Tag Archives: citizen science

Wilson Center hosts ‘Environmental Information: The Roles of Experts and the Public’ on April 29, 2014

Here’s a description of the Wilson Center event, Environmental Information: The Roles of Experts and the Public,

Access to environmental information and use of it for environmental decision making are central pillars of environmental democracy. Yet, not much attention is paid to the question of who is producing it, and for whom? By examining the history of environmental information, since NEPA in 1969, three eras can be identified: information produced by experts, for experts (1969-1992); information produced by experts, to be shared by experts and the public (1992-2011); and finally, information produced by experts and the public to be shared by experts and the public.

Underlying these are changes in access to information, rise in levels of education and rapid change due to digital technologies. The three eras and their implication to environmental decision making will be explored, with special attention to the role of geographical information and geographical information systems and to citizen science.  [emphasis mine]

Tuesday, April 29th from 10:00 – 11:30am. [EST]

I hope the speaker description and the paper being distributed on the event page mean this may be a bit more interesting to those of us curious about citizen science than is immediately apparent from the event description,

Muki (Mordechai) Haklay

Muki Haklay is a Professor of Geographic Information Science in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, University College London.  He is also the Director of the UCL Extreme Citizen Science group, which is dedicated to allowing any community, regardless of their literacy, to use scientific methods and tools to collect, analyze and interpret and use information about their area and activities.

His research interests include Public access and use of Environmental Information; Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Usability Engineering aspects of GIS; and Societal aspects of GIS use – in particular, participatory mapping and Citizen Science.

Here’s the paper,

Citizen Science and Volunteered Geographic Information – overview and typology of participation

You can RSVP from the event page if you’re planning to attend this event in Washington, DC in person, alternatively you can watch a livestream webcast by returning to the event page on April 29, 2014 at 10 am (that will be 7 am, if you’re on the West Coast),

Game design for scientific participation

Thanks to David Bruggeman for his Feb. 13, 2014 post (on the Pasco Phronesis blog) about a US National Science Foundation (NSF) webinar on designing scientific games and where he has embedded a video of a mobile game from Cancer Research UK. (His blog is well worth checking out for the information on science entertainment, as well as, his main topic, science policy.)

The upcoming NSF webinar is titled, From World of Warcraft to Fold.it and Beyond; The Opportunities & Challenges to Designing Games for Scientific Participation and will be held on Friday, Feb. 21, 2014 (1 hr.),

February 21, 2014 12:00 PM  to  February 21, 2014 1:00 PM
NSF Room 110

Designing Disruptive Learning Technologies Webinar Series

Kurt Squire – University of Wisconsin-Madison

Abstract:

Digital games like World of Warcraft and Fold.it are compelling examples of how technology can engage thousands of learners in solving complex problems — even in making scientific discoveries. But what does it take to foster learning in the midst of such enthusiastic engagement? In this presentation, I will draw from a decade of research in how people learn and interact in online gaming environments and present findings from our work designing online environments for science learning. I will present pedagogical models for integrating gaming technologies into classrooms and research exploring how these games work for learning. Both the potential of games for science learning and challenges for leveraging gaming technologies at scale will be presented, as well as implications for further research on how people learn.

Bio:

Kurt Squire is a Romnes Professor in Digital Media in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Director of the Games+Learning+Society Theme at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. Squire is also a co-founder and Vice President of Research for the Learning Games Network, a non-profit network expanding the role of games and learning. Squire is an internationally recognized leader in digital media in technology and has delivered dozens of invited addresses across Europe, Asia, and North America and written over 75 scholarly articles on digital media and education. Squire’s research investigates the potential of digital game-based technologies for learning, and has resulted in several software projects including ARIS, Virulent, Citizen Science, among others. Squire is the recipient of an NSF CAREER grant, and grants from the NSF, Gates Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, AMD Foundation, Microsoft, Data Recognition Corporation and others. Squire was also a co-founder of Joystick101.org, and for several years wrote a column with Henry Jenkins for Computer Games magazine.

Webinar

The Webinar will be held from 12:00pm to 1:00pm Eastern Time on Friday, Feburary 21, 2014.

Please register at https://nsf.webex.com/nsf/j.php?ED=239652927&RG=1&UID=0&RT=MiMxMQ%3D%3D  by 11:59pm Eastern Time on Thursday, February 20, 2014.

After your registration is accepted, you will receive an email with a URL to join the meeting. Please be sure to join a few minutes before the start of the webinar. This system does not establish a voice connection on your computer; instead, your acceptance message will have a toll-free phone number that you will be prompted to call after joining. In the event the number of requests exceeds the capacity, some requests may have to be denied.

This event is part of Webinars/Webcasts.

