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Campus Beat

Connected to the Academy

Illustration of front of the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

It's a warm spring day in San Francisco, perfect for a stroll among the native plants and flowers sprouting in the heart of Golden Gate Park. SF State Biology Professor John Hafernik, an expert on the Lilliputian world of insects, bends down to inspect the contents of a yellow plastic bowl nestled in a patch of wild strawberries.


"Look at that," he says with surprise, as graduate student Jessica Van Den Berg squats down beside him. "This is really unexpected!"


Floating in the trap's soapy solution is a mottled grasshopper the size of a jellybean. Despite the creatures' drab appearance, it is anything but common.


But then again, neither is this habitat.


Set three stories above ground level, the 2.5-acre sloping green landscape is a study in sustainable architecture, a rooftop ecosystem. On the floors beneath, a world of science and natural history is on display. The museum serves as a valuable resource for SF State graduate students enrolled in the biology master's program, offered jointly with the California Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Although the Academy's $500 million "green" building has been open to the public only since last fall, the 156-year-old institution has maintained an open-door policy with its academic neighbor for half a century. Nearly all Academy curators -- some of whom are SF State alums -- hold research professorships at the University, and close to 30 SF State professors have been elected as Fellows of the Academy based on the merit of their scientific contributions. While the two institutions' geographic proximity serves a practical advantage, a shared dedication to public education remains the deep-rooted catalyst to their long collaboration.


Photo of Prof. John Hafernik and student Jessica Van Den Berg on living roof atop the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.Photo by Hardy Wilson


Photo of the rainforest exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Photo by Tim Griffith.Can scientists create an environment with all the right
components to attract a community of interdependent species,
and have it flourish? SF State researchers are seeking answers
atop the new California Academy of Sciences building.
Photo by Tim Griffith.

According to Hafernik, who is serving his first year as president of the Academy's Board of Trustees, this institutional symbiosis deepened once the joint degree program was formalized in 1997. Because of the alliance, he says, SF State graduate students today are conducting world-class research alongside seasoned CAS scientists in regions as far-flung as South Africa, Brazil, China and Madagascar. And with an accredited degree program to offer, Academy scientists have been able to attract promising young scientists from biodiversity hotspots like Costa Rica, Haiti and Madagascar.


"Because so many of us at the Academy are working in areas that are biodiversity rich," says Frank Almeda, chair of the CAS Department of Botany, "it's our job to put well-trained people on the ground in those countries, advising government and doing the conservation work. This program puts all the best resources at their disposal."


Graduates of the joint program have pursued doctorates at top-tier research universities, published research in leading scientific journals, and cultivated successful careers. Corrie Saux Moreau (B.S., '00; M.S., '03) is a case in point. A specialist in ant evolution, she earned a Ph.D. from Harvard, was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, was featured on the cover of Science, and is now an assistant curator at Chicago's renowned Field Museum of Natural History.


"Without a doubt, the skills and knowledge I gained at SF State and the Academy prepared me not only for my Ph.D., but also for a career in science," she says.


Back on the roof, Hafernik and Van Den Berg discuss the rich spoils of their traps -- flying aphids, parasitic wasps, a few flies, a bee and unidentified others. The tiny grasshopper will later be identified as a pygmy locust, a species not seen in the city for some time.

"We're at a crossroads of a lot of exciting things," says Hafernik. "The new building is a metaphor of what the Academy wants to be, a bold statement, using science and education to address issues of biodiversity, sustainability and climate change. There couldn't be a better time to be associated with the Academy."

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