2019 SSI interns and instructors on a field trip at the Bodega Marine Lab.
Since 1995, the California Academy of Sciences' Summer Systematics Institute (SSI), with support from NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program and the Academy's Robert T. Wallace endowment, has addressed critical topics including; worldwide threats to biodiversity, the origins and diversification of life, phylogenetic systematics, and evolutionary biology.
SSI is a nine-week paid research internship at our state-of-the-art research facility and museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. This world-renowned venue offers undergraduates important insights into the contributions that museum-based research can make to issues facing society today by providing them the opportunity to do museum-based research for the summer. The program accommodates up to 10 undergraduate students. This internship is made possible by the National Science Foundation and the Robert T. Wallace Endowment for undergraduate education.
Participants will conduct research with their chosen advisor on a project relating to the discipline of the advisor and student. The program begins with a week-long field trip to the Pepperwood Preserve in Sonoma County where students will participate in workshops on natural history field methods and science communication, before traveling to the Bodega Marine Lab to participating in the annual Snapshot Cal Coast Bioblitz.
Throughout the program, participants also take part in a museum-based curriculum that includes lectures and lab exercises on phylogenetics and systematics, molecular techniques, biodiversity, evolutionary biology, global change, and other contemporary issues in the natural sciences. Other activities include collections tours, popular writing, and science communication workshops, and time out on the museum floor directly communicating with the public.
The program culminates with a research symposium, where participants have an opportunity to communicate their summer research findings with the Academy community. Following their summer internship, participants are also invited (and encouraged) to attend a scientific meeting to present their findings in the form of a talk or poster.
Duration & Location
The Summer Systematics Institute is a full-time program (40 hours/week) for nine weeks, from May 31st - July 29th, 2022. The program's first week will be spent at Pepperwood Preserve and the Bodega Marine Lab with the remainder of the time spent in San Francisco at the California Academy of Sciences.
If your quarter or semester ends in early June, after the start date, please apply and if you are accepted we will work out your schedule.
How to Apply
The application process is entirely online. You will need to complete the application form.
The online form will ask you to prepare a statement of interest in working at the Academy.
Complete the advisor selection portion of the application form after consulting the advisors and projects listed at the bottom of this page.
You do not need to provide letters of recommendation. You will need to find two references and provide their contact information. At least one must be a science professor or academic professional (such as an instructor or teaching assistant) who knows your school work well enough to talk with us about you as a student if we contact them. Your other reference can be someone who knows you from working with you at any job, volunteer work, or community work. They just need to be able to talk about you as a person and as a learner. You should speak to these people before submitting their information to be sure they are willing to receive emails or phone calls and answer questions about you.
Deadline: February 15, 2022. Applications received after midnight on February 15, 2022, will not be reviewed.
Applicants will be notified by email sometime in early to mid-March 2022. Due to the volume of applicants, we cannot give additional confirmation that we have received application materials received beyond the confirmation screen when the application is submitted.
Any U.S. citizen or resident alien (green card) who is an undergraduate student, and who will not have graduated before the start of the fall semester or quarter of 2022, is welcome to apply. That is, you must be enrolled in an undergraduate program at the time of the internship.
Housing & Stipend
A $5,400 ($600/week) stipend will be awarded to each intern. Travel to and from San Francisco will be provided. Housing will be provided in dormitories in San Francisco (within walking distance and easy public transportation to the Academy), with details to be provided upon the selection of interns. Personal stipends may be subject to federal and/or state income taxes.
Click the + next to each advisor's name to learn more.
Rayna Bell studies the ecology and evolution of amphibians and reptiles with an emphasis on island biogeography, hybrid zones and coloration phenotypes. Much of her work in based on a group of diverse and colorful frogs, the hyperoliid reed frogs, which are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, and the Gulf of Guinea islands. More recently, Rayna has started studying the diversity and evolution of the frog visual system, a research direction that stems from her interests in understanding the ecology and evolution of coloration in frogs.
Additional information on Dr. Bell’s research can be found at: http://www.raynacbell.com.
Frogs are the most diverse amphibian group with over 7,000 described species. In many cases, closely related species can be challenging to tell apart based on their physical characteristics alone. Because of this challenge, the Academy's herpetology collection includes many specimens with provisional or uncertain species identifications, and this uncertainty impacts how the specimens and their associated data can be used for research. The two main goals of the project are 1) update the species IDs of cryptic frog species with a combination of morphological and molecular data, and 2) gain experience with making and curating voucher specimens. The intern will be sequencing DNA, examining voucher specimens, and (hopefully) joining the Department of Herpetology in the field.