Meeting Type
Webcast

Contacts
Natalie Harr, (703) 292-8930, [email protected]

Good luck with your registration.  This webinar does seem to be open internationally although I imagine priority will be given to registrants located in the US.

Citizen scientists track conker (horse chestnut) tree invader

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a citizen science story. so here we go: from a Jan. 22, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

An army of citizen scientists has helped the professionals understand how a tiny ‘alien’ moth is attacking the UK’s conker (horse-chestnut) trees, and showed that naturally-occurring pest controlling wasps are not able to restrict the moth’s impact.

No bigger than a grain of rice, the horse-chestnut leaf-mining moth has spread rapidly through England and Wales since its arrival in London in 2002. The caterpillars of the moth ‘tunnel’ through the leaves of conker trees, causing them to turn brown and autumnal in appearance, even in the height of summer.

In 2010 thousands of ‘citizen scientists’ were asked by two professional ecologists to collect records of leaf damage from across the country as part of a project called ‘Conker Tree Science’.

The results show that over the last decade the moth has spread from London to reach almost all of England and Wales. Investigating the data further the scientific team concluded that it takes just three years from the first sighting of the moth in a particular location to maximum levels of damage to the horse-chestnut trees being recorded.

The Jan. 23, 2014 Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) news release, which originated the news item, describes the experiment which followed the 2010 project and features quotes from the researchers about citizen science,

In a follow-up experiment, many of the citizen scientists, including hundreds of school children, followed instructions to rear the moth by sealing the infested leaves in plastic bags and waiting for the insects to emerge. The results reveal that the tiny pest controllers (‘parasitiod’ wasps) that prey upon the caterpillars are not present in high enough numbers to control the moths.

Dr Michael Pocock, an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and lead author of the research paper said, “This is the sort of science that anyone can do. By taking part the public are doing real science – and the publication of this scientific paper is a demonstration of how seriously citizen science is now taken by the community of professional scientists.”

He added, “It seems almost like magic for children and other people to put a damaged leaf in a plastic bag, wait two weeks and then see insects – the adult moths or their pest controllers – emerge, but making these discoveries was a valuable contribution to understanding why some animals become so invasive.”

Co-author Dr Darren Evans, a conservation biologist at the University of Hull said, “This work could have been done by paying research assistants to travel the country and collect records, but by inviting thousands of people to get involved we, together, were able to pull this off much more cost-effectively.”

He added, “We have been challenged by other professional scientists as to whether ‘ordinary people’ can make accurate observations, suitable for real science. Of course they can – and we tested this in our study. So thank you to the thousands of participants because together we were able to do this science.”

Unlike some other citizen science projects that use biological records submitted by members of the public for long-term monitoring, the Conker Tree Science project set out to test two specific hypotheses over the course of a year. The authors suggest that this approach can be developed to examine a range of environmental problems.

This image provided by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology shows the damage inflicted by the leaf-mining moths,

A blue tit among horse-chestnut leaves that are covered with brown patches of damage caused by caterpillars of the leaf mining moths. Photo: Richard Broughton/CEH

A blue tit among horse-chestnut leaves that are covered with
brown patches of damage caused by caterpillars
of the leaf mining moths. Photo: Richard Broughton/CEH

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

The Success of the Horse-Chestnut Leaf-Miner, Cameraria ohridella, in the UK Revealed with Hypothesis-Led Citizen Science by Michael J. O. Pocock & Darren M. Evans. Published: January 22, 2014 PLOS [Public Library of Science] ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0086226

This paper is in a an open access journal.

Volunteer on the Plankton Portal and help scientists figure out ways to keep the ocean healthy

University of Miami (Florida, US) researchers with support from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),  the US National Science Foundation (NSF), and developers at Zooniverse.org  (last mentioned here in a Jan. 17, 2012 posting) have created the Plankton Portal as a means for volunteers/citizen scientists to assist them in their research (from the Sept. 17, 2013 news release on EurekAlert),

Today [Sept. 17, 2013], an online citizen-science project launches called “Plankton Portal” was created by researchers at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (RSMAS) in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) and developers at Zooniverse.org Plankton Portal allows you to explore the open ocean from the comfort of your own home. You can dive hundreds of feet deep, and observe the unperturbed ocean and the myriad animals that inhabit the earth’s last frontier.

Millions of plankton images are taken by the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS), a unique underwater robot engineered at the University of Miami in collaboration with Charles Cousin at Bellamare LLC and funded by NOAA and NSF. ISIIS operates as an ocean scanner that casts the shadow of tiny and transparent oceanic creatures onto a very high resolution digital sensor at very high frequency. So far, ISIIS has been used in several oceans around the world to detect the presence of larval fish, small crustaceans and jellyfish in ways never before possible. This new technology can help answer important questions ranging from how do plankton disperse, interact and survive in the marine environment, to predicting the physical and biological factors could influence the plankton community.

