Be A Citizen Scientist...
SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem.
Many of us don’t have a Masters in chemistry or a doctorate in physics. We don’t even have an archeological dig on our property, though my garage floor comes close. If you’re listening to this program, you probably do have an interest in science.
On a recent episode of SciWorks Radio you heard Roger Cubicciotti explain how we are all Scientists, but how can a citizen scientist like you take part in scientific advancements? I spoke with Dr. Caren Cooper, the Assistant Director of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, about citizen science and its role in discovery.
Citizen Science can take on a lot of different forms, and sometimes it can be really large-scale and be similar to crowdsourcing, where it’s like hundreds of thousands of people in dispersed locations around the globe contributing observations. For a lot of citizen science there’s an online data entry system, making data entry easy. More important in some ways, making it easier for people to visualize the data, and to understand not just their own, but even in aggregate and to see what it really means. If you are interested in birds, for example, you could go to ebird.org. They have great data visitations, and this is where people submit all their birdwatching observations. Those maps will be more up to date than any field guide could possibly be because they are the aggregate of all the birdwatchers out there saying where they’re seeing these birds.
You can be a citizen scientist in any number of disciplines, from Astronomy to Zoology. And right now, some cool, and potentially life-saving science is happening using data collected by someone like you.
There’s a lot going on right now in molecular biology, that’s on-line citizen science. The program Foldit is an on-line project. It's a three dimensional puzzle that people can work on to figure out how proteins fold. If we can understand how proteins fold, we can understand potentially how to cure a lot of different diseases. It turns out a lot of these diseases are caused by mis-folding of proteins. To really get this done in a timely way requires the human brain and the creativity that people can bring to it that computers will never have. There’s been really big findings in AIDS research, I know they’re really using it a lot for Alzheimers research.
Citizen Science seems like a new concept, but it’s been with us for a long time.
Thomas Jefferson actually devised a citizen science plan in 1776. He was penning the Constitution and while he was working, on the side, he was really interested in science. His plan was : there would be one person in every county who would collect weather data every day, twice a day. And they would share that data with him and then it would be useful for farmers or whatever. A century later that is what started to happen when the weather service formed. Even to this day, a lot of the weather data collected are from volunteer weather stations. In the 1800s, theres one example of a fellow who was in England, William Whewell, and he had a project called the Great Tide Experiment where he recruited people on both sides of the Atlantic ocean and he asked them to collect the tide levels at the exact same time for two weeks straight, like every 15 minutes. That resulted in almost a million observations. And this was before computers.
Dr. Cooper is an ornithologist, studying birds. She relies on citizen science data in much of her research.
The program I’ve worked with the most is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and its called Nestwatch. In that program people who monitor birds nests share their observations with us. A lot of people who monitor bird nests do so with nest boxes. Some of them will put up whole trails of nest boxes. Or they might just find nests of birds that maybe are in their bushes or on their porch. They will monitor these bird nests and they’ll note when they first saw eggs in the nest. What species built that nest. When the eggs hatched, when the young fledged, how many eggs there were. All these kinds of amazing details about every single nest, and share those observations with us. And to have that across the continent is a tremendous thing. So we can really see very large scale patterns. Things that one single scientist could never make those observations on their own. Half of what we know about birds and climate change comes from studies that relied on Citizen Science observations.