Category Archives: Citizen Science

Crowdsourcing brain research at Princeton University to discover 6 new neuron types

Spritely music!

There were already 1/4M registered players as of May 17, 2018 but I’m sure there’s room for more should you be inspired. A May 17, 2018 Princeton University news release (also on EurekAlert) reveals more about the game and about the neurons,

With the help of a quarter-million video game players, Princeton researchers have created and shared detailed maps of more than 1,000 neurons — and they’re just getting started.

“Working with Eyewirers around the world, we’ve made a digital museum that shows off the intricate beauty of the retina’s neural circuits,” said Sebastian Seung, the Evnin Professor in Neuroscience and a professor of computer science and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute (PNI). The related paper is publishing May 17 [2018] in the journal Cell.

Seung is unveiling the Eyewire Museum, an interactive archive of neurons available to the general public and neuroscientists around the world, including the hundreds of researchers involved in the federal Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

“This interactive viewer is a huge asset for these larger collaborations, especially among people who are not physically in the same lab,” said Amy Robinson Sterling, a crowdsourcing specialist with PNI and the executive director of Eyewire, the online gaming platform for the citizen scientists who have created this data set.

“This museum is something like a brain atlas,” said Alexander Bae, a graduate student in electrical engineering and one of four co-first authors on the paper. “Previous brain atlases didn’t have a function where you could visualize by individual cell, or a subset of cells, and interact with them. Another novelty: Not only do we have the morphology of each cell, but we also have the functional data, too.”

The neural maps were developed by Eyewirers, members of an online community of video game players who have devoted hundreds of thousands of hours to painstakingly piecing together these neural cells, using data from a mouse retina gathered in 2009.

Eyewire pairs machine learning with gamers who trace the twisting and branching paths of each neuron. Humans are better at visually identifying the patterns of neurons, so every player’s moves are recorded and checked against each other by advanced players and Eyewire staffers, as well as by software that is improving its own pattern recognition skills.

Since Eyewire’s launch in 2012, more than 265,000 people have signed onto the game, and they’ve collectively colored in more than 10 million 3-D “cubes,” resulting in the mapping of more than 3,000 neural cells, of which about a thousand are displayed in the museum.

Each cube is a tiny subset of a single cell, about 4.5 microns across, so a 10-by-10 block of cubes would be the width of a human hair. Every cell is reviewed by between 5 and 25 gamers before it is accepted into the system as complete.

“Back in the early years it took weeks to finish a single cell,” said Sterling. “Now players complete multiple neurons per day.” The Eyewire user experience stays focused on the larger mission — “For science!” is a common refrain — but it also replicates a typical gaming environment, with achievement badges, a chat feature to connect with other players and technical support, and the ability to unlock privileges with increasing skill. “Our top players are online all the time — easily 30 hours a week,” Sterling said.

Dedicated Eyewirers have also contributed in other ways, including donating the swag that gamers win during competitions and writing program extensions “to make game play more efficient and more fun,” said Sterling, including profile histories, maps of player activity, a top 100 leaderboard and ever-increasing levels of customizability.

“The community has really been the driving force behind why Eyewire has been successful,” Sterling said. “You come in, and you’re not alone. Right now, there are 43 people online. Some of them will be admins from Boston or Princeton, but most are just playing — now it’s 46.”

For science!

With 100 billion neurons linked together via trillions of connections, the brain is immeasurably complex, and neuroscientists are still assembling its “parts list,” said Nicholas Turner, a graduate student in computer science and another of the co-first authors. “If you know what parts make up the machine you’re trying to break apart, you’re set to figure out how it all works,” he said.

The researchers have started by tackling Eyewire-mapped ganglion cells from the retina of a mouse. “The retina doesn’t just sense light,” Seung said. “Neural circuits in the retina perform the first steps of visual perception.”

The retina grows from the same embryonic tissue as the brain, and while much simpler than the brain, it is still surprisingly complex, Turner said. “Hammering out these details is a really valuable effort,” he said, “showing the depth and complexity that exists in circuits that we naively believe are simple.”

The researchers’ fundamental question is identifying exactly how the retina works, said Bae. “In our case, we focus on the structural morphology of the retinal ganglion cells.”

“Why the ganglion cells of the eye?” asked Shang Mu, an associate research scholar in PNI and fellow first author. “Because they’re the connection between the retina and the brain. They’re the only cell class that go back into the brain.” Different types of ganglion cells are known to compute different types of visual features, which is one reason the museum has linked shape to functional data.

Using Eyewire-produced maps of 396 ganglion cells, the researchers in Seung’s lab successfully classified these cells more thoroughly than has ever been done before.

