Students and instructors on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean

2019 SSI interns and instructors on a field trip at the Bodega Marine Lab.


The Academy's Summer Systematics Institute internships will be offered from June 1 to July 31, 2020. We will not be offering a  Biological Illustration position in 2020, but learn more about our Science Communication position under advisors and projects. 

Since 1995, the California Academy of Sciences' Summer Systematics Institute (SSI), with support from NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) initiative and the Academy's Robert T. Wallace endowment, has addressed critical issues like 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 continues to offer undergraduates important insights into the contributions that museum-based research can make to issues facing society today. The program accommodates up to 10 undergraduate students. This internship is made possible by the National Science Foundation and a generous gift from the Robert T. Wallace Endowment for undergraduate research experiences. 

Program Curriculum

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 June 1 through July 31, 2020. The first week of the program 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.


How to Apply

  1. The application process is entirely online. You will need to complete the application form.

  2. The online form will ask you to prepare a statement of interest in working at the Academy.

  3. Complete the advisor selection portion of the application form after consulting the advisors and projects listed at the bottom of this page.

  4. 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 address that in their recommendation. You should speak to these people before submitting their information to be sure they are willing to potentially write a letter of recommendation on your behalf.

Deadline: February 15, 2020. Applications received after midnight on February 15, 2020, will not be reviewed.



Applicants will be notified by email sometime in mid-March and should note that because of the schedules of potential mentors reviewing applications, and the possible need to contact applicants on reversion lists, there cannot be a firm deadline on our part. Due to the volume of applicants, we cannot give individual confirmation for application materials received. We hope that applicants can be patient as we make our final decisions. In general, successful applicants will know earlier in the process.



Any U.S. citizen or resident alien (green card) who is an undergraduate student, and who will not have graduated before fall of 2020, is welcome to apply. That is, you must be enrolled in an undergraduate program at the time of the internship. We encourage applications from groups under-represented in the sciences. An excellent academic record and participation in a wide range of campus activities are highly regarded, but not the sole criteria for the selection process.


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.



2020 Advisors

Click the + next to each advisor's name to learn more.

Rayna Bell - Herpetology

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:

2020 Project

There are two unidentified reed frog species on Bioko Island (Hyperolius cf. endjami and H. cf. fusciventris) and two identified reed frog species (H. ocellatus, H. tuberculatus). I have sanger sequence data (mtDNA and nuDNA) for all four species and preliminary results suggesting that H. cf. endjami is hybridizing with H. ocellatus on the island. The two main goals of the project are 1) confirm the species IDs of H. cf. endjami and H. cf. fusciventris with a combination of morphological and molecular data, and 2) determine whether H. cf. endjami and H. ocellatus are indeed hybridizing, again with a combination of morphological and molecular data. The intern would be sequencing mtDNA and nuDNA from samples I've collected at several sites across the island and a couple reference mainland samples, and collecting morphological data from corresponding voucher specimens.

Pim Bongaerts - Invertebrate Zoology, Corals

Pim Bongaerts studies the biodiversity and evolution of scleractinian corals on tropical coral reefs. He has a particular interest in mesophotic coral ecosystems (MCEs): light-dependent coral communities that occur at depths beyond regular diving limits (~30-150 m). Although these communities can occupy areas equivalent to that of shallow reefs, they remain largely undocumented and their biodiversity remains poorly understood. Due to their environmentally induced morphological variability and lack of informative genetic markers, scleractinian corals have been notoriously difficult in traditional systematics. Dr Bongaerts’ research focuses on next-generation sequencing and bioinformatics to overcome and assist with some of these challenges, while simultaneously studying the processes leading to adaptation and diversification on tropical coral reefs.

Additional information on Dr. Bongaerts’ research can be found at:

2020 Project

The "Sunray Lettuce Coral" (Helioseris cucullata) used to be one of the dominant coral species in the Caribbean, but due a dramatic population decline is now extremely rare. This coral species has been described as monotypic, however our recent sequencing efforts identified at least two genetically distinct lineages. This project aims to investigate whether these lineages represent distinct species, through a transcriptomic (RNA-seq phylogenomics) and morphological assessment (SEM and morphometrics).

Lauren Esposito - Arachnology

Lauren Esposito received her PhD in 2011 through the American Museum of Natural History/City University of New York collaborative program, and joined the Academy in 2015. Lauren’s research is focused on the systematics and evolution of arachnids, in particular scorpions. Her research has taken her on expeditions around the world, but much of her focus is on the arachnid communities in the Caribbean, Baja California, and the southwestern USA. Lauren uses a combination of methods including genomics, venomics, morphology, morphometrics and niche modelling to answer questions and test hypotheses about the biogeography, diversification, cryptic speciation, and adaptive radiations of arachnid life. Additionally, Lauren is the co-director of a non-profit organization, Islands & Seas, that is dedicated to promoting research, education outreach, and sustainable development in special places on earth.

Learn more about Dr. Esposito’s research.

2020 Project

California is one of the world's most diverse areas for scorpions. This project will use DNA sequencing to investigate the historical processes responsible for speciation in one of the California lineages and will determine the present-day distribution of species using our unique collection of western North American scorpions.

