Yesterday (October 14, 2021), the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) announced their Walrus from Space project in a press release,
WWF and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are seeking the public’s help to search for walrus in thousands of satellite images taken from space, with the aim of learning more about how walrus will be impacted by the climate crisis. It’s hoped half a million people worldwide will join the new ‘Walrus from Space’ research project, a census of Atlantic walrus and walrus from the Laptev Sea, using satellite images provided by space and intelligence company Maxar Technologies’ DigitalGlobe.
Walrus are facing the reality of the climate crisis: their Arctic home is warming almost three times faster than the rest of the world and roughly 13% of summer sea ice is disappearing per decade.
From the comfort of their own homes, aspiring conservationists around the world can study the satellite pictures online, spot areas where walrus haul out onto land, and then count them. The data collected in this census of Atlantic and Laptev walrus will give scientists a clearer picture of how each population is doing—without disturbing the animals. The data will also help inform management decisions aimed at conservation efforts for the species.
Walrus use sea ice for resting and to give birth to their young. As sea ice diminishes, more walrus are forced to seek refuge on land, congregating for the chance to rest. Overcrowded beaches can have fatal consequences; walrus are easily frightened, and when spooked they stampede towards the water, trampling one another in their panic. Resting on land (as opposed to sea ice) may also force walrus to swim further and expand more energy to reach their food—food which in turn is being negatively impacted by the warming and acidification of the ocean.
In addition walrus can also be disturbed by shipping traffic and industrial development as the loss of sea ice makes the Arctic more accessible. Walrus are almost certainly going to be impacted by the climate crisis, which could result in significant population declines.
Rod Downie, chief polar adviser at WWF, said:
“Walrus are an iconic species of great cultural significance to the people of the Arctic, but climate change is melting their icy home. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of the climate and nature emergency, but this project enables individuals to take action to understand a species threatened by the climate crisis, and to help to safeguard their future. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay there; the climate crisis is a global problem, bigger than any person, species or region. Ahead of hosting this year’s global climate summit, the UK must raise its ambition and keep all of its climate promises—for the sake of the walrus, and the world.”
Previous population estimates are based upon the best data and knowledge available, but there are challenges associated with working with marine mammals in such a vast, remote and largely inaccessible place. This project will build upon the knowledge of Indigenous communities, using satellite technology to provide an up-to-date count of Atlantic and Laptev walrus populations.
Hannah Cubaynes, wildlife from space research associate at British Antarctic Survey, said:
“Assessing walrus populations by traditional methods is very difficult as they live in extremely remote areas, spend much of their time on the sea ice and move around a lot, Satellite images can solve this problem as they can survey huge tracts of coastline to assess where walrus are and help us count the ones that we find. “However, doing that for all the Atlantic and Laptev walrus will take huge amounts of imagery, too much for a single scientist or small team, so we need help from thousands of citizen scientists to help us learn more about this iconic animal.”
Earlier this year Cub Scouts from across the UK became walrus spotters to test the platform ahead of its public release. The Scouts have been a partner of WWF since the early 1970s, and over 57 million scouts globally are engaged in environmental projects.
Cub Scout Imogen Scullard, age 9, said:
“I love learning about the planet and how it works. We need to protect it from climate change. We are helping the planet by doing the walrus count with space satellites, which is really cool. It was a hard thing to do but we stuck at it”
The ‘Walrus From Space’ project, which is supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, as well as RBC Tech For Nature and WWF supporters, aims to recruit more than 500,000 citizen scientists over the next five years. Over the course of the project counting methods will be continually refined and improved as data is gathered.
Laura Chow, head of charities at People’s Postcode Lottery, said:
“We’re delighted that players’ support is bringing this fantastic project to life. We encourage everyone to get involved in finding walrus so they can play a part in helping us better understand the effects of climate change on this species and their ecosystem. “Players of People’s Postcode Lottery are supporting this project as part of our Postcode Climate Challenge initiative, which is providing 12 charities with an additional £24 million for projects tackling climate change this year.”
Aspiring conservationists can help protect the species by going to wwf.org.uk/walrusfromspace where they can register to participate, and then be guided through a training module before joining the walrus census.
Nonetheless and leaving aside that the Arctic and the Antarctic are literally polar opposites, I gather that the British Government in the form of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), is quite interested in the Arctic, viz.: the Walrus from Space project.
If you keep digging you’ll find a chain of UK government agencies, from the BAS About page (at the bottom), Note: Links have been removed,,
British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is a non-departmental public body of the Government of the United Kingdom that directs research and innovation funding, funded through the science budget of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [emphases mine].
There doesn’t have to be a sinister connection between a government agency devoted to supporting business and industry and a climate change project. If we are to grapple with climate change in a significant way, we will need cooperation from many groups and coutnries (some of which may have been adversaries in the past).
Of course, the problem with the business community is that efforts aimed at the public good are often publicity stunts.
For anyone curious about the businesses mentioned in the press release, Maxar Technologies can be found here, Maxar’s DigitalGlobe here, and RBC (Royal of Bank of Canada) Tech for Nature here.
BTW, I love that walrus picture at the beginning of this posting.
Australian scientists are calling on citizen scientists to help them understand why frogs in eastern Australia are dying in what seems to be record numbers.
Here’s more from a July 28, 2021 essay by Jodi Rowley (curator, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology, Australian Museum at the University of New South Wales [UNSW]), and Karrie Rose (Australian Registry of Wildlife Health – Taronga Conservation Society, University of Sydney) for The Conversation (can also be found as a July 28, 2021 news item on phys.org), Note: Links have been removed,
Over the past few weeks, we’ve received a flurry of emails from concerned people who’ve seen sick and dead frogs across eastern Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.
One person wrote:
“About a month ago, I noticed the Green Tree Frogs living around our home showing signs of lethargy & ill health. I was devastated to find about 7 of them dead.”
In most circumstances, it’s rare to see a dead frog. Most frogs are secretive in nature and, when they die, they decompose rapidly. So the growing reports of dead and dying frogs from across eastern Australia over the last few months are surprising, to say the least.
