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The Nat Welcomes New Curator of Entomology

September 5, 2023

Dr. Shahan Derkarabetian Comes to The Nat by way of Harvard University; Plans to Use Genetics and Community Science to Inform Conservation Efforts

SAN DIEGO—The San Diego Natural History Museum (The Nat) is pleased to announce Dr. Shahan Derkarabetian as its newest Curator of Entomology. A Southern California native, he returns to San Diego from a post-doctoral assignment at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.  

Derkarabetian will serve as an integral part of the science division, overseeing the research and direction of the Entomology Department and its volunteers. He joins the Museum’s five other curators who care for the collection of more than 8 million specimens and objects (other departments include Birds and Mammals, Botany, Herpetology, Paleontology, and the Research Library). 

We're very excited to have a new curator who uses novel technologies to investigate museum collections,” says Dr. Jon Rebman, Interim VP of Science & Conservation. Shahan is looking at collections in ways we never have before.” 

For nearly 150 years, The Nat has been doing the research that makes conservation possible—studying threatened species, documenting change in the natural world, and drawing focus to areas in need of protection. Derkarabetian’s work with historically understudied arachnids, community science, and museum specimens will dovetail perfectly with the Museum’s mission to protect biodiversity and inspire new generations of conservationists.  

“Everywhere you look, there are new species to describe, and Southern California is no exception,” says Derkarabetian. I look forward to combining basic natural history and field exploration with more advanced research methods like DNA sequencing to help conserve our local biodiversity.” 

Derkarabetian earned his B.S. and M.S. from San Diego State University, and his Ph.D. from a joint doctoral program between UC Riverside and SDSU. He studied phylogenomics, integrative taxonomy, and population genomics of Opiliones—a group of small, harmless arachnids also known as harvestmen or daddy longlegs.  

He is now returning to San Diego after a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he continued to focus on harvestmen and systematics using museum specimens. 

As Curator of Entomology, Derkarabetian’s first plan of action is to explore understudied, at-risk habitats around San Diego County.  

I've already submitted a project proposal to study high-elevation, ground-dwelling arachnids in our region,” he says. Like much of his previous work, the project will involve DNA analyses. “When you use genetic data, you unlock the evolutionary history of a species or group of species, and you can see changes in genetic diversity through time and use that to inform conservation strategies, he says.  

And he’s not stopping there. Derkarabetian is a taxonomist at heart and plans to enlist researchers in Mexico and the southwestern U.S. to parse out evolutionary relationships between regional Opiliones species. Nobody has looked at these groups for a long time,” he says. “They need serious taxonomic revisions and I want to dive into this because I like to focus on the weird, rare things that are in the back of the field guides.” 

Derkarabetian has also interfaced with many community scientists during his time as an academic, even publishing papers with people he met on iNaturalist. I’ve come across many community scientists with no academic background that know way more than I do about certain Opiliones,” he says. I want to make community science a regular thing for all our projects in the Entomology Department, and hopefully every department at the Museum.  

“The excitement Shahan has for becoming an expert on our region is the same excitement all the curators had when we started at The Nat,” says Rebman. "He's about to sink his teeth into our collection—and that excitement and energy reminds all of us why we do what we do.” 

Shahan’s appointment continues The Nat’s mission to lead with our science and be a voice for nature in our region. 

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About the San Diego Natural History Museum  

The San Diego Natural History Museum (The Nat) is one of California’s oldest and most respected cultural and scientific institutions. Founded in 1874 by a small group of citizen scientists, the Museum works to preserve and protect this amazing place we call home. The Museum is located at 1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101 in Balboa Park. For more information, call 877.946.7797 or visit Follow The Nat on Twitter and Instagram and join the discussion on Facebook.  

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