The dataset used for Plankton Portal comes from a project from the Southern California Bight, where Cowen’s [Dr. Robert K. Cowen, UM [University of Miami] RSMAS Emeritus Professor in Marine Biology and Fisheries (MBF) and now the Director of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center] team imaged plankton across a front, which is a meeting of two water masses, over three days in Fall 2010.

According to Jessica Luo, graduate student involved in this project, “in three days, we collected data that would take us more than three years to analyze.” Cowen agrees: “with the volume of data that ISIIS generates, it is impossible for us to individually classify every image by hand, which is why we are exploring different options for image analysis, from automatic image recognition software to crowd-sourcing to citizen scientists.”

“A computer will probably be able to tell the difference between major classes of organisms, such as a shrimp versus a jellyfish,” explains Luo, “but to distinguish different species within an order or family, that is still best done by the human eye.” Volunteer citizen scientists can assist by going to http://www.planktonportal.org. A field guide is provided, and the simple tutorial is easy to understand. Cowen and the science team will monitor the discussion boards; answer any questions about the classifications, the organisms, and the research they are conducting.

I went to the Plankton Portal and started one of the tutorials (click on the Classify tab)  and almost immediately made an error. They do have a means of recovery but you have to keep following their process. Personally, I would have preferred to abort and start over again. That said, this looks like an interesting project and I wish the best for the organizers.

Steering cockroaches in the lab and in your backyard—cutting edge neuroscience

In this piece I’m mashing together two items, both involving cockroaches and neuroscience and, in one case, disaster recovery. The first item concerns research at the North Carolina State University where video game techniques are being used to control cockroaches. From the June 25, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

North Carolina State University researchers are using video game technology to remotely control cockroaches on autopilot, with a computer steering the cockroach through a controlled environment. The researchers are using the technology to track how roaches respond to the remote control, with the goal of developing ways that roaches on autopilot can be used to map dynamic environments — such as collapsed buildings.

The researchers have incorporated Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinect system into an electronic interface developed at NC State that can remotely control cockroaches. The researchers plug in a digitally plotted path for the roach, and use Kinect to identify and track the insect’s progress. The program then uses the Kinect tracking data to automatically steer the roach along the desired path.

The June 25, 2013 North Carolina State University news release, which originated the news item, reveals more details,

The program also uses Kinect to collect data on how the roaches respond to the electrical impulses from the remote-control interface. This data will help the researchers fine-tune the steering parameters needed to control the roaches more precisely.

“Our goal is to be able to guide these roaches as efficiently as possible, and our work with Kinect is helping us do that,” says Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work.

“We want to build on this program, incorporating mapping and radio frequency techniques that will allow us to use a small group of cockroaches to explore and map disaster sites,” Bozkurt says. “The autopilot program would control the roaches, sending them on the most efficient routes to provide rescuers with a comprehensive view of the situation.”

The roaches would also be equipped with sensors, such as microphones, to detect survivors in collapsed buildings or other disaster areas. “We may even be able to attach small speakers, which would allow rescuers to communicate with anyone who is trapped,” Bozkurt says.

Bozkurt’s team had previously developed the technology that would allow users to steer cockroaches remotely, but the use of Kinect to develop an autopilot program and track the precise response of roaches to electrical impulses is new.

The interface that controls the roach is wired to the roach’s antennae and cerci. The cerci are sensory organs on the roach’s abdomen, which are normally used to detect movement in the air that could indicate a predator is approaching – causing the roach to scurry away. But the researchers use the wires attached to the cerci to spur the roach into motion. The wires attached to the antennae send small charges that trick the roach into thinking the antennae are in contact with a barrier and steering them in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile for those of us without laboratories, there’s the RoboRoach Kickstarter project,

Our Roboroach is an innovative marriage of behavioral neuroscience and neural engineering. Cockroaches use the antennas on their head to navigate the world around them. When these antennas touch a wall, the cockroach turns away from the wall. The antenna of a cockroach contains neurons that are sensitive to touch and smell.

The backpack we invented communicates directly to the [cockroach's] neurons via small electrical pulses. The cockroach undergoes a short surgery (under anesthesia) in which wires are placed inside the antenna. Once it recovers, a backpack is temporarily placed on its back.

When you send the command from your mobile phone, the backpack sends pulses to the antenna, which causes the neurons to fire, which causes the roach to think there is a wall on one side. The result? The roach turns! Microstimulation is the same neurotechnology that is used to treat Parkinson’s Disease and is also used in Cochlear Implants.

