Systematics: The study of the evolutionary history and diversity of living things and the relationships among these through time.

This week I decided to write about a great program that we have available to undergraduates within our Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability, called the Summer Systematics Institute (SSI).   This program is partially funded by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU)  program and the Academy’s Robert T. Wallace endowment.   It is an 8-week paid internship working with an advisor, usually an Academy curator or post-doc.  This summer, the program is in its 18th year and there are 12 participants from all over the country, including a biological illustrator.   During the 8 weeks, the interns learn new techniques and conduct original research, all while attending a series of lectures on themes related to the field such as phylogenetics, collections management, bioinformatics, morphometrics, nomenclature, and biogeography.

SSI taxa compilation

For the past three summers, I have had the wonderful opportunity of helping students in the molecular lab as the Teaching Assistant in the Center for Comparative Genomics.  In this role, I train students how to extract DNA from their specimens and how to use molecular techniques in order to sequence the DNA from those specimens.   The students then use these data to help answer research questions about the evolutionary histories of species or populations.  Not all interns use DNA data as a part of their projects, but since molecular data is commonly used in our field of biology, this is a great opportunity to either learn new techniques or refine techniques that students may have had some exposure to previously.  This year I was able to train some of the interns in the Project Lab, so if you visited in the last few weeks, you may have seen some of them working on their projects!

Yesterday, after a busy 8 weeks, the program culminated in a day where the students gave scientific presentations on their projects.    This year’s projects were quite impressive, and the students worked very hard.  Below are photos of some of the presentations.






To me, the most exciting thing about this program is that the interns get authentic research experience.  I know this to be true because in 2006, I was an SSI intern!  This program really fostered my understanding of and passion for the field of systematics.  If I had not done this program back when I was an undergraduate, I probably wouldn’t be earning a master’s in this field today.  For more information on the SSI program, click here.


Til next time!

Vanessa Knutson

Graduate Student, IZG Dept

Project Lab Coordinator

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