Sarah is an arachnologist whose research focuses on terrestrial arthropods, primarily spider evolutionary biology, although she occasionally dabbles with insects. She is mostly interested in flattie spiders – pretty much every aspect of their biology – and dictynoids. If you have any interest in collaborating (aka joining the Flat Spider Society), get in touch with her! She has a BSc from Virginia Tech, an MSc from San Diego State University, and a PhD from the University of California Berkeley. Prior to her current appointment, she was a research officer at the Western Australian Museum and a member of the Berkeley City College Biology Faculty. Sarah has previously taught our SSI Program systematics course.
You can read more about her research here.
Kate Montana is a first-year master's student in the arachnology lab. She investigates the evolutionary relationships between dictynid spiders as well as the untold histories of scientists at the Academy. Kate is also motivated to make nature a more just and equitable environment for marginalized communities and works with the Oakland-based organization Justice Outside. She earned her bachelor's degree in integrative biology and anthropology in 2020 at the University of California, Berkeley. Kate welcomes any questions prior to the start of the program and is happy to share her experience as an alumnus of the 2019 cohort of the Summer Systematics Institute.
The student will use molecular and morphological methods to define the taxonomy of an understudied genus of spiders. They will contribute to a larger project aimed at systematically revising the genus Lathys. Possible questions could also include those of a biogeographic nature.
Dr. Lauren Esposito is the Curator and Schlinger Chair of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences. Lauren’s current research investigates the patterns and processes of evolution in spiders, scorpions, with a focus on tropical islands. Originally from the US-Mexico borderlands, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at El Paso, and went on to obtain an MS and PhD from the American Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the City University of New York. Lauren is the co-founder/director of a science, education, and conservation non-profit called Islands & Seas, and the co-creator of 500 Queer Scientists, a visibility campaign for LGBTQ+ people working in STEM careers.
Learn more about Lauren here.
Jacob Gorneau is a second-year graduate student in the arachnology lab who loves anything with an exoskeleton. His master’s work focuses on the evolution of a group of spiders called the marronoids, as well as the population genomics of the Western forest scorpion, Uroctonus mordax. Before coming to the California Academy of Sciences for his master’s, he received a bachelor’s in entomology from Cornell University, and was in the 2019 cohort of SSI!
Learn more about Jacob here.
Sawfinger scorpions in the genus Serradigitus are abundant throughout California, where there are currently eight species. Named for their blade-like claws, the evolutionary relationships of these small scorpions have not been investigated in detail, and recent work indicates there are more species to be described. This project offers an opportunity to generate and work with molecular and morphological data to delineate species boundaries in the genus, contributing to our knowledge and understanding of arachnid biodiversity in California.
Terry's research on the systematics, phylogenetics and comparative biology of nudibranchs and other sea slugs focuses on the implications of phylogenies in understanding evolution of shell-loss, mimicry, and other comparative aspects of the evolution of these animals. He has studied the diversity of these mollusks along the California coast for more than 40 years. Most recently, this work employs evolutionary studies to develop new strategies for conservation of Philippine reefs in the center of the center of marine biodiversity. He develops key collaborations with research institutions, conservation organizations, and large public exhibits to bring these findings to diverse audiences.
Dr. Rebecca Johnson co-developed and co-directs the Center for Biodiversity and Community Science at the California Academy of Sciences. Her research focuses on the evolutionary history of nudibranchs, the evolution of color pattern in this group, and on combining historical museum collections data and current observational data to understand climate and land-use change, especially coastal species range shifts. Core to her research is building and facilitating a community of naturalists working together to discover nature, in special places and in their everyday lives. She works with a team of volunteers to discover, document, and monitor invertebrates and seaweeds in the intertidal habitats of central California, primarily along the Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo coasts. Rebecca leads the Statewide Initiative, Snapshot Cal Coast, which mobilizes hundreds of volunteers every year to collectively build a data set of coastal species observations, that is key to understanding species range change.