This product is not a toy, but a tool to learn about how our brains work. Using the RoboRoach, you will be able to discover a number of interesting things about nature:

Neural control of Behaviour: First and foremost you will see in real-time how the brain respondes to sensory stimuli.

Learning and Memory: After a few minutes the cockroach will stop responding to the RoboRaoch microstimulation. Why? The brain learns and adapts. That is what brains are designed to do. You can measure the time to adaptation for various stimulation frequencies.

Adaptation and Habituation: After placing the cockroach back in its homecage, how long does it take for him to respond again? Does he adapt to the stimuli more quickly?

Stimuli Selection: What range of frequencies works for causing neurons to fire? With this tool, you will be able to select the range of stimulation to see what works best for your prep. Is it the same that is used by medical doctors stimulating human neurons? You will find out.

Effect of Randomness: For the first time ever… we will be adding a “random” mode to our stimulus patterns. We, as humans, can adapt easily to periodic noises (the hum a refrigerator can be ignored, for example). So perhaps the reason for adaptation is our stimulus is periodic. Now you can select random mode and see if the RoboRoach adapts as quickly.. or at all!

Backyard Brains (mentioned here in my March 28, 2013 posting about neurons, dance, and do-it-yourself neuroscience; another mashup), the organization initiating this Kickstarter campaign, has 13 days left to make its goal  of $10,000 (as of today, June 26, 2013 at 10:00 am PDT, the project has received $9,774 in pledges).

Pledges can range from $5 to $500 with incentives ranging from a mention on their website to delivery of RoboRoach Kits (complete with cockroaches, only within US borders).

This particular version of the RoboRoach project was introduced by Greg Gage at TEDGlobal 2103. Here’s what Karen Eng had to say about the presentation in her June 12, 2013 posting on the TED [technology, entertainment, design] blog,

Talking as fast and fervently as a circus busker, TED Fellow Greg Gage introduces the world to RoboRoach — a kit that allows you create a cockroach cyborg and control its movements via an iPhone app and “the world’s first commercially available cyborg in the history of mankind.”

“I’m a neuroscientist,” says Gage, “and that means I had to go to grad school for five years just to ask questions about the brain.” This is because the equipment involved is so expensive and complex that it’s only available in university research labs, accessible to PhD candidates and researchers. But other branches of science don’t have this problem — “You don’t have to get a PhD in astronomy to get a telescope and study the sky.”

Yet one in five of us will be diagnosed with a neurological disorder — for which we have no cures. We need more people educated in neuroscience to investigate these diseases. That’s why Gage and his partners at Backyard Brains are developing affordable tools that allow educators to teach electrophysiology from university down to the fifth grade level.

As he speaks, he and his partner, Tim Marzullo, release a large South American cockroach wearing an electronic backpack — which sends an electrical current directly into the cockroach’s antenna nerves — onto the table on stage. A line of green spikes appear, accompanied by a sound like rain on a tent or popcorn popping. “The common currency of the brain are the spikes in the neurons,” Gage explains. “These are the neurons that are inside of the antenna, but that’s also what your brain sounds like. Your thoughts, your hopes, your dreams, all encoded into these spikes. People, this is reality right here — the spikes are everything you know!” As Greg’s partner swipes his finger across his iPhone, the RoboRoach swerves left and right, sometimes erratically going in a full confused circle.

So why do this? “This is the exact same technology that’s used to treat Parkinson’s disease and make cochlear implants for deaf people. If we can get these tools into hands of kids, we can start the neurological revolution.”

After Gage’s talk, Chris Anderson asks about the ethics of using the cockroaches for these purposes. Gage explains that this is microstimulation, not a pain response — the evidence is that the roach adapts quickly to the stimulation. (In fact, some high school students have discovered that they can control the rate of adaptation in an unusual way — by playing music to the roaches over their iPods.) After the experiment, he says, the cockroaches are released to go back to do what cockroaches normally do. So don’t worry — no animals were irretrievably harmed in the making of this TED talk.

Anya Kamenetz in her June 7, 2013 article for Fast Company about the then upcoming presentation also mentions insect welfare,

Attaching the electronic “backpack” to an unwitting arthropod is not for the squeamish. You must sand down the top of the critter’s head in order to attach a plug, “Exactly like the Matrix,” says Backyard Brains cofounder Greg Gage. Once installed, the system relays electrical impulses over a Bluetooth connection from your phone to the cockroach’s brain, via its antennae. …

Gage claims that he has scientific proof that neither the surgery nor the stimulation hurts the roaches. The proof, according to Gage, is that the stimulation stops working after a little while as the roaches apparently decide to ignore it.