While the first cold snap of each year can be accompanied by a few localised frog deaths, this outbreak has affected more animals over a greater range than previously encountered.
This is truly an unusual amphibian mass mortality event.
In this outbreak, frogs appear to be either darker or lighter than normal, slow, out in the daytime (they’re usually nocturnal), and are thin. Some frogs have red bellies, red feet, and excessive sloughed skin.
The iconic green tree frog (Litoria caeulea) seems hardest hit in this event, with the often apple-green and plump frogs turning brown and shrivelled.
This frog is widespread and generally rather common. [emphasis mine] In fact, it’s the ninth most commonly recorded frog in the national citizen science project, FrogID. But it has disappeared from parts of its former range. [emphasis mine]
We simply don’t know the true impacts of this event on Australia’s frog species, particularly those that are rare, cryptic or living in remote places. Well over 100 species of frog live within the geographic range of this outbreak. Dozens of these are considered threatened, including the booroolong Frog (Litoria booroolongensis) and the giant barred frog (Mixophyes iteratus).
Here’s more about the Australian agencies investigating the mass mortality event and some information about how you can help, from the July 28, 2021 essay by Rowley and Rose,
… the Australian Registry of Wildlife Health is working with the Australian Museum, government biosecurity and environment agencies as part of the investigation.
While we suspect a combination of the amphibian chytrid fungus and the chilly temperatures, we simply don’t know what factors may be contributing to the outbreak.
We also aren’t sure how widespread it is, what impact it will have on our frog populations, or how long it will last.
While the temperatures stay low, we suspect our frogs will continue to succumb. If we don’t investigate quickly, we will lose the opportunity to achieve a diagnosis and understand what has transpired.
We need your help to solve this mystery.
Please send any reports of sick or dead frogs (and if possible, photos) to us, via the national citizen science project FrogID, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find FrogID here. At this writing (Monday, Aug. 2, 2021), there doesn’t seem to be a specific link to the current investigation on the FrogID homepage, which is devoted to reporting frog sounds. However, at the bottom of the homepage there is a ‘Contact us’ section with a ‘Research Enquiries’ option.
For any Canadians who are reading this and are unable to participate but would still like to contribute to frog welfare, there’s a Canadian effort, frogwatch. For anyone in the UK, there’s Froglife. Both of which, like FrogID, are citizen science projects.
A March 1, 2021 news item on phys.org announced a call for volunteers from University of Saskatchewan (USask) polar bear researcher Doug Clark (the response was tremendous),
University of Saskatchewan (USask) researcher Doug Clark is launching a first-of-its-kind research project that will engage citizen volunteers to help advance knowledge about polar bear behavior by analyzing a decade’s worth of images captured by trail cameras at Wapusk National Park in northern Manitoba.
“This is a totally different way to do polar bear research,” said Clark, an associate professor at USask’s School of Environment and Sustainability. “It’s non-invasive, it involves the public for the first time, and it’s being done in a way that can carry on through the pandemic without endangering anyone in northern communities.”
Clark is collaborating with Oxford University penguinologist Tom Hart on the project, which will be run on Zooniverse—a “people-powered” online platform that has more than two million volunteers worldwide who assist researchers in almost every discipline to sort and organize data.
Hart has been using Zooniverse to help with his Antarctic Penguin Watch and Seabird Watch projects. He’s helping Clark and his students to set up the polar bear project by aggregating and uploading data, and will work with Clark on the analysis. (The platform gets institutional support from Oxford University and the Adler Planetarium, and receives grants from a variety of sources.)
“This allows people, who might otherwise just passively consume images on TV and social media, to participate in polar bear research and understand how these bears are interacting with people and other wildlife in what we know is a rapidly changing environment,” said Clark.
The volunteers are supplied with a field guide and asked to count the number of bears in photos, their gender, cubs, body condition and other factors, choosing from provided options. Beta testing with more than 60 volunteers showed the process works well. The photos will be uploaded in tranches over the coming months, allowing volunteers to work through one batch before moving on to the next.
“Volunteers can help us process data in ways that are incredibly labour-intensive, which otherwise would take us and our students years to do. Frankly, Zooniverse produces more robust data and more robust analyses than if we were tiredly flipping through photos on our own.”
The project … launched Feb. 27 [2021\, on International Polar Bear Day.
The research project began in 2011 when Clark was asked by Parks Canada to find out if the field camps it established in Wapusk attracted or repelled polar bears—a question that still hasn’t been conclusively answered.
Other questions his team is trying to answer are:
What are the drivers of polar bear visits to human infrastructure/activity? (i.e. is it environmental, is it a result of a lack of sea ice/nutritional stress, or is it a response to human activity?)
Are there changes over time in where/when polar bears, and all the other Arctic and boreal species seen in the photos, are observed?
Researchers have installed five non-invasive trail cameras at each of three field camp sites, and eight more at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre that operate year round, and have captured more than 600 discrete polar bear observations over 10 years, along with images of other species such as wolf, caribou, grizzly bears, moose, Arctic and red foxes, and even occasional wolverines.
The four sites are along the Hudson Bay coast and are separated by almost 200 kilometres, across the ecological boundary between boreal forest and tundra providing invaluable data on multiple species in a changing environment.
Ryan Brook, an associate professor in USask’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources, is taking advantage of the lucky “by-catch” of Clark’s project—the images of caribou and wolves—to conduct research on these species, especially caribou populations, at a time of Arctic warming and changing weather patterns.
Work with us to understand how polar, grizzly, and black bears behave in a changing environment
About The Arctic Bears Project
We’re learning how polar, grizzly, and black bears behave in the changing Arctic environment, with special attention to how they interact with people. The images you’ll see come from remote cameras set up on the fences of field camps in Wapusk National Park, on the west coast of Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada. Wapusk means “white bear” in the Cree language, and the park was established in 1996. At the time the park was established the area was well-known for its importance as polar bear denning habitat, and local people knew black bears lived in the forests there, but the appearance of grizzly bears in the late 1990s was a surprise. Read more about our research findings here.
