Friday, 10 January 2014 00:00

Need a break from your science? Try citizen science!

Written by  Rachel Ames
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galaxy by nasaGalaxy Zoo allows participants to help catalog
images of galaxies by shape.
Photo Credit: NASA
I conducted my first experiment in my parents' kitchen when I was eight years old. It involved an apple, a bunch of different spices, and an incubator in the form of the dark, slightly warm environment otherwise known as "under the sink." I had just learned in school about famous world explorers scouring the globe in search of spices and gold. Some spices, like salt, were desirable not only for flavor but also for preservation of food, so I thought: What an idea! Spices can preserve food? What if I cut up an apple and put different spices on each piece? And so, a scientific pursuit ensued.

I admit that this work did not gain entrance to a peer-reviewed journal. I am fairly certain I did not use the appropriate control of an un-spiced apple slice or possibly even check my samples in a timely manner. However, I do still remember that early excitement of testing something for myself, and I have pursued that feeling ever since.

However, things have been looking pretty dark for scientific research these days. Mounting stress from cut after cut to research funding (thank you, sequester!) has taken its toll on the morale of the scientific community; things feel pretty dark and serious. But even when funding is plentiful, sometimes science can be a slog. Your protocol isn't working, your cells died, and the data stream is bone dry. Don't lose hope! Sometimes we just need a reminder of the joy science can bring us.

As one antidote, I propose: Citizen science can be for scientists, too.

If you question the real-world relevance of community sourced science, consider the gamers that helped structural biochemists solve a previously puzzling X-ray diffraction of a viral protein from HIV1. This was achieved using FoldIt, an online game designed to exploit human intuition and desire for play to solve an otherwise elusive puzzle.

Not into gaming? Here are some other great resources for diving into citizen science:

Zooniverse/Citizen Science Alliance:

The Citizen Science Alliance produces and maintains an internet home-base for citizen science called the Zooniverse. All amateur astronomers, aspiring linguists of ancient languages, bird-watchers, or any observer will find something in the Zooniverse. As a scientist, you can also propose a study yourself and participate in any of these projects.

Galaxy Zoo, the Zooniverse's first and ongoing project, allows participants to help catalog images of galaxies by shape. I can personally attest that it is quite relaxing. More importantly, the human brain performs better than a computer at sorting through the vast number of images collected by modern astronomical techniques. Dr. Chris Lintott, astronomer and founder of Galaxy Zoo, told the BBC that "the human brain has a remarkable capacity for pattern recognition, but also for spotting the unusual, for being distracted by something that doesn't quite fit, and that's what we really need."2

Scientific American: Citizen Science

Another great repository for citizen science projects can be found on the Scientific American website. It features projects including measurement of light pollution or ambient noise using your mobile device, providing a convenient excuse for feeding your technology addiction in the name of science.


Still haven't found anything you like? Check out SciStarter, which allows you to find projects by choosing an activity you already like, such as going to the beach, taking a nature hike, or driving along, counting roadkill, as one does.

There are, of course, some limitations to DIY science. For example, I don't recommend trying to split the atom or to generate any other unstable or potentially explosive chemicals in your kitchen, even if it might make for a great story3.

Who knows, maybe you'll think of genius experiments while meditating on the constellations. That said, I think it might be time to ditch the publish-or-perish mentality for just a few moments and remember why we all went into science in the first place.


1. Katib F. et al. (2011) Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, 18, 1175–1177.