Kamenetz goes on to note that this project has already led to a discovery. High school students in New York City found that cockroaches did not habituate to randomized electrical signals as quickly as they did to steady signals. This discovery could have implications for treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s.

The issue of animal use/welfare vis à vis scientific experiments is not an easy one and I can understand why Gage might be eager to dismiss any suggestions that the cockroaches are being hurt.  Given how hard it is to ignore pain, I am willing to accept Gage’s dismissal of the issue until such time as he is proven wrong. (BTW, I am curious as to how one would know if a cockroach is experiencing pain.)

I have one more thought for the road. I wonder whether the researchers at North Carolina State University are aware of the RoboRoach work and are able to integrate some of those findings into their own research (and vice versa).

Comparing techniques, citizen science to expert science

Thanks to Ben Schiller for his Mar. 20, 2013 Fast Company article for this tidbit about an intriguing study carried out by the University of East Anglia,

Research in the Caribbean comparing the abilities of two teams of divers–one using traditional scientific methods, the other using a volunteer technique–found that the amateurs were capable of producing equal, if not better, data. After 44 underwater surveys over two weeks, the volunteers found 137 species of fish, compared to the professionals’ 106.

A University of East Anglia (UEA) Mar. 13, 2013 news release provides more detail about the research and its implications,

Research published today in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution shows that methods to record marine diversity used by amateurs returned results consistent with techniques favoured by peer-reviewed science.

The findings give weight to the growing phenomenon of citizen science, which sees data crowd-sourced from an army of avid twitchers, divers, walkers and other wildlife enthusiasts.

The field study compared methods used by ‘citizen’ SCUBA divers with those used by professional scientists, to measure the variety of fish species in three Caribbean sites.

Two teams of 12 divers made 144 separate underwater surveys across the sites over four weeks.

While the traditional scientific survey revealed sightings of 106 different types of fish, the volunteer technique detected greater marine diversity with a total of 137 in the same waters.

Dr Ben Holt, from UEA’s school of Biological Sciences, led the research in partnership with the Centre for Marine Resource Studies in the Caribbean and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

He said: “The results of this study are important for the future of citizen science and the use of data collected by these programs. Allowing volunteers to use flexible and less standardised methods has important consequences for the long term success of citizen science programs. Amateur enthusiasts typically do not have the resources or training to use professional methodology. [emphasis mine] Our study demonstrates the quality of data collected using a volunteer method can match, and in some respects exceed, protocols used by professional scientists.

If the study demonstrates that using a volunteer method matches or, in some cases, exceeds a method (protocol) used by professional scientists, why make the comment about “amateur enthusiasts” not having the resources or training to use professional methods? It would seem that in this study professional methodology was not as effective as volunteer methodology.  That said, I don’t believe we should be replacing professional scientists/methods with volunteers/volunteer methods. There’s more to a scientific inquiry than data collection but this indication that data collected by and the methods used by volunteers have validity when compared to professionally collected data opens up some opportunities for volunteers and scientists.

Holt continues (from the news release),

“Very few, if any, scientific groups can collect data on the scale that volunteer groups can, so our proof that both methods return consistent results is very encouraging for citizen science in general.

“I think we will really see the value of volunteer schemes increase in future. We’re living in a world that’s changing very significantly. Environmental changes are having a big impact on ecosystems around us so we need to harness new ways of measuring the effect.

“For example Lion fish is an invasive species which was not in the Caribbean until roughly 10 years ago. They have now become a real problem in many areas and this invasion has been tracked using volunteer data. Following our study, scientists can have more confidence when using these data to consider the impact of threats, such as invasive species, on the wider natural communities.

“It is important to note that our study does not consider the abilities of the individuals performing the surveys and this is also an important consideration for any large scale biodiversity program. By addressing these issues we can make important steps towards enabling the large pool of volunteer enthusiasts to help professional researchers by collecting valuable data across many ecosystems.”

The research was carried out in under water sites close to South Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Here’s an image of the Lionfish, the gorgeous, yet  invasive, species mentioned by Holt,

Antennata Lionfish, picture taken in Zoo Schönbrunn, Vienna, Austria (downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MC_Rotfeuerfisch.jpg)

Antennata Lionfish, picture taken in Zoo Schönbrunn, Vienna, Austria (downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MC_Rotfeuerfisch.jpg)

Here’s a citation and a link to Holt’s article,

Comparing diversity data collected using a protocol designed for volunteers with results from a professional alternative by Ben G. Holt, Rodolfo Rioja-Nieto, M. Aaron MacNeil, Jan Lupton,  & Carsten Rahbek. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, DOI: 10.1111/2041-210X.12031 Article first published online: 12 MAR 2013

This article is open access.