When we say “we”, that includes a whole lot of people who all contribute to making this project happen: and not just the researchers! Wapusk National Park’s staff in Churchill, Manitoba, got the ball rolling in 2010 and since then community members in Churchill and elsewhere have helped us shape this project. Their enthusiasm for non-invasive wildlife research tools, and for the unexpected things we see on the cameras, motivates our team. In the early days of this work we were just excited that our cameras survived over the winter, but pretty soon we were realizing just how many photos we were collecting. This is where you come in: Zooniverse volunteers. Your help processing a decade’s worth of pictures from a changing sub-Arctic landscape is a critical task, and we’re so grateful to have your assistance with this research. These photos are downloaded once a year from most cameras, and the days when we finally see those images are special treats that every one of our team enjoys. We hope you experience the same feeling.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (or Wilson Center; located in Washington, DC) has a new initiative, the ‘Thing Tank’ (am enjoying the word play). It’s all about low cost science tools and their possible impact on the practice of science. Here’s more from a May 27, 2020 email notice,
From a foldable microscope made primarily from paper, to low cost and open microprocessors supporting research from cognitive neuroscience to oceanography, to low cost sensors measuring air quality in communities around the world, the things of science — that is, the physical tools that generate data or contribute to scientific processes — are changing the way that science happens.
The nature of tool design is changing, as more and more people share designs openly, create do-it-yourself (DIY) tools as a substitute for expensive, proprietary equipment, or design for mass production. The nature of tool access and use is changing too, as more tools become available at a price point that is do-able for non-professionals. This may be breaking down our reliance on expensive, proprietary designs traditionally needed to make scientific progress. This may also be building new audiences for tools, and making science more accessible to those traditionally limited by cost, geography, or infrastructure. But questions remain: will low cost and/or open tools become ubiquitous, replacing expensive, proprietary designs? Will the use of these tools fundamentally change how we generate data and knowledge, and apply it to global problems? Will the result be more, and better, science? And if so, what is standing in the way of widespread adoption and use?
In the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center, we often consider how new approaches to science are changing the way that science happens. Over the last five years, we’ve investigated how emerging enthusiasm in citizen science — the involvement of the public in scientific research — has changed the way that the public sees science, and contributes to data-driven decision-making. We have explored crowdsourcing and citizen science as two important paradigms of interest within and beyond US federal agencies, and investigated associated legal issues. We’ve documented how innovations in open science, especially open and FAIR data, can make information more shareable and impactful. Across our efforts, we explore and evaluate emerging technology and governance models with the goal of understanding how to maximize benefit and minimize risk. In the process, we convene scientists, practitioners, and policy makers to maximize the value of new approaches to science.
Now, we are expanding our attention to explore how innovation in the physical tools of science accelerate science, support decision-making, and broaden participation. We want to understand the current and potential value of these tools and approaches, and how they are changing the way we do science — now, and in the future.
THING Tank, our new initiative, fits well within the overall mission of the Wilson Center. As a think tank associated with the United States federal government, the Wilson Center is a boundary organization linking academia and the public policy community to create actionable research while bringing stakeholders together. Innovative and accessible tools for science are important to academia and policy alike. We hope to also bridge these perspectives with critical, on the ground activities, and understand and elevate the individuals, non-profits, community groups, and others working in this space.
The notice was in fact an excerpt from a May 19, 2020 article by Alison Parker and Anne Bowser on the Wilson Center website, I believe Bowser and Parker are the organizers behind the Think Tank initiative.
There are big plans for future activities such as workshops, a member directory and other outreach efforts. There’s also this,
We want to hear from you!
This space touches many communities, networks and stakeholders, from those advancing science, those working together to promote ideals of openness, to those developing solutions in a commercial context. No matter your interest, we want to hear from you! We’re looking for contributions to this effort, that can take a variety of forms:
Help us catch up to speed. We recognize that there are decades of foundational work and ongoing activities, and are eager to learn more.
Help us connect to broader communities, networks, and stakeholders. What is the best way to get broad input? Who isn’t in our network, that should be?
Introduce your communities and stakeholders to public policy audiences by contributing blog posts and social media messaging – more information on this coming soon!
Explore converging communities and accelerators and barriers by participating in workshops and events – definitely virtually, and hopefully in person as well.
Contribute and review content about case studies, definitions, and accelerators and barriers.
Share our products with your networks if you think they are useful.
To start, we will host a series of virtual happy hours exploring the role of openness, authority, and community in open science and innovation for crisis and disaster response. How have tools for science impacted the response to COVID-19, and how is the governance of those devices, and their data, evolving in emergency use?
How one is to contact the organizers is not immediately clear to me. They’ve not included any contact details on that webpage but you can subscribe to the newsletter,
I was hoping this would be the concluding part of this series but there was much more than I dreamed. (I know that’s repetitive but I’m truly gobsmacked.)
Astronomy and bird watching (ornithology) are probably the only two scientific endeavours that have consistently engaged nonexperts/amateurs/citizen scientists right from the earliest days through the 21st century. Medical research, physics, chemistry, and others have, until recently and despite their origins in ‘amateur’ (or citizen) science, become the exclusive domain of professional experts.
This situation seems to be changing both here in Canada and elsewhere. One of the earliest postings about citizen science on this blog was in 2010 and, one of the most amusing to me personally, was this March 21, 2013 posting titled: Comparing techniques, citizen science to expert science. It’s about a study by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UK) comparing data collection by citizen scientists with experts. In this particular project where undersea data was being collected and people with diving skills needed, the citizen scientists did a better job than the expert scientists of collecting data. (I’m not trying to suggest that experts can be replaced by amateurs but do suggest that there are advantages to working together.)
Take a look at your car. The bus you take to work. The smart phone you tap on during your commute. They all have one thing in common: science. Science is all around us. It shapes the way we live, the meals we grab on the go and the commute that takes us to school and work.
That is why the Government of Canada is encouraging young Canadians’ interest in science. Research and innovation lead to breakthroughs in agriculture, transit, medicine, green technology and service delivery, improving the quality of life for all Canadians. The outcomes of research also create jobs, strengthen the economy and support a growing middle class.
The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, carried that message to an audience of young students during her first citizen science Google Hangout today. The Hangout, run by Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, a not-for-profit organization, featured frog exhibits from the Toronto Zoo and a demonstration of the FrogWatch citizen science project by Dr. Nancy Kingsbury of Environment and Climate Change Canada. Toronto Zoo frog expert Katherine Wright joined Minister Duncan at the zoo to share information about frogs that are local to Ontario.
Minister Duncan, Dr. Kingsbury and Ms. Wright then engaged with elementary school children across Canada in a live Q&A session about the frogs in their own backyards. The Minister highlighted the importance of getting young Canadians interested in science fields and talked about ways they can take part in citizen science projects in their communities. Citizen scientists can share their observations on social media using the hashtag #ScienceAroundMe.
“Science is for everyone, and it is important that we encourage today’s youth to be curious. Young Canadians who engage in citizen science today will become the highly skilled workers—engineers, scientists, mathematicians, technology experts and entrepreneurs—of tomorrow. Through citizen science, children can nurture an interest in the natural world. These young people will then go on to discover, to innovate and to find solutions that will help us build a better Canada.” – The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities
“The Toronto Zoo is proud to participate in and encourage citizen science programs, such as FrogWatch, within the community. The Toronto Zoo’s Adopt-A-Pond Wetland Conservation Programme works to engage citizen scientists and deliver impactful conservation-focused research, restoration and outreach that highlight the importance of saving Canada’s sensitive wetland species and their habitats.” – Robin Hale, Interim Chief Executive Officer, Toronto Zoo
NatureWatch, of which FrogWatch is a component, is a community program that engages all Canadians in collecting scientific information on nature to understand our changing environment.
Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants aims to inspire the next generation of scientists, explorers and conservationists by bringing science, exploration, adventure and conservation into classrooms through virtual field trips run by programs like Google Hangout.
The Government of Canada’s Citizen Science Portal is a one-stop shop for science in the community. It showcases science programs, including NatureWatch programs, across the country.
The portal is not nearly as Ontario-centric as the projects mentioned in the news release (in case you were wondering).
Aside: In part 2 of this series, Jesse Hildebrand, founder of Science Literacy Week was mentioned as also being the founder of Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants.
Going to the birds
While bird watching and ornithological studies are not new to the Canadian science culture scene, there were some interesting developments in the 2010-19 period.
Canadian Geographic (magazine) sponsored a contest in 2015, the National Bird Project, where almost 50,000 people submitted suggestions for a national bird. Voting online ensued and on August 31, 2016 popular voting was closed. Five birds attracted the top votes and in September 2016, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society put together an expert panel to debate and decide which would be Canada’s national bird. The choice was announced in November 2016 (Canadian Geographic National Bird Project).
The gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis in Latin, Mésangeai du Canada in French) lives in all 13 provinces and territories — the friendly spirit in Canada’s wild northern boreal and mountain forests. It remains in Canada year-round, is neither hunted nor endangered, and from the Atlantic provinces to the West is an indicator of the health of the boreal and mountain forests and climate change, inspiring a conservation philosophy for all kinds of northern land uses. The gray jay has long been important to Indigenous Peoples, and will draw all Canadians to their national and provincial/territorial parks, yet unlike the loon and snowy owl, it is not already a provincial or territorial bird.
Gray jay is a passerine bird belonging to the family Corvidae. It is mostly found in the boreal forest of North America. The bird is fairly large and has pale gray underparts and dark grey upperpart. Gray jay is a friendly bird and often approach human for food. It is also popularly known as the camp robber, whisky jack, and venison-hawk. Gray jay is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature]. However, the anthropogenic climate change in the southern range may adversely affect its population. In some Fist Nation cultures, the bird is associated with mythological figures including Wisakedjak who was anglicized to Whiskyjack.
For approximately 200 years, the gray jay was known as “Canadian Jay” to the English speakers. The bird was renamed the “gray jay” in 1957 by the American Ornithologists’ Union. However, scientifically the bird is referred to as Perisoreus Canadensis. The bird is found in almost all the provinces of territories of Canada. the preferred habitat for the species is Canada’s boreal and mountain forests. Gray jay is also one of the smartest birds in the world and has almost the same body-to-brain ratio as human beings.
Canadian Georgraphic offers more depth (and a map) in a November 16, 2016 article, by Nick Walker, titled, Canada, meet your national bird (Note: Links have been removed),
With 450 species in the country to choose from, Canadian Geographic’s decision was made neither lightly nor quickly.
This national debate has been running since January 2015, in fact. But after weighing the opinions and preferences of tens of thousands of Canadians, as well as the expertise of our National Conservation Partners at Bird Studies Canada and other ornithologists and conservationists, as well as cultural experts and Indigenous Peoples, that list was narrowed to five birds. And one finalist best met all reasonable criteria.
We give you the gray jay. …
Not only has the gray jay never been recorded outside of North America, the vast majority of its range is in Canada, with only a small percentage crossing into Alaska and the western mountains of the United States. The species’ preferred habitat is Canada’s boreal and mountain forests — ecozones that stretch from coast to coast and into the North, blanketing nearly two-thirds of the country.
Like the Canadian flag when it was selected in 1965, the gray jay is fresh and new and fitting. To quote David Bird, ornithologist and professor emeritus of wildlife biology at Montreal’s McGill University, we cannot think of a more Canadian bird.
Three sets of bird stamps were issued by Canada Post from 2016-2018 saluting “Canada’s avian citizens.” Here’s more from a July 12, 2016 Birds of Canada blog post on the Canada Post website announcing the first series of bird stamps,
Hatched by designer Kosta Tsetsekas and illustrator Keith Martin, these stamps are the first in a three-year series celebrating Canada’s avian citizens. Our first flock includes five official birds: the Atlantic puffin (Newfoundland and Labrador), the great horned owl (Alberta), the common raven (Yukon), the rock ptarmigan (Nunavut) and the sharp-tailed grouse (Saskatchewan).
On behalf of the International Ornithologists’ Union, Vancouver is delighted to welcome ornithologists from around the world to the 27th International Ornithological Congress (IOCongress2018)! Considered the oldest and most prestigious of meetings for bird scientists, the Congress occurs every four years since first being held in Vienna, Austria, in 1884.
Canada has hosted only once previously, Ottawa in 1986, and Vancouver will be the first time the Congress has been on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. The Congress has broad national endorsement, including from the City of Vancouver, the province of British Columbia, Environment Canada, Simon Fraser University, Artists for Conservation, Tourism Vancouver plus an array of scientific societies and conservation organizations.
The convention centre’s webpage features an impressive list of events which were open to the public,
Stars of the Bird World Presentation (August 19): Dr. Rob Butler, chair of the Vancouver International Bird Festival, presents Flyways to Culture: How birds give rise to a cultural awakening, at look at how the growing interest in birds in particular and nature in general, is a foundation for a new Nature Culture in which nature becomes embedded into a west coast culture. 8:30-10 a.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Admission by donation ($10 suggested).
Festival Opening Ceremony – Parade of Birds and a fanfare by Vancouver Symphony Brass Quintet (August 20): The festival begins with a Parade of Birds and a fanfare by the Vancouver Symphony Brass Quintet. The fanfare “Gathering Flock” was composed by Frederick Schipizky. 3:20 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Artists for Conservation Show (August 22): Artists for Conservation is the official visual arts partner for the festival and congress, showcasing some of the world’s best nature art through its annual juried exhibit, a collaborative mural, artist demo and lecture series and an artist booth expo. Official opening 6-10 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Nature & Bird Expo (until August 25): The three-day Bird Expo is the showcase of birds and nature in Canada, including exhibitors, speakers, yoga, poetry, art and more. Runs until Aug. 25 at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Check out a full event listing at www.vanbirdfest.com/calendar/nature-bird-expo.
Migration Songs – Poetry and Ornithology (August 23): Migration Songs brings together 11 contemporary poets to consider an array of bird species. Each poet was put in conversation with a particular ornithologist or scientist to consider their chosen species collaboratively. The poets involved include well-known west-coast authors, amongst them Governor General’s Award and Griffin Poetry Prize winners. A short book of these collaborations, Migration Songs, with cover art by poet, painter, and weaver Annie Ross, will be available. 6 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Unveiling of the Silent Skies Mural (August 23): A signature event of the week-long Artists for Conservation show is the unveiling of the Silent Skies mural made up of illustrations of the endangered birds of the world — 678 pieces, each depicting a different endangered bird, will make up the 100-foot-long installation that will form the artistic centrepiece for the 8th annual Artists for Conservation Festival, the 27th International Ornithological Congress and Vancouver International Bird Festival. The unveiling takes place at 6:30 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Stewardship Roundtable 2018 (August 24): A forum and showcase of innovative practices championed in B.C. province and beyond, presented by the Stewardship Centre for BC and Bird Studies Canada, in collaboration with the 27th International Ornithological Congress and Vancouver International Bird Festival. 8:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre. For more information or to register, visit stewardshipcentrebc.ca/programs/wildife-species-risk/stewardship-roundtable.
Closing Ceremony (August 26): The closing ceremony will include remarks from officials and First Nations representatives, and a Heron Dance by the New Dance Centre from Saskatchewan. 5-6:30 p.m. at Vancouver Convention Centre.
I attended the opening ceremony where they announced the final set of stamps in the Birds of Canada series by introducing people who’d dressed for the parade as the birds in question.
The Canadian birding community has continued to create interesting new projects for science outreach. A December 19, 2019 posting by Natasha Barlow for Birds Canada (also known as Bird Studies Canada) announces a new interactive story map,
The Boreal Region is a massive expanse of forests, wetlands, and waterways covering much of the Northern Hemisphere. In Canada, this vast region stretches for 5000 kilometres from Newfoundland and Labrador through the country’s central regions and northwest to the Yukon.
Over 300 bird species regularly breed here, from tiny songbirds like kinglets and warblers to comparatively giant swans and cranes. The Boreal is home to literally billions of birds, and serves as the continent’s bird “nursery” since it is such an important breeding ground.
While extensive tracts of Canada’s northern Boreal still remain largely undisturbed from major industrial development, the human footprint is expanding and much of the southern Boreal is already being exploited for its resources.
Birds Canada, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, has created an interactive story map that details the importance of the Boreal region for birds.
Climate change, ecology, and Indigenous knowledge (science)
There is more focus on climate change everywhere in the world and much of the latest energy and focus internationally can be traced to Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg who turned 17 in January 2020. Her influence has galvanized a number of youth climate strikes in Canada and around the world.
There is a category of science fiction or speculative fiction known as Climate Fiction (cli-fi or clifi). Margaret Atwood (of course) has produced a trilogy in that subgenre of speculative fiction, from the Climate Fiction Wikipedia entry, Note: Links have been removed,
Margaret Atwood explored the subject in her dystopian trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). In Oryx and Crake Atwood presents a world where “social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event”. The novel’s protagonist, Jimmy, lives in a “world split between corporate compounds”, gated communities that have grown into city-states and pleeblands, which are “unsafe, populous and polluted” urban areas where the working classes live.
There is some other cli-fi literature by Canadians, notably an anthology of Canadian short stories edited by Bruce Meyer, from a March 9, 2018 review by Emilie Moorhouse published in Canada’s National Observer (review originally published in Prism magazine on March 8, 2018), Note: A link has been removed,
A woman waits in line to get her water ration. She hasn’t had a sip of water in nearly three days. Her mouth is parched; she stumbles as she waits her turn for over an hour in the hot sun. When she he finally gets to the iTap and inserts her card into the machine that controls the water flow, the light turns red and her card is rejected. Her water credits have run out.
This scenario from “The Way of Water” by Nina Munteanu is one of many contained in the recently published anthology of short stories, Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change. The seventeen stories in this book edited by Bruce Meyer examine how humankind might struggle with the potential devastation of climate change in the near or distant future. Soon after I finished reading the book, Cape Town—known in precolonial times as “the place where clouds gather”—announced that it was only a few months away from what it called “Day Zero,” the day the city would officially run out of water, making the similarities between fiction and reality more than unsettling. Munteanu’s story is set in a futuristic Canada that has been mined of all its water by thirsty corporations who have taken over control of the resource. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation preventing rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border.
Indigenous knowledge (science)
The majority of Canada’s coastline is in the Arctic and climate change in that region is progressing at a disturbing pace. Weather, Climate Change, and Inuit Communities in the Western Canadian Arctic, a September 30, 2017 blog posting, by Dr. Laura Eerkes-Medrano at the University of Victoria (British Columbia) for Historical Climatology describes it this way (Note: A link has been removed),
Global climate change brings with it local weather that communities and cultures have difficulty anticipating. Unpredictable and socially impactful weather is having negative effects on the subsistence, cultural activities, and safety of indigenous peoples in Arctic communities. Since 2013, Professor David Atkinson and his team at the University of Victoria have been working with Inuvialuit communities in Tuktoyaktuk, Ulukhaktok, and Sachs Harbour. The main goal is to understand how impactful weather is affecting residents’ subsistence activities, particularly when they are on the water. The project involves site visits, interviews, and regular phone calls with residents.
Inuvialuit residents regularly observe the waves, winds, snow, and ice conditions that interfere with their hunting, fishing, camping, and other subsistence and cultural activities. In this project, communities identify specific weather events that impact their activities. These events are then linked to the broader atmospheric patterns that cause them. Summaries of the events will be provided to Environment Canada to hopefully assist with the forecasting process.
By taking this approach, the project links Western scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge to generate insights [emphasis mine] into how climate change is affecting Inuvialuit activities in the Canadian Arctic. An oversight committee has been established in each community to give direction to the project. This oversight committee includes representatives from each of the main community organizations, which ensures that the respective organizations provide direction to the project and advise on how to engage residents and communities.
Western science learning from and taking from traditional knowledge is not new. For example, many modern medicines are still derived from traditional remedies. Unfortunately, traditional practitioners have not benefited from sharing their knowledge.
It is to be hoped things are changing with projects like Atkinson’s and another one I mentioned in a December 2, 2019 posting featuring a discovery about ochre (a red dye used for rock art). The dye being examined was produced (in a manner that appears to be unique) in the Babine Lake region of British Columbia and the research may have applications for industrial use leading to economic benefits for the indigenous folks of that region. As important as the benefits, the science team worked closely with the indigenous communities in that area.
Canada will finally have its first Arctic university.
This past week [of December 1, 2019], the Yukon legislature passed a bill to make Yukon College a university. It will be an institution with an Indigenous flavour that will make it as unique as the region it is to serve.
“Everybody knows we’re moving toward something big and something special,” said Tom Ullyett, chairman of the board of governors.
The idea of a northern university has been kicked around since at least 2007 when a survey in all three territories found residents wanted more influence over Arctic research. Northern First Nations have been asking for one for 50 years.
Research is to centre on issues around environmental conservation and sustainable resource development. It will be conducted in a new, $26-million science building funded by Ottawa and currently being designed.
Indigenous content will be baked in.
“It’s about teaching with northern examples,” said Tosh Southwick, in charge of Indigenous engagement. “Every program will have a northern component.”
Science programs will have traditional knowledge embedded in them and talk about ravens and moose instead of, say, flamingos and giraffes. Anthropology classes will teach creation stories alongside archeological evidence.
The institution will report to Yukon’s 14 First Nations as well as to the territorial legislature. More than one-quarter of its current students are Indigenous.
“Our vision is to be that first northern university that focuses on Indigenous governance, that focuses on sustainable natural resources, that focuses on northern climate, and everything that flows from that.”
Climate adaptation and/or choices
While we have participated in a number of initiatives and projects concerned with climate change, I believe there is general agreement we should have done more. That said I would prefer to remain hopeful.
A newly launched institute for climate policy research will have a Yukon connection. Brian Horton, Manager of Northern Climate ExChange at the Yukon Research Centre, has been named to the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices expert advisory panel for Climate Adaptation.
The Institute, launched Tuesday morning, aims to bring clarity to Canada’s climate policy choices. The Institute’s initial report, Charting our Course, describes the current climate landscape in Canada and provides recommendations for policy makers and governments seeking to implement more effective policy.
In order to remain grounded in issues of importance to Canadians, the Institute has appointed three Expert Advisory Panels (Adaptation, Mitigation and Clean Growth) to provide evidence-based research, analysis and engagement advice to support integrative policy decisions.
“It is exciting to have a role to play in this dynamic new network,” said Horton. “The climate is rapidly changing in the North and affecting our landscapes and lives daily. I look forward to contributing a Northern voice to this impactful pan-Canadian expert collaboration.”
At Yukon College, Horton’s research team focusses on applied research of climate impacts and adaptation in Yukon and Northwest Territories. Northern Climate ExChange works with communities, governments, and the private sector to answer questions about permafrost, hydrology, and social factors to facilitate adaptation to climate change.
January 21, 2020 | OTTAWA — Dozens of academics and policy experts today launched the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, a new independent national research body. The Institute aims to bring clarity to the transformative challenges, opportunities and choices ahead for Canada as governments at all levels work to address climate change.
Experimental Lakes Area
This is a very special research effort originally funded and managed by the Canadian federal government. Rather controversially, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government defunded the research but that may not have been the tragedy many believed (from the Experimental Lakes Area Wikipedia entry),
IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA, known as ELA before 2014) is an internationally unique research station encompassing 58 formerly pristine freshwater lakes in Kenora District Ontario, Canada. Previously run by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, after being de-funded by the Canadian Federal Government, the facility is now managed and operated by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and has a mandate to investigate the aquatic effects of a wide variety of stresses on lakes and their catchments. IISD-ELA uses the whole ecosystem approach and makes long-term, whole-lake investigations of freshwater focusing on eutrophication.
In an article published in AAAS’s well-known scientific journal Science, Eric Stokstad described ELA’s “extreme science” as the manipulation of whole lake ecosystem with ELA researchers collecting long-term records for climatology, hydrology, and limnology that address key issues in water management. The site has influenced public policy in water management in Canada, the USA, and around the world.
Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, argued that “our government has been working hard to ensure that the Experimental Lakes Area facility is transferred to a non-governmental operator better suited to conducting the type of world-class research that can be undertaken at this facility” and that “[t]he federal government has been leading negotiations in order to secure an operator with an international track record.” On April 1, 2014, the International Institute for Sustainable Development announced that it had signed three agreements to ensure that it will be the long-term operator of the research facility and that the facility would henceforth be called IISD Experimental Lakes Area. Since taking over the facility, IISD has expanded the function of the site to include educational and outreach opportunities and a broader research portfolio.
Part 5 is to a large extent a grab bag for everything I didn’t fit into parts 1 -4. As for what you can expect to find in Part 5: some science podcasting, eco art, a Saskatchewan lab with an artist-in-residence, and more.
This piece of research reminds me of being in a mall explaining data communications to people who’d come to shop. We were part of a nationwide, annual Canadian federal government science promotion effort and the Vancouver region contractor had decided to put science and technology in the malls.
It was very well received and we were busy answering questions throughout the day,, surprising the engineers I worked with. They hadn’t thought anyone would be interested.
We never went back to the mall as things changed a year or two later and the federal government took a more traditional approach to science outreach. I still mourn the loss of an exciting and engaging science promotion initiative.
Bring science to people where they are. That’s the driving philosophy that propels U biology professor Nalini Nadkarni to stretch the possibilities of science communication and bring the beauty of science to people and places that others have overlooked.
Building public trust in science is about more than just providing information and improving science literacy, she says. It’s about building relationships between scientists and communities that are founded on shared values. It’s called the “Ambassador Model”, and Nadkarni now has the data to say that the approach works, at relatively low cost and with high effectiveness.
In two recent studies, one published today in BioScience and another published in 2018 in Science Communication, Nadkarni and her colleagues present evidence-based conclusions about the effectiveness of science engagement in two programs: The INSPIRE program, which brings science lectures to prisons, and the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] Ambassador Program, which trains scientists to engage members of the public in discussions about science.
“Our goal is to help people realize that all citizens are interested in, capable of understanding and full of wonder at science, if it is presented in places and ways that are accessible to them,” Nadkarni says.
A corps of science ambassadors
In the past, the thought went that science and society could be bridged by researchers simply conveying facts to improve science literacy, a one-way communication approach termed the “deficit model”. Communication researchers theorize that a better approach is to consider how people build relationships and enter into productive dialogues. Nadkarni’s STEM Ambassador Program puts these ideas into practice by training scientists to both present the processes of science and to facilitate activities that promote the two-way exchange of ideas, perspectives and experiences with members of the public.
“Just as the U.S. Foreign Service trains ambassadors to represent their home country and build positive relationships abroad,” the STEM Ambassadors homepage says, “scientists can represent their ‘home country’ of science to engage as ‘STEM Ambassadors.'”
Find photos of STEM Ambassadors at work here and here.
Launched in 2016, the STEM Ambassador Program (STEMAP) is funded with a $1.3 million grant by the National Science Foundation. Each year, STEMAP, based at the U with Nadkarni as its director, trains cohorts of scientists in the Ambassador Model and helps them develop and implement public engagement of science activities. Since the program began, STEMAP has trained more than 65 scientists in the Ambassador Model. Here’s how it works, step by step:
Scientists first take a close look at themselves and distill their research, personal interests, hobbies and experiences to brainstorm novel connections with a particular community or “focal group”. They learn about the focal group and build relationships by carrying out an “immersion event”. in which they visit group gathering spaces and meet with group representatives. They then apply what they learn to design engagement activities that align with the group’s shared interests, values and practices. They present activities for feedback and ultimately carry out the activities in the focal group’s venue. Finally, scientists reflect on their efforts and evaluate outcomes.
Engagement activities have been as varied as the scientists and focal groups who’ve participated in the program. One ambassador, a microbiologist with an interest in fermentation, served as a co-chef at a local fermentation cooking class and showed participants the microscopic organisms responsible for turning cabbage into sauerkraut. A hydrologist turned her field expedition to Greenland into a book for the children of Kulusuk, a Greenlandic village near her field site. An engineer shared his research to develop more efficient air quality monitoring devices with citizens at a community council meeting and invited them to participate in an air-quality monitoring project [this activity is also known as citizen science]. A mathematician accompanied a group of at-risk youth on a ski trip, and explained the geometry of moving skis to maximize friction.
The assessment of STEMAP’s effectiveness shows strong results. Ninety-seven percent of ambassadors highly valued their participation in the program. More than half went on to plan and carry out additional engagement activities.
The effect on activity participants was also dramatic. Eighty percent said they’d engage in similar events in the future. Seventy-six percent said they were more interested in seeking out scientific information after meeting with an ambassador. And two-thirds said they more strongly considered themselves as someone who can understand and do science.
INSPIRE-ing the incarcerated
Since 2003, Nadkarni has applied the principles of the Ambassador Model in multifaceted efforts to bring the power of science into the lives of the incarcerated. In 2013, she launched the Initiative to Bring Science Programs to the Incarcerated program, or INSPIRE, in which University of Utah faculty and graduate students present monthly lectures to inmates at the Utah State Prison, the Salt Lake County Jail and five juvenile detention centers in Salt Lake Valley. Topics have ranged from the genetics of pigeon feathers to mathematical modeling of the common cold.