“The number of different cell types was a surprise,” said Mu. “Just a few years ago, people thought there were only 15 to 20 ganglion cell types, but we found more than 35 — we estimate between 35 and 50 types.”

Of those, six appear to be novel, in that the researchers could not find any matching descriptions in a literature search.

A brief scroll through the digital museum reveals just how remarkably flat the neurons are — nearly all of the branching takes place along a two-dimensional plane. Seung’s team discovered that different cells grow along different planes, with some reaching high above the nucleus before branching out, while others spread out close to the nucleus. Their resulting diagrams resemble a rainforest, with ground cover, an understory, a canopy and an emergent layer overtopping the rest.

All of these are subdivisions of the inner plexiform layer, one of the five previously recognized layers of the retina. The researchers also identified a “density conservation principle” that they used to distinguish types of neurons.

One of the biggest surprises of the research project has been the extraordinary richness of the original sample, said Seung. “There’s a little sliver of a mouse retina, and almost 10 years later, we’re still learning things from it.”

Of course, it’s a mouse’s brain that you’ll be examining and while there are differences between a mouse brain and a human brain, mouse brains still provide valuable data as they did in the case of some groundbreaking research published in October 2017. James Hamblin wrote about it in an Oct. 7, 2017 article for The Atlantic (Note: Links have been removed),

 

Scientists Somehow Just Discovered a New System of Vessels in Our Brains

It is unclear what they do—but they likely play a central role in aging and disease.

A transparent model of the brain with a network of vessels filled in
Daniel Reich / National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

You are now among the first people to see the brain’s lymphatic system. The vessels in the photo above transport fluid that is likely crucial to metabolic and inflammatory processes. Until now, no one knew for sure that they existed.

Doctors practicing today have been taught that there are no lymphatic vessels inside the skull. Those deep-purple vessels were seen for the first time in images published this week by researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

In the rest of the body, the lymphatic system collects and drains the fluid that bathes our cells, in the process exporting their waste. It also serves as a conduit for immune cells, which go out into the body looking for adversaries and learning how to distinguish self from other, and then travel back to lymph nodes and organs through lymphatic vessels.

So how was it even conceivable that this process wasn’t happening in our brains?

Reich (Daniel Reich, senior investigator) started his search in 2015, after a major study in Nature reported a similar conduit for lymph in mice. The University of Virginia team wrote at the time, “The discovery of the central-nervous-system lymphatic system may call for a reassessment of basic assumptions in neuroimmunology.” The study was regarded as a potential breakthrough in understanding how neurodegenerative disease is associated with the immune system.

Around the same time, researchers discovered fluid in the brains of mice and humans that would become known as the “glymphatic system.” [emphasis mine] It was described by a team at the University of Rochester in 2015 as not just the brain’s “waste-clearance system,” but as potentially helping fuel the brain by transporting glucose, lipids, amino acids, and neurotransmitters. Although since “the central nervous system completely lacks conventional lymphatic vessels,” the researchers wrote at the time, it remained unclear how this fluid communicated with the rest of the body.

There are occasional references to the idea of a lymphatic system in the brain in historic literature. Two centuries ago, the anatomist Paolo Mascagni made full-body models of the lymphatic system that included the brain, though this was dismissed as an error. [emphases mine]  A historical account in The Lancet in 2003 read: “Mascagni was probably so impressed with the lymphatic system that he saw lymph vessels even where they did not exist—in the brain.”

I couldn’t resist the reference to someone whose work had been dismissed summarily being proved right, eventually, and with the help of mouse brains. Do read Hamblin’s article in its entirety if you have time as these excerpts don’t do it justice.

Getting back to Princeton’s research, here’s their research paper,

Digital museum of retinal ganglion cells with dense anatomy and physiology,” by Alexander Bae, Shang Mu, Jinseop Kim, Nicholas Turner, Ignacio Tartavull, Nico Kemnitz, Chris Jordan, Alex Norton, William Silversmith, Rachel Prentki, Marissa Sorek, Celia David, Devon Jones, Doug Bland, Amy Sterling, Jungman Park, Kevin Briggman, Sebastian Seung and the Eyewirers, was published May 17 in the journal Cell with DOI 10.1016/j.cell.2018.04.040.

The research was supported by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, National Institute of Health-National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (U01NS090562 and 5R01NS076467), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (HR0011-14-2- 0004), Army Research Office (W911NF-12-1-0594), Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (D16PC00005), KT Corporation, Amazon Web Services Research Grants, Korea Brain Research Institute (2231-415) and Korea National Research Foundation Brain Research Program (2017M3C7A1048086).

