Press Release

Andrew Ng (415) 379-5123
ang@calacademy.org
Stephanie Stone (415) 379-5121
sstone@calacademy.org

THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LIFE NAMES LOCAL SCIENTIST
DR. REBECCA JOHNSON A 2011 RUBENSTEIN FELLOW

Johnson, a sea slug expert at the California Academy of Sciences,
is one of 16 early-career scientists from around the world to receive the award

Photo: S. KimuraSAN FRANCISCO (January 13, 2011) – Dr. Rebecca Johnson, a postdoctoral researcher and sea slug expert at the California Academy of Sciences, has been named one of 16 Rubenstein Fellows by the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL). These early-career scientists will use EOL as a platform for sharing their biodiversity research with colleagues and the general public.

The Encyclopedia of Life (www.eol.org) is an international collaboration that aims to provide freely accessible information about all of the 1.9 million known species on our planet. EOL Rubenstein Fellows awards are made possible through a generous donation by David M. Rubenstein to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. The program provides partial stipend or salary support for early-career scientists who wish to use EOL as a platform for outreach and encouraging other young scientists to do the same. More than 60 fellowships are expected to be awarded over the four years of the program, which began in 2010.

Johnson began her career at the California Academy of Sciences 15 years ago, first as a post-college intern, then as a master’s and Ph.D. student under the guidance of Dr. Terry Gosliner, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Academy. Her specialty is chromodorid nudibranchs (also known as sea slugs), a family of about 300 species that display beautiful, vivid colors and live in tropical shallow waters worldwide. These Technicolor invertebrates aren’t just notable for their brazen beauty—they are also a potential source of medical treatments for a variety of human ailments, from heart disease to cancer. In addition to working as postdoctoral researcher at the Academy, Johnson also works with the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to train tide pool naturalists at Duxbury Reef—a marine protected area in Marin County—and contributes to the Academy’s exhibits and education programs, including a recent display on the Farallon Islands.

“I am honored and excited to be a Rubenstein Fellow,” says Johnson. “With this award, I will use the Encyclopedia of Life as a platform with which to consolidate and organize historical data, new research findings, and information on chromodorid nudibranchs that is only found in the scientific literature, libraries, natural history museums, and scattered across the web. As a fellow, I look forward to sharing the beauty of these animals with a larger audience and to making scientific information about them more widely available.”

It’s easy to see why nudibranchs have captured Johnson’s attention for so many years. Despite the common name of “sea slug,” nudibranchs are breathtaking in their beauty and variety. Ranging from less than an inch to up to two feet long, nudibranchs occupy a wide range of aquatic habitats, from polar waters to tropical seas, shallow reefs to deep-sea trenches. Over 3,000 species have been discovered and described to date, and scientists estimate that another 3,000 species are yet to be named.

The name nudibranch means “naked gill”—unlike their close relatives, the snails, they have no shell covering their body and gills. In some species, these gills take the form of feathery projections on the back; other species have them along the sides of their body; and some don’t have gills at all, but instead use their highly branched digestive system for respiration.

Perhaps the most amazing trait of nudibranchs is their ability to exploit food in unique ways. For example, some nudibranchs graze on corals and anemones—relatives of the jellyfish—without triggering the stinging cells of their prey. They are then able to sequester these stinging cells into projections on their back. As a result, any predator that comes too close will be stung by these co-opted cells. Other nudibranchs feed on toxic sponges and sequester the toxins in their body without being poisoned themselves.

Johnson’s research is helping to further our understanding of these fascinating animals, many of which may hold the key to future medical breakthroughs. Scientists have studied sea slugs' simple nervous systems for clues to learning and memory, and have raided their suite of defensive toxins in search of pharmaceuticals. They are also isolating chemicals that may help treat a variety of heart, bone, and brain conditions. A nudibranch relative known as a sea hare offered up a cancer-fighting compound that made it into clinical trials.

About the EOL Rubenstein Fellowships
EOL Rubenstein Fellows are selected on the basis of stellar achievement, promise for continued accomplishment, and the diversity and relevance of their research. This year’s recipients specialize in a variety of taxonomic areas, ranging from rhododendrons of the world to African birds to flower flies. One of the hallmarks of the EOL Rubenstein Fellows program is the diversity of its participants. Successful candidates were chosen from 91 graduate and postdoctoral applicants, and 12 of the 16 are from countries outside of the United States, including Brazil, Colombia, Russia, and Egypt. For a full list of EOL Rubenstein Fellows, their specialties, and their institutional affiliations, visit www.eol.org/content/page/2011eolfellows.

About the California Academy of Sciences
Founded in 1853, the Academy is an international center for scientific education and research and is at the forefront of efforts to understand and protect the diversity of Earth’s living things. The Academy has a staff of over 50 professional educators and Ph.D.-level scientists, supported by more than 100 Research and Field Associates and over 300 Fellows. It houses 26 million biological, geological, and cultural specimens from around the world and conducts research in 11 scientific fields: anthropology, aquatic biology, botany, comparative genomics, entomology, geology, herpetology, ichthyology, invertebrate zoology, mammalogy, and ornithology. Visit research.calacademy.org.