Citizen science = crowdsourced science?

Deirdre Lockwood’s Nov. 12, 2012 article (Crowdsourcing Chemistry) for Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) offers a good overview of the various citizen science projects and organizations while using the terms citizen science and crowdsourcing science interchangeably. For me, it’s  a ‘poodles and dogs’ situation; all poodles are dogs but not all dogs are poodles.

Here are two examples from the article,

Although the public has participated in scientific research since at least the first Audubon Christmas Bird Count of 1900, so-called citizen science has gained momentum in the past decade through funding, enthusiasm, and technology. This trend is dominated by projects in biology, but chemists are getting on board, too. NSF’s funding of citizen-science projects has grown from a handful each year in the early 2000s to at least 25 per year today.

Online gaming project Foldit has attracted many participants to find the lowest-energy configuration of proteins. Foldit players recently solved the structure of a retroviral protease that had long stumped structural biologists (Nat. Struct. Mol. Biol., DOI: 10.1038/nsmb.2119).

There’s a difference between going out and counting birds (citizen science) and 50,000 or more people solving a problem in biology (citizen science and crowdsourcing science). In the first instance, you’re gathering data for the scientist and in the second instance, you’re gathering, analyzing, and solving a science problem alongside the scientists. There is, of course, a great big grey zone but if you’re looking to participate in projects, the distinction may be useful to you. Do take a look at Lockwood’s article as she mentions some very exciting projects.

H/T to the Nov. 14, 2012 news item about Lockwood’s article on phys.org.

Laughing and other citizen science projects at ScienceStarter

Thanks to David Bruggeman (Pasco Phronesis blog) and his Oct. 18, 2012 posting for alerting me to SciStarter (Note: I have removed some links),

SciStarter, a clearinghouse for scientists and interested civilians to find each other for projects has noted that some of their projects run into trouble.  With limited time and resources, help is not always available.  So they would like to enlist the crowd.

Next month SciStarter will run a contest to help find solutions for these problems. …

I wasn’t able to find any more information about the contest on the SciStarter website but the organization’s blog offers an Oct. 18, 2012 posting by John Ohab which lists ten items from its project list (Note: I have removed pictures),

The Royal Society Laughter Project: The Royal Society has put together a playlist of different laughs that you can listen to. The tricky part is that some are real and some are fake. See if you can guess which laugh is real and which is posed. The results will help researchers at the University College of London learn how people react to different sounds. This is science that will make you LOL!

Age Guess: AgeGuess is a simple project in which you guess the age of other people by looking at their pictures. In just a few minutes, you can help create a first of its kind research data set for the study of human aging. The project is studying the differences between how old you look to others and your actual age.

EyeWire: Scientists need your help mapping the neural connections of the retina. All you have to do is color brain images! EyeWire is a fun way to learn about the brain and help scientist understand how the nervous system works.

Digital Fishers: Are you one of those people who loves the ocean but doesn’t want to deal with the sunburns, parking, or other unpleasant aspects that come with the territory? Here’s a project that puts you in touch with the ocean and saves you the extra costs in suntan lotion. Digital Fishers allows you to help scientists identify different species of fish. You can assist with research by watching 15-second videos from the comfort of your own computer and click on simple responses.

Musical Moods:  Musical Moods is a sound experiment that aims to find out how viewers categorize the mood of certain TV theme tunes. The goal is to find out whether there are new ways of classifying online TV content through the mood of the music rather than the program genre itself. The whole experiment takes about ten minutes and is incredibly easy. You listen to themes and answer a few questions about each theme afterward.

Citizen Sort: Video games have the potential to do more than entertain. Citizen Sort is taking advantage of this potential by designing video games that make doing science fun. Citizen Sort is a research project at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University in New York.

Project Implicit:  Project Implicit offers the opportunity to assess your conscious and unconscious preferences for over 90 different topics ranging from pets to ethnic groups to sports team. In 10-15 minutes, you’ll report attitudes toward or beliefs about these topics. It’s that easy! The experience is both educational and engaging, and you get the chance to assist psychological research on thoughts and feelings.

Be A Martian: NASA’s Be A Martian is an interactive Mars science laboratory that allows visitors to help scientists learn about the red planet. You can help identify important features in images returned from previous Mars rovers, ask and vote on questions for NASA Mars experts in a virtual town hall, explore a Mars atlas to learn more about the planet’s terrain, send postcards to Spirit (another Mars rover), and watch educational videos in the Two Moons theater.

Clumpy: When plants experience bacterial infections, the chloroplasts inside the plant cells appear to “clump” together. This can be a bad sign for plants. To help understand these bacterial infections, scientists need help classify images of clumpy chloroplasts. All yo have to do is arrange the images from least clumpy on the left to most clumpy on the right.