This paper is behind a paywall. For the players amongst us, here’s the Eyewire website. Go forth,  play, and, maybe, discover new neurons!

Extinction of Experience (EOE)

‘Extinction of experience’ is a bit of an attention getter isn’t it? Well, it worked for me when I first saw it and it seems particularly apt after putting together my August 9, 2018 posting about the 2018 SIGGRAPH conference, in particular, the ‘Previews’ where I featured a synthetic sound project. Here’s a little more about EOE from a July 3, 2018 news item on phys.org,

Opportunities for people to interact with nature have declined over the past century, as most people now live in urban areas and spend much of their time indoors. And while adults are not only experiencing nature less, they are also less likely to take their children outdoors and shape their attitudes toward nature, creating a negative cycle. In 1978, ecologist Robert Pyle coined the phrase “extinction of experience” (EOE) to describe this alienation from nature, and argued that this process is one of the greatest causes of the biodiversity crisis. Four decades later, the question arises: How can we break the cycle and begin to reverse EOE?

A July 3, 2018 North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences news release, which originated the news item, delves further,

In citizen science programs, people participate in real research, helping scientists conduct studies on local, regional and even global scales. In a study released today, researchers from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, North Carolina State University, Rutgers University, and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology propose nature-based citizen science as a means to reconnect people to nature. For people to take the next step and develop a desire to preserve nature, they need to not only go outdoors or learn about nature, but to develop emotional connections to and empathy for nature. Because citizen science programs usually involve data collection, they encourage participants to search for, observe and investigate natural elements around them. According to co-author Caren Cooper, assistant head of the Biodiversity Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, “Nature-based citizen science provides a structure and purpose that might help people notice nature around them and appreciate it in their daily lives.”

To search for evidence of these patterns across programs and the ability of citizen science to reach non-scientific audiences, the researchers studied the participants of citizen science programs. They reviewed 975 papers, analyzed results from studies that included participants’ motivations and/or outcomes in nature-oriented programs, and found that nature-based citizen science fosters cognitive and emotional aspects of experiences in nature, giving it the potential to reverse EOE.

The eMammal citizen science programs offer children opportunities to use technology to observe nature in new ways. Photo: Matt Zeher. The eMammal citizen science programs offer children opportunities to use technology to observe nature in new ways. Photo: Matt Zeher.

The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Stephanie Schuttler, lead author on the study and scientist on the eMammal citizen science camera trapping program, saw anecdotal evidence of this reversal through her work incorporating camera trap research into K-12 classrooms. “Teachers would tell me how excited and surprised students were about the wildlife in their school yards,” Schuttler says. “They had no idea their campus flourished with coyotes, foxes and deer.” The study Schuttler headed shows citizen science increased participants’ knowledge, skills, interest in and curiosity about nature, and even produced positive behavioral changes. For example, one study revealed that participants in the Garden Butterfly Watch program changed gardening practices to make their yards more hospitable to wildlife. Another study found that participants in the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team program started cleaning up beaches during surveys, even though this was never suggested by the facilitators.

While these results are promising, the EOE study also revealed that this work has only just begun and that most programs do not reach audiences who are not already engaged in science or nature. Only 26 of the 975 papers evaluated participants’ motivations and/or outcomes, and only one of these papers studied children, the most important demographic in reversing EOE. “Many studies were full of amazing stories on how citizen science awakened participants to the nature around them, however, most did not study outcomes,” Schuttler notes. “To fully evaluate the ability for nature-based citizen science to affect people, we encourage citizen science programs to formally study their participants and not just study the system in question.”

Additionally, most citizen science programs attracted or even recruited environmentally mindful participants who likely already spend more time outside than the average person. “If we really want to reconnect people to nature, we need to preach beyond the choir, and attract people who are not already interested in science and/or nature,” Schuttler adds. And as co-author Assaf Shwartz of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology asserts, “The best way to avert the extinction of experience is to create meaningful experiences of nature in the places where we all live and work – cities. Participating in citizen science is an excellent way to achieve this goal, as participation can enhance the sense of commitment people have to protect nature.”

Luckily, some other factors appear to influence participants’ involvement in citizen science. Desire for wellbeing, stewardship and community may provide a gateway for people to participate, an important first step in connecting people to nature. Though nature-based citizen science programs provide opportunities for people to interact with nature, further research on the mechanisms that drive this relationship is needed to strengthen our understanding of various outcomes of citizen science.

