Regular folks take big steps in humanity’s quest for knowledge

SCIENCE by Gregory Beatty


Citizen science was in the news recently. Maybe you heard this one: Several amateur astronomers participating in a program tied to the Kepler Space Telescope flagged some anomalies in a distant star’s light pattern.

Those anomalies led to speculation in places like The Washington Post that we might have discovered an alien megastructure operating  futuristic technology well beyond our current capabilities.

Realistically, it’s probably not a gigantic star-enclosing Dyson sphere but still. SCIENCE. Wheee!

The program is called Planet Hunter, and it’s only one example of how professional scientists, with a huge assist from advancements in computer and communications technology, are finding ways to enlist the help of dedicated amateurs. There’s even a formal organization called Citizen Science Alliance to advance the cause [see sidebar].

In the case of Planet Hunter, says University of Saskatchewan astronomer Stan Shadick, you’re studying data gathered by the Kepler telescope to see if computer analysis missed anything. “It’s worthwhile, but it’s also nice for people to make their own observations of the night sky and then analyze the data collected.”

One program Shadick is involved in is called American Association of Variable Star Observers. “It does require people to have their own telescope, so it’s probably not for everyone. But if people are interested in astronomy and have invested in a telescope and maybe a camera, they can take pictures of certain stars where the brightness fluctuates over time. Then you can construct a light curve.”

Founded in 1911, AAVSO is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With help from amateur and professional astronomers in 108 countries, it’s compiled an archive of over 23 million variable star observations.

Many variables fluctuate in predictable rhythms, but unusual things do happen.

“A few years ago there was a big campaign about a star in Auriga constellation,” says Shadick. “There was a large disk of gas and dust crossing into the line of sight. Thousands of people around the world took observations that were very useful for the scientific study of that system.”

Shadick’s interest in science isn’t limited to his profession as an astronomer. “On the amateur side, my personal interest is bird-watching. Years ago we used to collect data on paper cards. Nowadays, of course, that sort of data-collecting is computerized.”

Researchers at Cornell University have even created an electronic database called eBird where birders from around the world can keep a record of their observations.

“The data can be used by professional ornithologists to study bird migration and hazards,” says Shadick. “That’s useful for conservation. During migration periods, for instance, a problem’s been identified with skyscrapers that are lit up at night. The birds are attracted to the light and fly into the buildings and kill themselves. So there could be certain times of the year where it’s important to turn the lights off.”

University of Ottawa started a similar project called eButterfly in 2011 for amateur lepidopterists. The beauty of the two programs is that people can participate in different ways. Keeners will likely want to do field observations, but if you have mobility challenges or are elderly, you can participate from the comfort of your backyard. You can even make observations when you’re travelling outside your home region and enter them into the database.

Citizen Volunteers

Digital databases aren’t the only way people can do citizen science. The Royal Saskatchewan Museum, for instance, has a program where volunteers, with proper training and supervision, can help RSM scientists in fields such as archaeology, palaeontology and etymology.

“We’re probably looking at late high school as a good age to start,” says RSM curator of invertebrate zoology Cory Sheffield. “Younger children might not have the sensitivity toward how fragile some specimens are. With [older volunteers], though, you can let them know and they’ll recognize that.”

Sheffield’s area of expertise is insects — pollinators and their role in agriculture specifically. “Mostly I employ students who are interested in insects, but it’s not restricted to them. There’s always so much work to do.”

Every specimen the RSM collects is assigned an accession number and entered into a data-base.

“It’s not necessarily the most exciting work, but it’s some of the most important work we do because that’s how we keep track of our holdings,” says Sheffield. “Then when someone has a question we can go into the computer to answer it without having to look in the collection.”

In the past few years, he adds, “we’ve done some large surveys in different parts of Saskatchewan, so we have several thousand vials containing between five and 500 specimens. I pull out ones that are of interest to me. Then, of course, there are scientists across Canada who are interested in other material that might be there. So one thing we’d have volunteers do is go through the vials and pull out certain species such ants or flies.”

