UCSC Students explore Southern Africa’s biodiversity in faculty-led program with Dr. Giacomo Bernardi

In summer 2023, 18 students embarked on a life-changing faculty-led study abroad program – Evolution and Fish Biology in Southern Africa. Led by UC Santa Cruz Professor Dr. Giacomo Bernardi of the Environmental Studies Department, the students traveled to Southern Africa to explore the fascinating realms of Ichthyology and evolution.

The program was designed to offer students a dynamic learning experience, beginning in Pretoria, South Africa. Week one is spent at an organic farm where students learn foundational course information and participate in excursions to the Origins Centre at Wits University in Johannesburg and the Malapa Human Origins Tour, located in the Greater Cradle Nature Reserve and is the UNESCO-designated Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

The program continues into the second week at Skukuza Research Station in Kruger National Park, a sustainably built education, training, and research facility. Students are engaged in learning with guided excursions to observe wildlife and understand more about species evolution in the region.

During week three, students head to Lilongwe, Malawi where they travel to Cape Maclear at the UNESCO World Heritage site, Lake Malwai, where they participate in daily fieldwork in the lake to study cichlid fish. After conducting two weeks of fieldwork at Cape Maclear, students made their way back to South Africa, and the program was completed.

For the 18 students, this study abroad program delivers a transformative adventure that will shape their academic and personal lives. It’s an opportunity to explore, discover, and make lasting connections with nature and their fellow students.

“Driving across the South African savannah in a truck full of other bright-eyed biologists was an experience unlike any other. Every day in Kruger National Park we were immersed in understanding evolution through the patterns of rhino tracks, the sounds of hippos grunting through morning mist, and the smell of grasslands baked in the African sun,” said UCSC student Mariah Silvah. “No classroom, no matter how inspired the environment, can give you the thrill of being pushed off the road by a bull elephant in musth. The instructor who leads this program is a world-class master of Ichthyology. Having the privilege of researching underwater and discovering the Cichlids of Lake Malawi with Professor Bernardi as your guide is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Southern Africa is recognized as a biodiversity hotspot and a paradise for studying aquatic ecosystems. With its rich variety of aquatic habitats, including freshwater and marine systems. This region offers an ideal setting for students eager to dive into Fish Biology and Evolution.

Professor Bernardi has been teaching Fish Biology and Evolution at UC Santa Cruz for over 20 years while also co-teaching a field class in Marine Ecology. He has a PhD in Molecular Biology of Fishes from the University of Paris, and has been studying the genomics of fishes since then. While he is currently working on projects in many different countries, most of his work is focused in Micronesia, Polynesia, the Mediterranean, and South Africa.

The Evolution and Fish Biology in Southern Africa program is confirmed to run for summer 2024. Applications will open on December 1, 2023, and the deadline to apply is March 1. Students can learn more about Global Seminars on the Global Learning website.

Global Seminars are courses taught by UC Santa Cruz instructors in a global setting, providing students with the unique opportunity to enhance classroom learning with excursions and cultural activities abroad. Students learn on-location, engaging with communities and cultures, often in non-English speaking countries. 

Leading a Global Seminar offers UCSC instructors the opportunity to provide students with an enriching international opportunity, leverage their own international experience, enhance their courses through international activities, and reinforce existing relationships with colleagues abroad.

Faculty interested in teaching a Global Seminar should stay tuned for the call to submit proposals in spring 2024 for programs that will run in summer 2025.


Providing Global Learning Opportunities for All through the development of Faculty-led Global Seminars is key to our Strategic Plan for Internationalization.