And, I because I love dragonflies,

Nature-based citizen science programs, like Dragonfly Pond Watch, offer participants opportunities to observe nature more closely. Credit: Lea Shell.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Bridging the nature gap: can citizen science reverse the extinction of experience? by Stephanie G Schuttler, Amanda E Sorensen, Rebecca C Jordan, Caren Cooper, Assaf Shwartz. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1826 First published: 03 July 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

My name is Steve and I’m a sub auroral ion drift

Photo: The Aurora Named STEVE Couresty: NASA Goddard

That stunning image is one of a series, many of which were taken by amateur photographers as noted in a March 14, 2018 US National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)/Goddard Space Flight Center news release (also on EurekAlert) by Kasha Patel about how STEVE was discovered,

Notanee Bourassa knew that what he was seeing in the night sky was not normal. Bourassa, an IT technician in Regina, Canada, trekked outside of his home on July 25, 2016, around midnight with his two younger children to show them a beautiful moving light display in the sky — an aurora borealis. He often sky gazes until the early hours of the morning to photograph the aurora with his Nikon camera, but this was his first expedition with his children. When a thin purple ribbon of light appeared and starting glowing, Bourassa immediately snapped pictures until the light particles disappeared 20 minutes later. Having watched the northern lights for almost 30 years since he was a teenager, he knew this wasn’t an aurora. It was something else.

From 2015 to 2016, citizen scientists — people like Bourassa who are excited about a science field but don’t necessarily have a formal educational background — shared 30 reports of these mysterious lights in online forums and with a team of scientists that run a project called Aurorasaurus. The citizen science project, funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, tracks the aurora borealis through user-submitted reports and tweets.

The Aurorasaurus team, led by Liz MacDonald, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, conferred to determine the identity of this mysterious phenomenon. MacDonald and her colleague Eric Donovan at the University of Calgary in Canada talked with the main contributors of these images, amateur photographers in a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers, which included Bourassa and lead administrator Chris Ratzlaff. Ratzlaff gave the phenomenon a fun, new name, Steve, and it stuck.

But people still didn’t know what it was.

Scientists’ understanding of Steve changed that night Bourassa snapped his pictures. Bourassa wasn’t the only one observing Steve. Ground-based cameras called all-sky cameras, run by the University of Calgary and University of California, Berkeley, took pictures of large areas of the sky and captured Steve and the auroral display far to the north. From space, ESA’s (the European Space Agency) Swarm satellite just happened to be passing over the exact area at the same time and documented Steve.

For the first time, scientists had ground and satellite views of Steve. Scientists have now learned, despite its ordinary name, that Steve may be an extraordinary puzzle piece in painting a better picture of how Earth’s magnetic fields function and interact with charged particles in space. The findings are published in a study released today in Science Advances.

“This is a light display that we can observe over thousands of kilometers from the ground,” said MacDonald. “It corresponds to something happening way out in space. Gathering more data points on STEVE will help us understand more about its behavior and its influence on space weather.”

The study highlights one key quality of Steve: Steve is not a normal aurora. Auroras occur globally in an oval shape, last hours and appear primarily in greens, blues and reds. Citizen science reports showed Steve is purple with a green picket fence structure that waves. It is a line with a beginning and end. People have observed Steve for 20 minutes to 1 hour before it disappears.

If anything, auroras and Steve are different flavors of an ice cream, said MacDonald. They are both created in generally the same way: Charged particles from the Sun interact with Earth’s magnetic field lines.

The uniqueness of Steve is in the details. While Steve goes through the same large-scale creation process as an aurora, it travels along different magnetic field lines than the aurora. All-sky cameras showed that Steve appears at much lower latitudes. That means the charged particles that create Steve connect to magnetic field lines that are closer to Earth’s equator, hence why Steve is often seen in southern Canada.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Steve appeared in the satellite data. The data showed that Steve comprises a fast moving stream of extremely hot particles called a sub auroral ion drift, or SAID. Scientists have studied SAIDs since the 1970s but never knew there was an accompanying visual effect. The Swarm satellite recorded information on the charged particles’ speeds and temperatures, but does not have an imager aboard.

“People have studied a lot of SAIDs, but we never knew it had a visible light. Now our cameras are sensitive enough to pick it up and people’s eyes and intellect were critical in noticing its importance,” said Donovan, a co-author of the study. Donovan led the all-sky camera network and his Calgary colleagues lead the electric field instruments on the Swarm satellite.

Steve is an important discovery because of its location in the sub auroral zone, an area of lower latitude than where most auroras appear that is not well researched. For one, with this discovery, scientists now know there are unknown chemical processes taking place in the sub auroral zone that can lead to this light emission.

Second, Steve consistently appears in the presence of auroras, which usually occur at a higher latitude area called the auroral zone. That means there is something happening in near-Earth space that leads to both an aurora and Steve. Steve might be the only visual clue that exists to show a chemical or physical connection between the higher latitude auroral zone and lower latitude sub auroral zone, said MacDonald.

