Bay Area museum training future scientists

September 4, 2013 12:14:14 PM PDT
The California Academy of Sciences runs a state of the art museum in Golden Gate Park, but may people don't realize that behind the scenes the academy is also a world class research institution. Academy scientists estimate only about 10 percent of all life on Earth has been discovered. That unknown 90 percent could hold the cure to cancer, critical information about climate change, or a way to feed a starving nation. But the number of scientists looking for new species is dropping and university programs to train them are disappearing. So the academy is stepping up its effort to inspire and train a new generation.

Dave Kavanaugh is senior curator of the academy's entomology department. He says "It's very frustrating to realize that the students that can do this kind of work are not being developed and the skill is being lost." So Kavanaugh and other academy scientists are mentoring promising high school students.

For the past year, Kavanaugh has worked with 18-year-old Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski. Cueva-Dabkoski says she never expected to be bonding with beetles. "My idea of science was kind of wrapped up in a book, something very dry." But, that was before Cueva-Dabkoski joined the academy's Careers in Science program, aimed at high school students from under-served communities. She went on a field trip collecting bugs near the Oregon border and she was hooked. "I discovered I really like beetles. They are gorgeous. All my friends laugh that I say that."

But Kavanaugh isn't laughing, he's cheering. Cueva-Dabkoski is now a Student Science Fellow, part of a new academy program to train future scientists and give them hands-on research experience. Kavanaugh says "The school system doesn't really offer an opportunity, even at the college level in most universities, to do what these students are getting to do."

For the past 10 years, the academy has worked with Chinese scientists to collect all kinds of specimens in a remote part of China. Kavanaugh himself collected 50,000 beetles. Now comes the detective work -- figuring out whether any of the beetles are new species and how each one fits into the eco-system. Cueva-Dabkoski is on the team. She says "It's given me an idea of what it is to be a scientist."

Cueva-Dabkoski spent months tracking down ancient descriptions of beetles, corresponding with curators of insect collections all over the world, and examining historic specimens that were sent to the academy for comparison.

The work is paying off. Kavanaugh and Cueva-Dabkoski now believe they have discovered at least one new species. Cueva-Dabkoski says "It's really exciting!"

She starts at Johns Hopkins University this fall and plans to keep learning about the natural world creature by creature, with an eye toward a future career "saving the organism and also the large eco-system that it lives in."

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


Load Comments