Lynn is a lab technician whose primary research focuses on a family of Indo-Pacific nudibranchs (sea slugs) and the systematics and phylogenetics of this group. Her research involves molecular work, as well as comparative morphological work to describe new species. She has previously worked on the ecology of bumblebees in Northern Virginia and has helped with molecular projects from marine invertebrates to plants to reptiles/amphibians. She has a B.S. from George Mason University, an M.S. from San Francisco State University, and a B.M. (music) from Colorado State University.
Nudibranchs in the genus Cadlina are found throughout the temperate and polar regions with the two areas of highest diversity off the coast of California and the coast of South Africa. New lineages from the Eastern Pacific have been described in the last few years, but sampling was not complete for taxa found in California. This summer our intern will add molecular data on California to existing published data to investigate whether or not there are unnamed lineages/new species. In addition, the intern will work with specimens for South Africa. They will work the molecular lab sequencing DNA, do dissections, and describe the morphology of species from California and South Africa, and analyze the resulting molecular data in order to further our knowledge of this interesting group of nudibranchs.
Sarah is a curator in the Botany Department and botanist with broad interests in plant systematics and speciation. To address these questions, Jacobs focused her PhD at the University of Idaho on amassing large data sets that combine ecological, geographic, and molecular information along with plant measurements to sort out tangled species relationships. One of her goals is to create a general framework that can be applied to other plant lineages, with the aim of asking broader questions about the evolution of species in western North America. At the Academy, Jacobs uses cutting-edge genomics, size and shape analyses, and statistical approaches to further develop her framework. Her work will help to resolve long-standing taxonomic questions and reveal the evolutionary drivers responsible for such incredible plant diversity across the West.
The plant genus Castilleja (also known as “the paintbrushes”) is an iconic group of wildflowers, particularly in western North America. Despite its reputation, the genus is notorious among botanists for difficult taxonomy and challenging systematics. This project will contribute data (molecular, morphological, and/or ecological) to ongoing efforts to delimit lineages and characterize the diversification process in this complex group. The intern will learn and hone skills associated with plant identification, field data collection, data analysis and basic scripting.
Dr. Kapan’s lab at the California Academy of science is currently focused on two related areas of applied science to make an impact on the health of people and the planet. First, he is co-leading a growing collaborative research program to measure the effect of on-the-ground work to restore the resilience of socio-ecological systems concentrating on California forests and second, he has an ongoing research program on ecology, evolution and health related to invasive mosquito vectors (and emerging infections pathogens they transmit—the latter in collaboration with Dr. Shannon Bennett). He also conducts basic research on insect genomics in his lab, including work on Heliconius butterflies and Hawaiian insects including invasive Aedes mosquitoes. Most recently he has been focusing on developing new methods and R-packages to measure gene-sharing between species (introgression) a phenomenon that has applied implications for both conservation and invasive species. Finally, he utilizes citizen science and public outreach to make a positive impact.
Genomics of the extinct Xerces blue butterfly: ecological and phenotypic dimensions.
I seek a computationally skilled student to help learn what made the extinct Xerces blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche 'xerces’) unique. The successful applicant will investigate phenotypic, ecological and genomic variation of Xerces and its closest relatives the Silvery Blue butterfly (G. lygdamus) utilizing the Academy’s unique collection of Xerces and its relatives as well as the complete genome sequence and other genomic and phenotypic data developed by our interdisciplinary team at the California Academy of Sciences.
The successful student will be interfacing an existing project and I hope will be interested in investigating genomic differences with an eye to what makes Xerces unique both genetically and phenotypically (with the largest collection of Xerces in the world, there is no lack of phenotypic data to investigate). Just so you realize, we are really pushing this project forward from now until the end of March, so the student won't be starting from scratch as we are developing a whole suite of tools as we continue to work on this project (already complete will be a reference genome, the entire genomic data set, all the pipeline to get SNPs, annotations, many analyses in R & etc.). What we want the intern to develop is further information on the phenotype from label data, photos, and ecological niche models.
Dr. Elora López-Nandam uses genomics to address questions about the ecology, evolution, and conservation of coral reefs. Her goal is to advance aquarium breeding and experimental evolution as solutions for reversing the decline of coral reefs around the world. Elora completed her Ph.D. dissertation on mutation accumulation and inheritance in corals at Stanford University, and her B.A. in environmental biology at Columbia University.
Learn more about Elora here.