“Steve can help us understand how the chemical and physical processes in Earth’s upper atmosphere can sometimes have local noticeable effects in lower parts of Earth’s atmosphere,” said MacDonald. “This provides good insight on how Earth’s system works as a whole.”

The team can learn a lot about Steve with additional ground and satellite reports, but recording Steve from the ground and space simultaneously is a rare occurrence. Each Swarm satellite orbits Earth every 90 minutes and Steve only lasts up to an hour in a specific area. If the satellite misses Steve as it circles Earth, Steve will probably be gone by the time that same satellite crosses the spot again.

In the end, capturing Steve becomes a game of perseverance and probability.

“It is my hope that with our timely reporting of sightings, researchers can study the data so we can together unravel the mystery of Steve’s origin, creation, physics and sporadic nature,” said Bourassa. “This is exciting because the more I learn about it, the more questions I have.”

As for the name “Steve” given by the citizen scientists? The team is keeping it as an homage to its initial name and discoverers. But now it is STEVE, short for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

Other collaborators on this work are: the University of Calgary, New Mexico Consortium, Boston University, Lancaster University, Athabasca University, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group.

If you live in an area where you may see STEVE or an aurora, submit your pictures and reports to Aurorasaurus through aurorasaurus.org or the free iOS and Android mobile apps. To learn how to spot STEVE, click here.

There is a video with MacDonald describing the work and featuring more images,

Katherine Kornei’s March 14, 2018 article for sciencemag.org adds more detail about the work,

Citizen scientists first began posting about Steve on social media several years ago. Across New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, they reported an unusual sight in the night sky: a purplish line that arced across the heavens for about an hour at a time, visible at lower latitudes than classical aurorae, mostly in the spring and fall. … “It’s similar to a contrail but doesn’t disperse,” says Notanee Bourassa, an aurora photographer in Saskatchewan province in Canada [Regina as mentioned in the news release is the capital of the province of Saskatchewan].

Traditional aurorae are often green, because oxygen atoms present in Earth’s atmosphere emit that color light when they’re bombarded by charged particles trapped in Earth’s magnetic field. They also appear as a diffuse glow—rather than a distinct line—on the northern or southern horizon. Without a scientific theory to explain the new sight, a group of citizen scientists led by aurora enthusiast Chris Ratzlaff of Canada’s Alberta province [usually referred to as Canada’s province of Alberta or simply, the province of Alberta] playfully dubbed it Steve, after a line in the 2006 children’s movie Over the Hedge.

Aurorae have been studied for decades, but people may have missed Steve because their cameras weren’t sensitive enough, says Elizabeth MacDonald, a space physicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and leader of the new research. MacDonald and her team have used data from a European satellite called Swarm-A to study Steve in its native environment, about 200 kilometers up in the atmosphere. Swarm-A’s instruments revealed that the charged particles in Steve had a temperature of about 6000°C, “impressively hot” compared with the nearby atmosphere, MacDonald says. And those ions were flowing from east to west at nearly 6 kilometers per second, …

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

New science in plain sight: Citizen scientists lead to the discovery of optical structure in the upper atmosphere by Elizabeth A. MacDonald, Eric Donovan, Yukitoshi Nishimura, Nathan A. Case, D. Megan Gillies, Bea Gallardo-Lacourt, William E. Archer, Emma L. Spanswick, Notanee Bourassa, Martin Connors, Matthew Heavner, Brian Jackel, Burcu Kosar, David J. Knudsen, Chris Ratzlaff, and Ian Schofield. Science Advances 14 Mar 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 3, eaaq0030 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaq0030

This paper is open access. You’ll note that Notanee Bourassa is listed as an author. For more about Bourassa, there’s his Twitter feed (@DJHardwired) and his YouTube Channel. BTW, his Twitter bio notes that he’s “Recently heartbroken,” as well as, “Seasoned human male. Expert storm chaser, aurora photographer, drone flyer and on-air FM radio DJ.” Make of that what you will.

Science for the global citizen course at McMaster University in Winter 2018

It’s never too early to start planning for your course load if a June 20, 2017 McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) news release is to be believed,

In the Winter 2018 term, the School of Interdisciplinary Science is offering Science 2M03: Science for the Global Citizen, a new course designed to explore those questions and more. In this blended-learning course, students from all Faculties will examine the links between science and the larger society through live guest lecturers and evidence-based online discussions.This course is open to students enrolled in Level II or above in any program. No scientific background is needed, only an interest in becoming a more engaged and informed citizen.