Jack Dumbacher and Durrell D. Kapan - Ornithology

Dr. Dumbacher’s research focuses on describing the diversity in bird and mammal species and understanding the factors that cause species to diversify. Using samples from an array of bird and mammal species, including birds from Papua New Guinea, owls from North America, and sengis (aka “elephant shrews” from Africa), he uses genetic tools to describe biodiversity and to understand evolutionary relationships. Much of this work is calculated to ask conservation- related questions about populations that may need attention in the wild.

Learn more about Dr. Dumbacher’s research and academic interests here and here.

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.

Learn more about Dr. Kapan’s research.

2020 Project

Our long-term study on the avian response to controlled fire at the Caples Ecological Restoration project has now turned a corner. After 3 years of monitoring birds while the watershed was being prepared for the reintroduction of fire, areas of the watershed have now been 'burned' in a low-intensity fire spanning all of the expected burn treatment areas. Spring 2020 (early June) will kick off with intense fieldwork to survey birds on a 400m grid where we visit 83 points in this mid-elevation (5500-8000') watershed. Bird surveys are accompanied by autonomous recorder sampling which can be done by anyone (only hiking and navigation skill required). Lab work will include training machine learning models to identify recorded sounds as well as using output of this process to model avian occupancy using special software in R. Requisites for this position are the ability to camp for >20 days in rustic but fun conditions, ability to hike and navigate safely in wilderness, good team player including help with camp meals and field data entry and skill with computers / computer programming and excitement to work back in the lab on big data both sound files and our >20000 observation database from traditional point count methods. Familiarity with bird ID especially by sound not necessary but a plus!

Terrence M. Gosliner - Invertebrate Zoology, Mollusks

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.

Learn more about Dr. Gosliner's research.

2020 Project

Determine whether several new species are members of a clade or represent more than one clade.

Rebecca F.  Johnson - Invertebrate Zoology & Citizen Science

Rebecca co-developed and co-manages the current Citizen Science program at the California Academy of Sciences. Her past research primarily focused on the evolutionary history of nudibranchs and the evolution of color pattern in this group. In her current work, she is interested in combining historical museum collections data and current observational data to understand climate and land-use change, especially coastal species range shifts. Core to this 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, which is key to understanding species range change. She also leads an Academy initiative to engage San Franciscans in discovering and documenting the City’s biodiversity.

Learn more about Dr. Johnson’s research here and here.

2020 Project

Banana slugs in the genus Ariolimax are found throughout the Pacific Northwest and have long been the subject of behavioral ecology studies, but as of yet, we do not have a good understanding of their species boundaries and phylogeography. These slugs are one of the most observed terrestrial mollusks on iNaturalist providing a new source of data that has yet to be explored.  This summer we will sequence specimens from Bay Area and beyond to untangle the evolutionary history of this group. This work may include describing a new species. Work will include local field trips, molecular lab work, and dissections. 

Manuel Lujan - Botany

Documenting the world's vast plant diversity has been one of the most challenging endeavors in the natural sciences. Inspired by the exuberant tropical plant diversity, my research interests started with floristic projects on cloud forests and tropical wet forest relicts in Venezuela. I have studied species diversity and taxonomy of the giant genus Croton (Euphorbiaceae) and participated in collaborative projects on the systematics of the diverse genus Ruellia (Acanthaceae). More recently, I studied the evolutionary relationships between species in Clusia (Clusiaceae) and investigated the evolution of morphological and physiological leaf characters that are related to photosynthesis. During my participation in these projects, I've had the opportunity to do fieldwork in a number of different countries in Central and South America and to interact with many wonderful collaborators. My current work at the California Academy of Sciences is an exciting opportunity to learn about the genetic diversity of endangered species of Cycas and provide a baseline to inform species conservation efforts.

Learn more about Dr. Lujan's research here

2020 Project

We will generate genomic data to assemble plastome (chloroplast) genome from 12 species of Australian Cycas and use that data to reconstruct phylogenies. Our student will generate new genomic data based on RADseq or shotgun sequencing, and will use data that we have already in hand, to assemble the entire plastome of 12 species of Cycas. A number of plastomes are already available to be used as references. Phylogenetic reconstructions will be performed using standard maximum likelihood, bayesian, and coalescence approaches. This project aims to test the potential of plastome data to resolved species-level relationships, which has been done previously for a number of plant groups but not for Cycas, a group with a unique evolutionary history defined by an exceptionally ancient origin followed by a fairly recent radiation.

Gary Williams - Invertebrate Zoology, Corals

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.

Additional information on Dr. Williams’s research can be found here, here, and here.

2020 Project

To produce a phylogenetic tree of deep-sea corals (soft corals, sea fans and sea pens), using the SEM for skeletal morphology and the CCG for molecular analysis

Laurel Allen- Science Communication

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.

2020 Project

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 social media and communications teams to tell the stories of SSI students, curators, projects, etc. across a wide range of platforms, from executing social media coverage and special features (~60%), to learning how to pitch mainstream press (~10%), to creating a final video project (~30%). (There may also be opportunities for longer-form writing.) Over the course of nine weeks, you’ll gain experience with interviewing techniques, storyboarding, shooting and filming, writing and editing, livestreaming, working with audience insights, the mechanics of social platforms, and more.

If you have questions regarding our undergraduate internships, please email us. No phone calls, please.

These internships are made possible by the National Science Foundation and a generous gift from the Robert T. Wallace Endowment for undergraduate research experiences.