Supporting the Next Generation of Scientists

Founded in 1812, The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is the oldest natural sciences institution in the Western Hemisphere. It wasn’t until 1828, however, that The Academy opened its doors to the public, putting all of its collections on display in a museum-like setting. Today, those collections now contain over 19 million specimens of plants, animals, and insects.

In 2011, The Academy joined forces with Drexel University–another historic Philadelphia institution and world-class research organization, to enhance the exhibits and programs offered to the public and also to establish a groundbreaking academic department focused on environmental science. The partnership has paved the way for The Academy to serve as one of the leading environmental, ecological, and biodiversity research labs in the world.

“We are internationally known for our environmental, ecological, and evolutionary research capabilities, and we are training the next generation of scientists in that area,” said Dr. Nate Rice, Ornithology Collection Manager at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

The Hill at Whitemarsh has played a large role in helping to further this next generation of scientific minds, both through its residents serving as Board members and through a research program that is centered around The Hill’s own Lake Lenape.

“We were interested in the density and diversity of the birds in that area as bigger indicators of wildlife there,” explained Dr. Rice. “Thanks to a generous endowment from the late Jim Stewart, a longtime Board member and resident at The Hill, we are able to fund co-ops and training opportunities as well as provide grants for student projects.”

One such project looked at the levels of phosphorus, chlorophyll, and nitrogen in the waters of Lake Lenape over the course of two years. Nutrient levels in stormwater retention basins, such as Lake Lenape, can vary based on fertilizer, wastewater, stormwater, and agricultural runoff within the watershed. The research study performed by an Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel co-op student found that the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the pond were much higher than expected. There were absolutely no risks to the residents, but it explained why there was limited plant growth within the body of water.

As an ornithologist, Dr. Rice also leads a team of student ornithologists in a bird study at The Hill. Since the partnership with The Hill began in 2015, Dr. Rice and his budding scientists have identified over 75 types of birds in the trees around Lake Lenape.

“We invest heavily in the ornithology students that are admitted into our program at The Academy. They’re committed to preserving and studying nature, and they are quite literally the next generation of global ornithologists. It’s important to keep providing them with the training they’ll need to thrive out in the wider scientific world, and The Hill is helping us lay the groundwork for that.”

Dr. Rice places an emphasis on the importance of these young scientists having the ability to be out in the field and to learn how to operate in the field. The work might be slow, as collecting data can quite often take years to accomplish, but eventually trends will emerge and tell a story to help humans gain a deeper understanding of nature and make environmentally savvy decisions.

“There are limitations with this kind of work, since there’s no immediate payoff. These long-term nature studies provide us with data before, during, and after certain events–like a seasonal swarm of emerald ash borers, which kills a lot of trees–and it can be beneficial in understanding the full scope of what’s happening,” said Dr. Rice.

When asked why he thinks The Hill serves as such a great setting for this kind of environmental research, Dr. Rice doesn’t hesitate before pointing out that many of the residents there have a great appreciation for nature.

“Loving nature is infectious! Preserving our environment is an idea that can spread easily, and it shows in the passion that The Hill residents all have,” he said.

To plan your visit to The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in downtown Philadelphia, visit