The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications. Topics range from artificial intelligence (AI) to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to space exploration.

Course instructors, Dr. Kim Dej, Dr. Chad Harvey, Dr. Rosa da Silva, and Dr. Sarah Symons, all from the School of Interdisciplinary Science, will examine the basic scientific theories and concepts behind these topical issues, and highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy.

After taking this course, students from all academic backgrounds will have a better understanding of how science is conducted, how knowledge changes, and how we can become better consumers of scientific information and more informed citizens.

3 
 63 
 1 
 68 How can science help address the key challenges in our society? How does society affect the way that science is conducted? Do citizens have a strong enough understanding of science and its methods to answer these and other similar questions? In the Winter 2018 term, the School of Interdisciplinary Science is offering Science 2M03: Science for the Global Citizen, a new course designed to explore those questions and more. In this blended-learning course, students from all Faculties will examine the links between science and the larger society through live guest lecturers and evidence-based online discussions. This course is open to students enrolled in Level II or above in any program. No scientific background is needed, only an interest in becoming a more engaged and informed citizen. The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications. Topics range from artificial intelligence (AI) to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to space exploration. Course instructors, Dr. Kim Dej, Dr. Chad Harvey, Dr. Rosa da Silva, and Dr. Sarah Symons, all from the School of Interdisciplinary Science, will examine the basic scientific theories and concepts behind these topical issues, and highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy. After taking this course, students from all academic backgrounds will have a better understanding of how science is conducted, how knowledge changes, and how we can become better consumers of scientific information and more informed citizens.

I’m glad to see this kind of course being offered. It does seem a bit odd that none of the instructors involved with this course appear to be from the social sciences or humanities. Drs. Dej, Harvey, and da Silva all have a background in biological sciences and Dr. Symons is a physicist. Taking another look at this line from the course description, “The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications,” has me wondering how these scientists are going to cover the material, especially as I couldn’t find any papers on these topics written by any of these instructors. This section puzzles me even more, “… highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy.” Again none of these instructors seem to have published on the topic of science in popular media or science public policy.

Guest speakers can help to fill in the blanks but with four instructors (and I would imagine a tight budget) it’s hard to believe there are going to be that many guests.

I appreciate that this is more of what they used to call a ‘survey course’ meant to introduce a number of ideas rather than conveying any in depth information but I do find the instructors’ apparent lack of theoretical knowledge about anything other than their respective fields of science somewhat disconcerting.

Regardless, I wish both the instructors and the students all the best.

Do your physical therapy and act as a citizen scientist at the same time

I gather that recovering from a serious injury and/or surgery can require exercise regimens which help strengthen you but can be mind-numbingly boring. According to a Feb. 23, 30217 New York University Tandon School of Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert), scientists have found a way to make the physical rehabilitation process more meaningful,

Researchers at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering have devised a method by which patients requiring repetitive rehabilitative exercises, such as those prescribed by physical therapists, can voluntarily contribute to scientific projects in which massive data collection and analysis is needed.

Citizen science empowers people with little to no scientific training to participate in research led by professional scientists in different ways. The benefit of such an activity is often bidirectional, whereby professional scientists leverage the effort of a large number of volunteers in data collection or analysis, while the volunteers increase their knowledge on the topic of the scientific endeavor. Tandon researchers added the benefit of performing what can sometimes be boring or painful exercise regimes in a more appealing yet still therapeutic manner.

The citizen science activity they employed entailed the environmental mapping of a polluted body of water (in this case Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal) with a miniature instrumented boat, which was remotely controlled by the participants through their physical gestures, as tracked by a low-cost motion capture system that does not require the subject to don special equipment. The researchers demonstrated that the natural user interface offers an engaging and effective means for performing environmental monitoring tasks. At the same time, the citizen science activity increased the commitment of the participants, leading to a better motion performance, quantified through an array of objective indices.

Visiting Researcher Eduardo Palermo (of Sapienza University of Rome), Post-doctoral Researcher Jeffrey Laut, Professor of Technology Management and Innovation Oded Nov, late Research Professor Paolo Cappa, and Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Maurizio Porfiri provided subjects with a Microsoft Kinect sensor, a markerless human motion tracker capable of estimating three-dimensional coordinates of human joints that was initially designed for gaming but has since been widely repurposed as an input device for natural user interfaces. They asked participants to pilot the boat, controlling thruster speed and steering angle, by lifting one arm away from the trunk and using wrist motions, in effect, mimicking one widely adopted type of rehabilitative exercises based on repetitively performing simple movements with the affected arm. Their results suggest that an inexpensive, off-the-shelf device can offer an engaging means to contribute to important scientific tasks while delivering relevant and efficient physical exercises.