MAPPER: Help NASA find life on Mars by exploring the bottom of the lakes of British Columbia, Canada. The Pavilion Lake Research Project has been investigating the underwater environment with DeepWorker submersible vehicles since 2008. Now with MAPPER, you can work side-by-side with NASA scientists to explore the bottom of these lakes from the perspective of a DeepWorker pilot.

I did take a closer look at the MAPPER project since the research takes place in my home province,

Photo: getmapper.com (downloaded SciStarter.com)

Help NASA find life on Mars by exploring the bottom of the lakes of British Columbia, Canada.

The Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP) has been investigating the underwater environment with DeepWorker submersible vehicles since 2008. Now with MAPPER, you can work side-by-side with NASA scientists to explore the bottom of these lakes from the perspective of a DeepWorker pilot.

The PLRP team makes use of DeepWorker subs to explore and document freshwater carbonate formations known as microbialites that thrive in Pavilion and Kelly Lake. Many scientists believe that a better understanding of how and where these rare microbialite formations develop will lead to deeper insights into where signs of life may be found on Mars and beyond. To investigate microbialite formation in detail, terabytes of video footage and photos of the lake bottom are recorded by PLRP’s DeepWorker sub pilots. This data must be analyzed to determine what types of features can be found in different parts of the lake. Ultimately, detailed maps can be generated to help answer questions like “how does microbialite texture and size vary with depth?” and “why do microbialites grow in certain parts of the lake but not in others?”. But before these questions can be answered, all the data must be analyzed.

Participation fee          $0

Expenses                     $0

Spend the time          outdoors

Location                      online

Children                      yes

Primary school         yes

Secondary school     yes

Teaching materials    no

I notice this is another of Darlene Cavalier’s initiatives (who also runs the Science Cheerleader website [my May 14, 2012 posting features a profile of Darlene]).

ZomBee Hunters! a citizen science project for finding zombified honey bees

It seems honey bees, in addition to the colony collapse disorder, have a new problem: being turned into ‘zombies’.  From the July 24, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

The San Francisco State University researchers who accidentally discovered “zombie-like” bees infected with a deadly fly parasite want people across the United States and Canada to look for similar bees in their own backyards.

Today SF State Professor of Biology John Hafernik and colleagues from the SF State Department of Biology and the Center for Computing for the Life Sciences launched ZomBeeWatch.org, a citizen science project to report possible sightings of the parasitized bees.

According to the website, ZomBeeWatch, the ‘Zombie’ or Apocephalis boralis fly lays its eggs (infects) in a honey bee, which parasitizes the honey bee with this consequence (from the news release),

… the “zombees” abandon their hives and congregate near outside lights, moving in increasingly erratic circles before dying. The phenomenon was first discovered on the SF State campus by Hafernik and colleagues, and reported last year in the research journal PLoS ONE.

Here’s the help researchers are asking for (from the news release),

The ZomBeeWatch site asks people to collect bees that appear to have died underneath outside lights, or appear to be behaving strangely under the lights, in a container. They can then watch for signs that indicate the bee was parasitized by the fly, which usually deposits its eggs into a bee’s abdomen. About seven days after the bee dies, fly larvae push their way into the world from between the bee’s head and thorax and form brown, pill-shaped pupae that are equivalent to a butterfly’s chrysalis.

If it looks like their sample contains hatched parasites, “zombee hunters” can upload photos of their sample’s contents to confirm whether they have found a parasitized bee. Along with information about the location of the photographed bee, the images will help the scientists build a better map of the honeybee infection.

ZombeeWatch offers tutorials on how to become a zombee hunter, complete with step-by-step instructions for monitoring and collecting bees, building a light trap and uploading data.

According to the map on ZombeeWatch, there have been reports of the zombified bees in California and South Dakota but no other sightings,yet. From the news release,

Hafernik says he has timed the launch of the site for when the parasitized population begins its seasonal rise. “Right now is still the low season for parasitized bees,” he explained, “but they will start ramping up in August. In the San Francisco Bay Area, infections peak in September through January. We hope to learn about the timing of infections in other areas of North America.”

Since last year’s report, Hafernik and his colleagues have embarked on an ambitious set of experiments to learn more about the plight of the infected honeybees. In one key project, the researchers, led by graduate student Christopher Quock, will tag infected bees with tiny radio frequency trackers to monitor their movements in and out of a specially designed hive. They hope the tracking system will tell them more about how the infection affects the bees’ foraging behavior and why they eventually abandon their hives.