Dr. Rebecca Albright is a Curator and Patterson Scholar. She is a coral reef biologist with expertise in coral reef biology, ecology, and biogeochemistry. Her research focuses on the ability of coral reefs to cope with changing environmental conditions such as ocean acidification and warming. She has worked in academic, government, and non-profit settings and has studied coral reefs around the world, ranging from the Florida Keys to the Great Barrier Reef. She works across scales (ranging from single cell interactions to reef-scale processes) and disciplines (biology, ecology, biogeochemistry) to foster a systems-level understanding of how coral reef ecosystems will fare in today's changing world.
Learn more about Rebecca here.
Recent scientific advances have made it possible to breed corals in aquaria. Spawning and breeding corals in aquaria is a critical advance for population management, particularly genetic rescue, assisted gene flow, and gene-by-environment interactions. The SSI intern will analyze images to calculate growth rates for the first 6 months of life in baby corals, born at Cal Academy in the Coral Spawning Lab. They will also assist with a heat stress experiment to test whether corals that survived higher temperatures as larvae are also more likely to survive higher temperatures as 6-month-old juvenile colonies. Skills that will be learned include image analysis, statistical analyses and figure making in R, and experimental design/conducting scientific studies with live animals.
Matt is an entomologist whose research focuses on insects, primarily weevils. He is interested in easter egg weevils, desert weevils, and those found in leaf litter. He works on projects ranging from their taxonomy and natural history to genomics. If you have any interest in weevils or beetles, please contact him, no prior knowledge of weevils needed. He has a BSc from the University of California, Riverside, in Entomology, and a PhD from the University of California Berkeley. Prior to his current appointment at CAS, he was a Postdoctoral researcher at the Zoological State Museum in Munich Germany, where he worked on weevils from New Guinea.
I have a variety of potential projects available from genome construction, phylogenetics to mimicry quantification and species descriptions. Here are some recent publications on the critters you might be working on (weevil genome, phylogenetic paper).
Gary Williams studies the systematics, evolutionary biology, and biogeography of octocorals, a group of corals found worldwide and at all latitudes, on coral reefs as well as in the deep-sea. His work involves coral communities from various parts of the world from shallow water tropical coral reefs to ocean depths exceeding 6,000 meters (20,000 feet). Octocorals include some of the most beautiful and morphologically diverse animals in the world’s oceans – these are the soft corals, sea fans, and sea pens. They are a group of corals that represent two-thirds of all living coral species and are characterized by having eight feathery tentacles surrounding the mouth of each polyp.
The project goal will be to produce a phylogenetic tree of deep-sea or coral reef corals (soft corals, sea fans and sea pens), using the Scanning Electron Microscope for skeletal morphology and our Comparative Genomics Lab for molecular analysis
Molecular phylogenetics of Pacific Basin octocorals – from deep-sea California to Indo-Pacific coral reefs
Morphological diversity and molecular phylogenetics of mesophotic and deep-sea octocorals from the eastern Pacific
Laurel Allen is a communications and digital-engagement expert with a background in cultural research who regularly provides talks, trainings, and workshops in the areas of science communication, social media, persona/voice-and-tone development, and more. At the Academy, she oversees digital-engagement strategy and execution for a family of 4 distinct in-house brands, work that encompasses digital special-projects (e.g. apps, AR lenses, VR experiences, 360-object creative) and 10 social-media platforms for a total community of 3MM+. After several years of rapid growth, the Academy is today the largest and most engaged social presence in the world within its vertical, i.e. among all science and natural history museums, zoos, and aquariums. Laurel is also an Explorers Club Fellow and Shorty Award winner, and her long-form writing has appeared in Fast Company, Gizmodo, Indefinitely Wild, Modern Farmer, Alert Diver, and others.
The ability to effectively communicate science—and to help the public engage with it in compelling ways—is a critical skill whether it’s the focus of an eventual career, or just one aspect of your work. The person in this role will work directly with the Academy’s award-winning Digital-Engagement team across a wide range of formats (from social media channels to livestreamed events), and over the course of nine weeks will gain experience in areas such as writing and editing, interviewing, storyboarding, filming, working with audience insights, and more. A wide range of sci-comm interests are welcome (e.g. journalism, creative writing, visual storytelling), but the chosen student will be committed to attending science seminars alongside their peers, executing their own final sci-comm project over the course of the summer, and creating daily social-media coverage of the SSI program that both hones their own comms skills and provides a platform for SSI-peers to practice their own.
These internships are made possible by the National Science Foundation and a generous gift from the Robert T. Wallace Endowment for undergraduate research experiences.