“The study constitutes a first and necessary step toward rehabilitative treatments of the upper limb through citizen science and low-cost markerless optical systems,” Porfiri explains. “Our methodology expands behavioral rehabilitation by providing an engaging and fun natural user interface, a tangible scientific contribution, and an attractive low-cost markerless technology for human motion capture.”

Caption: NYU Tandon researchers reported that volunteers who performed repetitive exercises while contributing as citizen scientists were more effective in their physical therapy motions. In the experiment, the volunteers controlled a small boat monitoring the polluted Gowanus Canal by performing hand and arm motions using the Microsoft Kinect motion capture system. Credit: NYU Tandon, PLoS ONE

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A Natural User Interface to Integrate Citizen Science and Physical Exercise by Eduardo Palermo, Jeffrey Laut, Oded Nov, Paolo Cappa, Maurizio Porfiri. Public Library of Science (PLoS) http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0172587 Published: February 23, 2017

This paper is open access.

The role of empathy in science communication

Phys.org has a Dec. 12, 2016 essay by Nicole Miller-Struttmann on the topic of empathy and science communication,

Science communication remains as challenging as it is necessary in the era of big data. Scientists are encouraged to reach out to non-experts through social media, collaborations with citizen scientists, and non-technical abstracts. As a science enthusiast (and extrovert), I truly enjoy making these connections and having conversations that span expertise, interests and geographic barriers. However, recent divisive and impassioned responses to the surprising election results in the U.S. made me question how effective these approaches are for connecting with the public.

Are we all just stuck in our own echo chambers, ignoring those that disagree with us?

How do we break out of these silos to reach those that disengage from science or stop listening when we focus on evidence? Particularly evidence that is increasingly large in volume and in scale? Recent research suggests that a few key approaches might help: (1) managing our social media use with purpose, (2) tailoring outreach efforts to a distinct public, and (3) empathizing with our audience(s) in a deep, meaningful way.

The essay, which originally appeared on the PLOS Ecology Community blog in a Dec. 9, 2016 posting, goes on to discuss social media, citizen science/crowdsourcing, design thinking, and next gen data visualization (Note: Links have been removed),

Many of us attempt to broaden our impact by sharing interesting studies with friends, family, colleagues, and the broader public on social media. While the potential to interact directly with non-experts through social media is immense, confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret and share information that supports one’s existing beliefs) provides a significant barrier to reaching non-traditional and contrarian publics. Insights from network analyses suggest that these barriers can be overcome by managing our connections and crafting our messages carefully. …

Technology has revolutionized how the public engages in science, particularly data acquisition, interpretation and dissemination. The potential benefits of citizen science and crowd sourcing projects are immense, but there are significant challenges as well. Paramount among them is the reliance on “near-experts” and amateur scientists. Domroese and Johnson (2016) suggest that understanding what motivates citizen scientists to get involved – not what we think motivates them – is the first step to deepening their involvement and attracting diverse participants.

Design Thinking may provide a framework for reaching diverse and under-represented publics. While similar to scientific thinking in several ways,

design thinking includes a crucial step that scientific thinking does not: empathizing with your audience.

It requires that the designer put themselves in the shoes of their audience, understand what motivates them (as Domroese and Johnson suggest), consider how they will interact with and perceive the ‘product’, and appeal to the perspective. Yajima (2015) summarizes how design thinking can “catalyze scientific innovation” but also why it might be a strange fit for scientists. …

Connecting the public to big data is particularly challenging, as the data are often complex with multifaceted stories to tell. Recent work suggests that art-based, interactive displays are more effective at fostering understanding of complex issues, such as climate change.

Thomsen (2015) explains that by eliciting visceral responses and stimulating the imagination, interactive displays can deepen understanding and may elicit behavioral changes.

I recommend reading this piece in its entirety as Miller-Struttmann presents a more cohesive description of current science communication practices and ideas than is sometimes the case.