Hafernik and his collaborators are eager to learn as much as they can about the parasite, since it may be an emerging and potentially costly threat to honeybee colonies, especially those that cross from state to state to be used in commercial pollination.

Finally,

The researchers hope the intense public interest in the parasitized bees earlier this year will encourage people to visit and contribute to the ZomBeeWatch site. “We’re sort of a mom and pop operation at this point,” Hafernik said, “but if we can enlist a dedicated group of citizen scientists to help us, together, we can answer important questions and help honeybees at the same time.”

RNA (ribonucleic acid) video game

I am a great fan of  Foldit, a protein-folding game I have mentioned several times here (my first posting about Foldit was Aug. 6, 2010) and now via the Foresight Insitute’s July 16, 2012 blog posting, I have discovered an RNA video game (Note: I have removed links),

As we pointed out a few months ago, the greater complexity of folding rules for RNA compared to its chemical cousin DNA gives RNA a greater variety of compact, three-dimensional shapes and a different set of potential functions than is the case with DNA, and this gives RNA nanotechnology a different set of advantages compared to DNA nanotechnology … Proteins have even more complex folding rules and an even greater variety of structures and functions. We also noted here that online gamers playing Foldit topped scientists in redesigning a protein to achieve a novel enzymatic activity that might be especially useful in developing molecular building blocks for molecular manufacturing. Now KurzweilAI.net brings news of an online game that allows players to design RNA molecules …

Here’s more from the KurzwelAI.net June 26, 3012 posting about the new RNA game EteRNA,

EteRNA, an online game with more than 38,000 registered users, allows players to design molecules of ribonucleic acid — RNA — that have the power to build proteins or regulate genes.

EteRNA players manipulate nucleotides, the fundamental building blocks of RNA, to coax molecules into shapes specified by the game.

Those shapes represent how RNA appears in nature while it goes about its work as one of life’s most essential ingredients.

EteRNA was developed by scientists at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon universities, who use the designs created by players to decipher how real RNA works. The game is a direct descendant of Foldit — another science crowdsourcing tool disguised as entertainment — which gets players to help figure out the folding structures of proteins.

Here’s how the EteRNA folks describe this game (from the About EteRNA page),

By playing EteRNA, you will participate in creating the first large-scale library of synthetic RNA designs. Your efforts will help reveal new principles for designing RNA-based switches and nanomachines — new systems for seeking and eventually controlling living cells and disease-causing viruses. By interacting with thousands of players and learning from real experimental feedback, you will be pioneering a completely new way to do science. Join the global laboratory!

The About EteRNA webpage also offers a discussion about RNA,

RNA is often called the “Dark Matter of Biology.” While originally thought to be an unstable cousin of DNA, recent discoveries have shown that RNA can do amazing things. They play key roles in the fundamental processes of life and disease, from protein synthesis and HIV replication, to cellular control. However, the full biological and medical implications of these discoveries is still being worked out.

RNA is made of four nucleotides (A, C,G,and U, which stand for adenine, cytosine, guanine, and uracil). Chemically, each of these building blocks is made of atoms of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and hydrogen. When you design RNAs with EteRNA, you’re really creating a chain of these nucleotides.

RNA Nucleotides (from the About EteRNA webpage)

Scientists do not yet understand all of RNA’s roles, but we already know about a large collection of RNAs that are critical for life: (see the Thermus Thermophilus image representing following points)

  1. mRNAs are short copies of a cell’s DNA genome that gets cut up, pasted, spliced, and otherwise remixed before getting translated into proteins.
  1. rRNA forms the core machinery of an ancient machine, the ribosome. This machine synthesizes the proteins of your cells and all living cells, and is the target of most antibiotics.
  2. miRNAs (microRNAs) are short molecules (about 22-letters) that are used by all complex cells as commands for silencing genes and appear to have roles in cancer, heart disease, and other medical problems.
  3. Riboswitches are ubiquitous in bacteria. They sense all sorts of small molecules that could be food or signals from other bacteria, and turn on or off genes by changing their shapes. These are interesting targets for new antibiotics.
  4. Ribozymes are RNAs that can act as enzymes. They catalyze chemical reactions like protein synthesis and RNA splicing, and provide evidence of RNA’s dominance in a primordial stage of Life’s evolution.
  5. Retroviruses, like Hepatitis C, poliovirus, and HIV, are very large RNAs coated with proteins.
  6. And much much more… shRNA, piRNA, snRNA, and other new classes of important RNAs are being discovered every year.

Thermus Thermophilus – Large Subunit Ribosomal RNA
Source: Center for Molecular Biology (downloaded from the About EteRNA webpage)

I do wonder about the wordplay EteRNA/eternal. Are these scientists trying to tell us something?