If you haven’t been to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, it’s a really phenomenal place with dioramas, dinosaurs, ancient pottery, and everything in between. I grew up a few blocks away and spent hours there as a child, daydreaming about what wonders might be hidden behind locked doors.
As it turns out, there are thousands, catalogued with precision, and sometimes examined by teenagers. It took a few email exchanges to discover the museum’s Student Research Mentoring Program (affectionately referred to as “Shrimp”), a two-year long internship for New York City high school students. The students spend the first year learning all about science and the museum, coming twice a week to take four hours of classes on subjects ranging from genetics to conservation biology—and this is after they’ve already finished school for the day. In the second year, the students get paired up with a mentor at the museum—in Paleontology, Anthropology, and many other departments—and then spend those same after-school hours doing actual research that will eventually be published in journals, with their name alongside their mentor’s byline. I was lucky enough to speak with Arica Wyche and Christy Rajcoomar, two 17-year-old high school seniors, who are working with their mentor, Dr. Colleen Ingram, in the Herpetology department, which is not what it sounds like. They are studying the migration patterns of panther chameleons from Madagascar to neighboring islands.
Dr. Ingram and the girls gave me a tour of their offices, and then we sat down and chatted for a few minutes. As you might expect, Arica and Christy are smart and driven and wonderful, and we all geeked out together when Dr. Ingram took us into the basement and showed us jars of chameleons that had been bottled in 1927.
What do you most look forward to when you come here?
Christy: I love the lab work. I absolutely love the lab work. The pipetting and the gelling and just looking for results is probably the best part.
Is that because you’re finding specific answers?
Christy: I think it’s not necessarily the answers, because sometimes the answers don’t work out to what you want them to be. At one point, I was doing a DNA extraction from the foot of a chameleon, and I forgot that I had a gel running at the same time. When I went back to my gel, it had melted because I had turned the gel box on high. But just being a part of the whole research project is amazing. I just sit down and I’m like, I’m part of this.
Arica: What she just said is definitely important to me. It’s really nice to come here and swipe your card and get into places where nobody else can go.
I see. You’re in it for the status!
Arica: Not quite the status! That part is interesting, but more like doing actual work that relates to what you learn in school. [Learning this kind of thing] in class is one thing, but being able to actually do it on a regular basis? That’s definitely cool.
So what have you learned about the migration patterns of the panther chameleon?
Christy: From the data that we have collected so far, we can tell that the specimen originated mostly from the north/northwest of Madagascar.
Are your friends at school amazed? Do they think this is the coolest thing in the world?
Arica: Yeah, they definitely are, the ones that know about it.
Christy: Some of my friends, when I tell them, they’re like, I have no clue what you’re talking about.
So, Christy, your interest is veterinary science, and Arica, yours is chemistry. Needless to say, science is your favorite subject, but has it always been that way? What was the first thing that really got you excited about the subject?
Christy: As far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a vet, because I always had so many pets. I’ve had a cat, a parakeet, two hamsters, a Doberman/Rottweiler mix, and a squirrel monkey. Science was just always there. At one point, I wanted to be an astronaut, and then I heard the shuttle blew up, so I just said, nah, I don’t want to go there anymore.
Arica: Science has always been really interesting to me. My dad is a nuclear engineer, so I got introduced to it at an early age. I have three younger siblings, so obviously, if you have four kids, they’re going to experiment with things and see what happens when you put this and that together.
So what you’re saying is that you’ve done a lot of science experiments on your poor siblings.
Arica: Not on them. With them. They were my colleagues, not my guinea pigs.
You’ve both been in this program for two years. Do you feel like, when you go to college next year, you’re going to think, “Oh, I’m already a professional”?
Arica: I wouldn’t go that far. There’s a lot left to learn. I like this internship, but I could also see myself moving more toward bio-chem, or chemistry itself, and I definitely have a lot more to learn in those fields. And when I was choosing my colleges, undergrads being able to do research was an important thing.
Christy: I like this program a lot. Going to college is not going to be as much fun as coming here after school.
Are there particular perks to working in this museum? Are there things that you get to see that other people don’t get to see? Have you been here really late at night?
Christy: Like A Night at the Museum! Yeah. During the first year, we would take trips to the bird exhibits, behind the scenes, and we got to see the ostrich in the jar and stuff. We got to see things that regular people who come here don’t get to see. It’s definitely a fun part about it.
Arica: I would have to say, I love both that experience and also the everyday experience, because I had never been here previous to getting this internship. I moved here from California the year before I started. I was like, “There’s a whale on the ceiling!”
Do you have a favorite exhibit?
Arica: My favorite has to be the Hall of Biodiversity. It was one of the first places that we visited last year. It really impressed on me.
Christy: That’s also my favorite. There’s a rainforest. In the middle of the hall! And there are little learning centers with computers, where you can click and they show you different stuff. And then on the walls, they have different kingdoms, and fish, and a hanging jellyfish, and a giant clam that you can sit in. Everyone takes a picture in the clam.
Arica: I was something of a bookworm, but in recent years, I have run down on time. Not because of this, but just because of high school in general. It’s a crash course in how to not have enough free time to read. I do like to write, and draw, and paint. So I’m something of an artsy person sometimes. And in general, I like to hang out with my younger siblings and wreak havoc on the neighborhood. But, I mean, we’re good people!
Christy: I like to read, and I listen to music. Sometimes you just need a break. Because high school—like, 11th and 12th grade—is really stressful, with the SATs, ACTs, and all the Regents exams New York makes you take, so reading takes me away. I am a big fan of Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice is my favorite. As for music, I kind of listen to all types, but I guess 30 Seconds to Mars would probably be my favorite band.
How do you feel about going away to school? Are you anxious or excited?
Arica: Definitely excited. I’m pretty used to moving around and making new friends and everything, so that part doesn’t really worry me. I just want to move on to the next part of my life, you know? This year, more than finishing high school, it’s like finishing kindergarten through 12th grade, and that’s what makes it really impressive. It’s 13 years. It’s given me and most of my friends the sense that time really does move. When you’re younger, it can seem like, Oh, I’m moving on to the fourth grade, but it’s pretty much the same. But now, we’re all turning 18, and time really has passed, and we’re moving on to something else. We have our own decisions to make.
Christy: That’s really deep. And yeah, it’s all up to you to push yourself to do better this time around. It’s not the teachers telling you to come on and just do your work. It’s you having to be like: I need this, I want this, let’s go. ♦
In the fall, Christy will attend Queens College, and Arica will attend MIT.