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 University of California Point Reyes Field Station where students will participate in workshops on natural history field methods and science communication and participate 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 30th - July 28th, 2023. The program's first week will be spent at the University of California Point Reyes Field Station 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 13, 2023. Applications received after midnight on February 13, 2023, will not be reviewed.
Applicants will be notified by email sometime in early to mid-March 2023. 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 2023, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alison is a Research Scientist in the departments of Ichthyology and Microbiology at CAS. Her research investigates bioluminescent symbiosis between fish hosts and luminous bacteria to shed light on how these beneficial host-microbe associations form and persist through time.
There are over 500 species of fish that form bioluminescent symbiosis with luminous bacteria, yet relatively little is known of how these associations evolved and are maintained between host generations. Our lab is investigating the bioluminescent symbiosis between cardinalfish in the genus Siphamia and the luminous bacterium Photobacterium mandapamensis to better understand the factors that shape this highly specific association. We are characterizing the strain-level diversity of the symbiont across the hosts' broad Indo-Pacific distribution as well as the degree of specificity of the symbiosis across different host species, including the more temperate Siphamia species. This project will help support our ongoing efforts to characterize the diversity of the bioluminescent symbionts from Siphamia hosts using a combination of PCR fingerprinting and whole genome sequencing and will involve culturing strains of the bioluminescent bacteria in the lab.
Learn more about Alison here.
Jennifer is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist working with Pim Bongaerts in the Reefscape Genomics Lab as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Academy of Sciences. Her research focuses on how microevolutionary forces shape patterns of genetic diversity across space and through time, and how the processes inferred from past and current genomic patterns might influence evolutionary potential in a changing world. She uses population genomics, natural history collections, and computation to understand the past, present and future of aquatic populations. She is also passionate about science communication, outreach, and mentorship.
You can learn more about Jennifer here.
The identification of evolutionary processes is a crucial first step towards understanding the capacity of species to adapt in a rapidly changing world. Hybridization, where genes are exchanged among populations or species, can result in rapid evolution to new environmental conditions. We are investigating hybridization in a genus of Caribbean corals (Madracis spp.) using genomic, morphological, and ecological data from long-term monitoring sites in Curaçao. The SSI intern will contribute to this ongoing project by analyzing images of coral colonies to delineate species boundaries in the Madracis genus. The SSI intern will develop skills in image analysis and data analysis using the R programming language, and will contribute to a growing understanding of coral biodiversity.
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. While the project details will be decided closer to the program dates, the intern will have the opportunity to learn and hone skills associated with plant identification, collections-based data collection (morphological, molecular, or cytological), data analysis and basic scripting.
Dr. Kapan’s lab at the California Academy of Sciences 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.
The Xerces Blue, a small charismatic butterfly native to San Francisco’s dunes, was one of the first documented invertebrates to go extinct due to human-caused habitat destruction. The SSI trainee would join an interdisciplinary team that seeks to identify a suitable ecological replacement for Xerces in San Francisco’s Presidio dunes, as part of a completed habitat restoration project led by the Presidio Trust. I seek a computationally skilled student to help learn what made the extinct Xerces blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche 'xerces’) unique. The successful applicant will investigate the genomic and phenotypic 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 with 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). We have developed several unique datasets and computational tools so the successful student won't be starting from scratch: We have a whole suite of tools to work on this project. Already complete are reference genomes to compare to Xerces genomic sequences, an entire genomic data set of over 50 Glaucopsyche lygdamus butterflies, existing pipelines to analyze these data using command line tools and the R language as well as a comprehensive set of ecological niche models also developed in R. For 2023, we want an SSI intern to develop a project related to Xerces phenotypes including photographs of wing pattern variation, information on butterfly and host-plant locality, and other information we can gain from Academy collections to new field data from collections, weather data, and host-plant surveys.
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
These internships are made possible by the National Science Foundation and a generous gift from the Robert T. Wallace Endowment for undergraduate research experiences.