When working as a research associate at York University, Sheffield actually discovered a new species of bee in a vial collected in Guatemala. The species now bears the name Mexalictus sheffieldi.

New discoveries are always possible in Saskatchewan too, he says.

“There’s still lots of work that needs to be done on biodiversity assessments, especially with insects, spiders and mites. So within the vials we’ve collected there could be all sorts of hidden treasures just waiting for the right person to spot them.”

Driven by our decades-long mania for all things dino, palaeontology is the most popular volunteer program at the RSM. “You need to be 16 or older, and the program is offered during office hours from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” says curator of invertebrate paleontology Ryan McKellar.

Most volunteer activities focus on fossil preparation.

“That involves things like chiseling specimens out of rock from field jackets, or cleaning up specimens,” says McKellar. “There’s also micro-site picking where we collect bulk sediment with fossils in them and people pick through the material looking for small mammal teeth and whatnot. We prepare amber samples too. That involves polishing specimens to make research slides for studying insects in amber.”

Model-making is a fourth area volunteers help out in. That involves taking molds of specimens and painting them to create plastic reproductions for museum displays.

“It provides hands-on experience,” says McKellar. “It’s also a gateway to doing field work. A lot of volunteers start in the lab, then once they’ve got some experience so they know what fossils look like and how to handle them, they can join us in the field. This summer we had people looking for new amber and vertebrate fossil sites.”

The RSM contact for palaeontology is Wes Long []. Volunteers interested in other fields can register at the RSM front desk. Some basic information will be taken, then they’ll be contacted by the appropriate RSM curator.

“If it’s a one-shot deal we’ll assign them a task that’s easy to do,” says Sheffield. “But if we’re expecting a long-term commitment there’ll be an orientation, and we’ll make sure they’re aware of our safety and other museum procedures.”

If you have a strong interest in a scientific field, volunteering at the RSM can be a great way to pursue it. “In Wes’s case, he started out as a volunteer, now he works as the main technician in the palaeontology program,” says McKellar. “Other volunteers have gone on to study palaeontology. We have a lot of long-term volunteers, and some have done some pretty cool things.”

Citizens & Science

The Citizen Science Alliance is governed by directors from Adler Planetarium (Chicago), John Hopkins University (Baltimore), University of Minnesota, National Maritime Museum (London), University of Nottingham (England), Oxford University (England) and Vizzuality (which operates its web portal Zooniverse).

Unlike early citizen science projects such as SETI@home where people simply use spare computing power at home to analyze radio signals for signs of alien life, CSA aims to promote active scientific research among its one million plus members.

If you visit you’ll find details on 39 CSA projects including:

Ancient Lives Participants study images of papyri fragments collected on digs to decipher their meaning and help archaeologists flesh out their knowledge of life in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt.

Chimp & See Over 7000 hours of video have been collected from camera traps in 15 African countries. Participants study this video, and catalogue the species and activities of chimpanzees to help scientists better understand chimpanzee behaviour.

Cyclone Center Using weather satellite data from infrared sensors going back to the 1960s, participants study cloud patterns and temperature differentials of tropical storms to categorize their size and intensity. This helps climatologists with analysis of long-term weather patterns.

Floating Forest Using Landsat images dating back to 1984, participants chart changes in the canopies of Giant Kelp forests in the world’s oceans. Kelp is a “foundation” species that provides food and shelter for small animals such as shrimp and fish that nourish larger predators. Another project called Plankton Portal does the same with plankton.

Galaxy Zoo Participants search over 8000 Hubble Telescope images for formations called “stellar bars” to help astronomers assess the age and orbital characteristics of millions of spiral galaxies throughout the universe.

Penguin Watch Participants study images from cameras in Antarctica to identify penguin species. The data gathered helps scientists chart the timing of penguin breeding cycles, nest locations, the survival rate of chicks, and presence of land-based predators such as gulls and rats.