For eight weeks every summer, undergraduate students from across the country take up residency in the Academy’s collections, labs, library, and lecture rooms. Established in 1995, the Summer Systematics Institute (SSI) offers a paid research internship opportunity for students to dive deep into museum-based research methods and gain professional experience alongside working scientists. The internship focuses on systematics—essentially the study of biodiversity—and how identifying evolutionary relationships in museum-based work can address and contribute to current critical conservation issues.
Embedded in the Academy’s Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability (IBSS), interns get a crash course in the skills needed to collect meaningful data for their projects of choice. They’ll explore the Academy’s vast collections—nearly 46 million specimens that are behind-the-scenes for the public but on the front lines of Academy research. Interns will also attend a series of lectures designed to deepen their understanding of topics like bioinformatics, morphometrics, nomenclature, biogeography, and collections management.
Under the guidance of a staff scientists, they’ll make important connections and explore new ideas in fields ranging from microbiology and botany to entomology and herpetology, which they’ll present at the end of the summer. This research is conducted with the help of many Academy staff members who'll help them learn how to use the tools of the trade. Another major aspect of the internship (and everyday scientific research) is knowing how to problem solve when information—for example, a test result—doesn’t come out as expected. With guidance from their advisors, interns determine the best way to proceed and still make valuable connections and conclusions. Students may end up discovering a new species by the end of the summer, but more importantly, they learn how to look at the world through a scientific lens. The value goes both ways: many advisors and program instructors are often inspired by the views and observations of the interns.
The presentations are an accumulation of the interns’ time at the Academy, but also often only the beginning. It isn’t uncommon for interns to complete the projects they began, work with their advisors to publish papers, or go on Academy expeditions related to their research. For many students, the experience serves as a stepping stone to pursue further graduate work.
Past research projects include: Avian malaria in the California Tioga Pass; Mosquito vector biodiversity across habitats in Costa Rica, Thailand, and California; Defining a new species of skink from the western Pacific; Examining morphological variation in two gastropod species from the Dominican Republic; and Evolution of the most highly miniaturized “sand dollars.”