populate these collections,” she said. “The specimens may not have a beating heart, but they provide the beating heart of science.”
The Peabody is a leader among natural history museums nationally in digitizing its collections, allowing researchers across the globe to access high-resolution images and associated data of collection materials online.
The curators don’t just toil in their labs or in the field. They participate in the museum’s public programming, giving talks about their research or working with the museum’s EVOLUTIONS Afterschool Program for local high school students. They also consult with staff on the museum’s exhibits, taking an especially important role in preparing the exhibits the Peabody’s guests will enjoy once its public galleries reopen in 2024.
Thompson is working with staff to reconceptualize the museum’s archaeological exhibits with a focus on creating a new hall of human origins.
“I’m impressed by the amount of discussion and careful attention that goes into every decision,” she said. “There are so many difficult questions to address. The story of human origins is predominantly an African story for most of our evolution. How do you portray that to people who are of African descent and people who are not? Do they view that story in different ways because they connect with that part of the world differently?”
These are the kinds of questions each of the curators is raising as they help to develop narratives for the museum’s soon-to-be refurbished galleries, emphasizing inclusivity while accurately portraying the science in a way that will spark wonder.
Like anyone who has visited the Peabody before the renovation, Thompson had a favorite exhibit: a section of rock from Italy with a layer of sediment marking the boundary from the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event when a comet or asteroid crashed into Earth, wiping out three-quarters of all species 66 million years ago.
“It blows my mind every time I see it,” she said.