Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D Biologist

Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D Biologist

Rebecca Johnson California Academy of Sciences Rocky Shore Partnership Coordinator Gulf of the Farallones N.M.S. (National Marine Sanctuary)Research Associate, Post Doctoral Researcher for Terry Gosliner, Curator of Mollusks

Rebecca has a BS in Integrative Biology from UC Berkeley, a MA from SF State in Ecology and Systematic Biology and a PhD from UC Santa Cruz in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Rebecca grew up in Thousand Oaks, CA near the beach and was always fascinated with small marine life like sand crabs, sand dollars, etc. However, when she entered UC Berkeley, she thought she would be a historian, teacher or doctor because she loved science. She first learned about San Francisco Bay ecology during an introductory biology course her freshman year. She said “I was blown away! It’s science with an element of history….figuring out evolutionary history and what those who came before us knew about what we are now looking at. Also how they interpreted a problem or question with the tools they had available to them.” At Berkeley Rebecca had an opportunity to study part of a semester in Moorea, French Polynesia (the same island chain as Tahiti). At the time she was interested in color pattern evolution (animals that are camouflaged or brightly colored). She had to do an independent project and a teaching assistant suggested that she work on sea slugs (nudibranch). “He introduced me to the work of Terry Gosliner, who had studied color patterns in sea slugs. I’ve never looked back” After Rebecca graduated from Berkeley she got an undergraduate internship with Terry Gosliner, Curator of Mollusks, at the California Academy of Sciences. She continued research as a volunteer until she applied for her Masters at SF State. During the pursuit of her Masters, she worked at the California Academy of Sciences as a graduate assistant, doing research, working in public programs, exhibit labeling and other things they needed help with. In addition, Rebecca worked at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in San Mateo County as a park naturalist doing education programs, camps for kids and research. “Most of the work for my masters and PhD was done with animals already collected for scientific research at the California Academy of Sciences. However, I studied some local animals in intertidal areas and local tide pools.” Rebecca studies nudibranch. “Nudibranch means naked gill. They are slugs (snails without shells), with gills exposed. They are absolutely beautiful. They are brightly colored like butterflies living in inner tidal areas, coral reefs, and some are found in deep water.” When studying sea slugs Rebecca works in a molecular lab extracting DNA to generate genetic data from the extracted DNA to figure out how the different species of nudibranch are related to each other. She employs morphology (shapes of body, teeth, reproductive systems, color patterns, etc.) as well as molecular data in this work. At the moment we visited Rebecca she was rewriting chapters of her dissertation and submitting them for publication plus helping Terry Gosliner, Curator of Mollusks, coordinate volunteers to help organize data generated from 10 years of grant funded research. In addition she is also involved in a new program to coordinate a partnership of the Academy with the Gulf of the Farallones N.M.S. which consists of training Academy docents and community volunteers to do intertidal interpretation and monitoring near Bolinas. Visitors can go out on the reef at low tide and learn about plants, animals and ecology. Rebecca says “my job is very exciting and rewarding because it is different all of the time. The most difficult aspect is balancing all of my jobs.” Having a lot of different skills is the key to success in this field. Hard work, management and organizational skills and perseverance are necessary. You have to maintain one’s project for an extended time, doing research, writing, and publishing, which can be a long process. Also you need to be a creative story teller when presenting research so that it is understandable and useful. Rebecca says “there has been a big shift in museum research and comparative biology or comparative zoology with molecular (DNA) data. It has added a whole new tool and created a controversy about which is better. “…for me it has created a way to evaluate the hypotheses we made based on the information we had at the time. If you find something different with your molecular data, you can go back and look and say oh well these match or don’t match or we were correct about this, etc. It’s fun to combine the two.” Ability to sequence DNA plus the ease, speed, and costs are less today. What would have taken 1 month 5 years ago can be done in 2 days now. Technology used to make copies is much faster. The culmination of chemicals employed has changed dramatically and the speed in which we communicate and the exchange of data with others are all new developments in this area of science. When Rebecca is not on the job she loves to spend time with her family and enjoys cooking, baking, playing soccer and exploring local tidepools.

Rebecca belongs to these organizations:

American Malacological Society

Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology Western Society of Naturalists

Books Rebecca Recommends: