Don Melnick is a magna cum laude graduate in anthropology and history from New York University, and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He received his doctorate in physical anthropology, focusing on molecular genetics, from Yale University, and then joined the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University. He was subsequently jointly appointed to the Department of Biological Sciences, and currently holds his primary appointment in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology.
Professor Melnick designed and spearheaded the formation of the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology (E3B), thus creating in 2001 the first truly new Columbia Arts and Sciences department in over half a century. Professor Melnick is founding Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC), a position he held from 1994-2006. CERC is a biodiversity conservation education, training, and research consortium that includes Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History, The New York Botanical Garden, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Wildlife Trust. More recently, Professor Melnick held the position of co-Chair of the U.N. Millennium Task Force on Environmental Sustainability, and was lead author of the Task Force report, Environment and Human Well-being: a practical strategy for achieving environmental sustainability.
Professor Melnick also maintains an active scientific research career. For over 30 years, he has used molecular genetics to explain aspects of the ecology, behavior, evolution and conservation of vertebrates. This research has spanned organisms from frogs to elephants, and continents from Central and South America to Asia and Africa. He has published over 120 articles, book chapters, abstracts and reports that describe the results of research on (1) the impact of social organization on the level and distribution of genetic variation in wild populations of primates and other mammals; (2) the degree to which different portions of a species’ genome track different aspects of its evolutionary history; and (3) the ways in which genetic data can be used to assess the current demographic and genetic health of a species and its populations, as well as develop management plans to ensure its future existence.
Professor Melnick is a popular teacher, having created one of Columbia's largest science courses for non-science majors. He was chosen as one of the first four professors to lead Columbia’s new science core course, “The Frontiers of Science.” He received Columbia's Hettleman Award for Outstanding Teaching and Service, was a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.
In addition to his work published in numerous technical journals and books, he has been covered by such popular media as The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Time Magazine, the Discovery Channel, CBS Radio, and National Public Radio.
In the public policy arena, Professor Melnick has advised several heads of state and has presented his vision for environmentally and socially sustainable economic growth to the UN Forum on Forests, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the World Bank, the foreign ministers and secretaries of state of the 79 member countries of the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific Alliance, and most recently to a special joint session of Congress of the Dominican Republic. A summary of this vision as it relates specifically to forests was published as a New York Times Op Ed article for Earth Day 2006.