Final comment, I would like to add one suggestion and that’s the adoption of an attitude of ‘muscular’ empathy. People are going to disagree with you, sometimes quite strongly (aggressively), and it can be very difficult to maintain communication with people who don’t want (i.e., reject) the communication. Maintaining empathy in the face of failure and rejection which can extend for decades or longer requires a certain muscularity

The Future of Federal Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing; a Nov. 15, 2016 event at the Wilson Center (Washington, DC)

I received this Oct. 25, 2016 notice from the Wilson Center in Washington, DC (US) via email,

Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing, a form of open innovation that engages the public in authentic scientific research, has many documented benefits like advancing research, STEM education and addressing societal needs. This method has gained significant momentum in the U.S. Federal government in the past four years. In September 2015 the White House issued a memorandum asking federal agencies to report on their citizen science and crowdsourcing projects and appoint coordinators within each agency. In 2016 we witnessed the launch of www.citizenscience.gov, a platform with an extensive toolkit on how to conduct these projects as well as a catalog and community hub. In addition to these Executive Branch initiatives, a grassroots Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science (CCS) has emerged with 300 members across 59 agencies. The Science and Technology Program (STIP) at the Wilson Center has played a role in encouraging this momentum, providing support through building a cartographic catalog of federally supported citizen science and crowdsourcing projects and through extensive research into some of the legal, administrative and intellectual property concerns for conducting projects within the Federal government.

However, a new Administration often brings new priorities, and it’s vital to preserve this momentum and history for new leadership. STIP conducted interviews with twelve representatives of the Federal Community of practice and Agency Coordinators and conducted desk research to compile 10 strategic recommendations for advancing federal policies and programs in citizen science and crowdsourcing to facilitate the transfer of knowledge on this incredible momentum.

Please join us for a discussion of these recommendations, a celebration of the history of the movement and a dialogue on the future of citizen science and crowdsourcing in the Federal government.

The speakers are:

Elizabeth Tyson

Co-Director, Commons Lab/Program Associate, Science and Technology Innovation Program

Anne Bowser

Co-Director, Commons Lab/ Senior Program Associate, Science and Technology Innovation Program

David Rejeski

Global Fellow

The logistics:

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016
1:30pm – 3:00pm

5th floor conference room

Wilson Center
Ronald Reagan Building and
International Trade Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania, Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20004

Phone: 202.691.4000

You can register here and you can find the Wilson Center Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Catalog here.

In the past, there would be livestreaming of these events but I didn’t see a notice on the event webpage.

Help find some siblings for the Higgs boson

This is the Higgs Hunters’ (or HiggsHunters) second call for volunteers; the first was described in my Dec. 2, 2014 posting. Some 18 months after the first call, over 20,000 volunteers have been viewing images from the Large Hadron Collider in a bid to assist physicists at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research).

These images show how particles appear in the ATLAS detector. The lines show the paths of charged particles travelling away from a collision at the centre. Volunteers are looking for tracks appearing 'out of thin air' away from the centre. (Image: CERN)

These images show how particles appear in the ATLAS detector. The lines show the paths of charged particles travelling away from a collision at the centre. Volunteers are looking for tracks appearing ‘out of thin air’ away from the centre. (Image: CERN)

A July 6, 2016 news item on phys.org announces the call for more volunteers (Note: Links have been removed),

A citizen science project, called HiggsHunters gives everyone the chance to help search for the Higgs boson’s relatives.

Volunteers are searching through thousands of images from the ATLAS experiment on the HiggsHunters.org website, which makes use of the Zooniverse  citizen science platform.

They are looking for ‘baby Higgs bosons’, which leave a characteristic trace in the ATLAS detector.

This is the first time that images from the Large Hadron Collider have been examined on such a scale – 60,000 of the most interesting events were selected from collisions recorded throughout 2012 – the year of the Higgs boson discovery. About 20,000 of those collisions have been scanned so far, revealing interesting features.

A July 4, 2016 posting by Harriet Kim Jarlett on Will Kalderon’s CERN blog, which originated the news item, provides more details,

“There are tasks – even in this high-tech world – where the human eye and the human brain simply win out,” says Professor Alan Barr of the University of Oxford, who is leading the project.

Over the past two years, more than twenty thousand amateur scientists, from 179 countries, have been scouring images of LHC collisions,  looking for as-yet unobserved particles.

Dr Will Kalderon, who has been working on the project says “We’ve been astounded both by the number of responses and ability of people to do this so well, I’m really excited to see what we might find”.

July 4, 2016 was the fourth anniversary of the  confirmation that the Higgs Boson almost certainly exists (from the CERN blog),

Today, July 4 2016, is the fourth birthday of the Higgs boson discovery. Here, a toy Higgs is sat on top of a birthday cake decorated with a HiggsHunter event display. On the blackboard behind is the process people are looking for - Higgs-strahlung. (Image: Will Kalderon/CERN)

Today, July 4 2016, is the fourth birthday of the Higgs boson discovery. Here, a toy Higgs is sat on top of a birthday cake decorated with a HiggsHunter event display. On the blackboard behind is the process people are looking for – Higgs-strahlung. (Image: Will Kalderon/CERN)

You can find the Higgs Hunters website here. Should you be interested in other citizen science projects, you can find the Zooniverse website here.