“Our premise is that all people have interest in science, and incarcerated adults and juveniles would probably be no different,” Nadkarni says. And interest has been high–inmates have requested additional lectures, Nadkarni says, and researchers have mentioned feeling that their participation has real impact. But to expand such an approach around the country and catch the attention of correctional institutions and researchers alike, Nadkarni and colleagues would need to publish evidence-based results of INSPIRE’s impact in the scientific literature. And for that, they would need data.
“Without evaluation, we could not publish our findings in the peer-reviewed literature,” she says, “which is necessary if we are to have this work accepted as evidence-based and therefore of interest to other scientists and other corrections institutions.”
With the cooperation of prison staff, Nadkarni and colleague Jeremy Morris surveyed inmates before and after they attended monthly science lectures to assess their knowledge of the science topic as well as their attitudes toward science and math. They also surveyed jail and prison staff and general inmate populations to compare inmates’ attitudes toward science with the general population.
The results offered a surprising glimpse into the science-readiness of inmates. For Nadkarni and her fellow INSPIRE presenters, it was no surprise that inmates displayed a high interest in science (up to 92 percent expressed interest) and an eagerness to learn–even higher than prison and jail staff, who were considered a proxy for the general population.
“They are also interested in meeting with and talking to scientists, and do so with respect,” Nadkarni says. “Their comments and questions indicate that even though many of them have poor formal educational background in science, many have been able to gain knowledge of science and maintain a curiosity about science from other sources.”
The positive impacts of the lecture series–greater science content knowledge, improved attitudes about science and scientists, and increased likelihood of communicating science they have learned with others–were similar to those of formal prison education programs, but required much less of the scientist-instructors.
Based on this past success, INSPIRE is now providing lectures and workshops at youth detention centers as well. Other studies have shown that prison education programs can lower inmates’ chances of returning after release and raise their chances of gaining employment. It’s a model worth sharing.
“We can now bring this to academic and corrections administrators as ‘evidence-based best practices’ with far greater impact than we have been able to muster with only anecdotal or subjective information,” Nadkarni says.
Both studies show that achieving the goals of science communication–increased positive views of science, content knowledge and a desire to share with others–are attainable at relatively low cost and in populations that are much more receptive and interested than many might have thought.
And by reaching out to such a wide diversity of groups, both the STEMAP and INSPIRE programs have shown that no one need be considered unreachable by and unengageable with science. After all, Nadkarni writes, there are 6.5 million scientists among the 325 million people in the United States. If every scientist talked about science with just one new person every week, they could reach every single American–in just one year.
Here’s a link to and a citation for Nadkarni’s latest paper,
For the interested, Dr. Nadkarni has her own website where she has organized and made her academic research and interests, her public engagement work, and her work with incarcerated population accessible.
I remember reading somewhere that historically the field of astronomy has been the most inclusive of amateurs (or citizen scientists as we call them now).
If you think about it, all the sciences were started by amateurs. The notion that one should go to school and learn about science came much later after the pioneers, some of whom were philosophers such as Lucretius, developed theories to be passed on and codified the concept of scientific research.
It was Lucretius who helped to popularize ‘atomism’ and other physics concepts (eventually) in his multi-volume poem ‘De rerum natura’, known in English as ‘On the Nature of Things’. From the Lucretius Wikipedia entry,
… Lucretius’s scientific poem “On the Nature of Things” (c. 60 BC) has a remarkable description of Brownian motion of dust particles in verses 113–140 from Book II. He uses this as a proof of the existence of atoms.
From searching for extraterrestrial life to tracking rainfall, non-experts are increasingly helping to gather information to answer scientific questions. One of the most established hands-on, outdoor citizen science projects is the University of Washington-based Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, COASST, which trains beachgoers along the West Coast, from California to Alaska, to monitor their local beach for dead birds.
With about 4,500 participants in its 21-year history and roughly 800 active participants today, COASST’s long-term success is now the subject of scientific study in its own right. What makes people join citizen science projects, and what motivates people to stick with them over years?
A UW-led paper published in the July issue [June 2019 issue?] of Ecology and Society explores the interests and identities of participants who join and remain active in citizen science. Results could help other science projects aiming to harness the power of large teams.
Previous research led by the UW has shown that people who join online-based citizen science projects generally try it just once, and fewer than 1 in 10 remain active past one year. The rates for hands-on, in-person efforts are much higher: COASST, for example, has 54% of participants still active one year after joining.
But what separates those who stay from those who go? Years of responses to surveys from the COASST team’s recruitment and engagement efforts provide a unique window on citizen science.
“I came to the UW to analyze a gold mine of social science datasets accumulated by COASST,” said social scientist and lead author Yurong He, a postdoctoral researcher in the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. “Over a four year period, hundreds of participants responded to survey questions about why they were joining – or continuing – with the program. This represents an unparalleled opportunity.”
She analyzed answers to two freeform questions posed to project participants: “Why did you join COASST?” and “Why do you continue to be involved in COASST?” Some 310 new participants chose to answer the questions during their initial training. Another 623 seasoned participants, who had been involved for more than one year, completed a mail-in survey
“People’s memory can be a bit tricky,” He said. “You may think that two or five years ago you had a particular motivation, but is that really so? With this study we can definitively answer the motivation question at two different times: at the moment of joining the program, just after they finish being trained, and once they have spent at least a year on the beach collecting monthly data.”
The analysis shows that new participants wanted to be outdoors on the beach, learning about birds. Many listed their scientific degrees, previous occupations and birding expertise. But responses from longer-term contributors displayed a slightly different pattern: Although birds and beach remained dominant interests, seasoned volunteers were more likely to mention interests such as the desire to monitor and observe their beach, help in making scientific discoveries, and the importance of project data and results for environmental conservation. Moreover, their “science identity” became focused on their data-collection team and the project collective, rather than on their personal traits.
One important finding, He said, was the value of place. Volunteers often mentioned the importance of continuing to visit their beach even if they hadn’t found any birds washed ashore after several months.
“We thought they would talk a lot about birds, and they did, but they actually talked more about the coastal environment, the beach and the ocean,” He said. “Place was either equally important or even more important to them than birds.”
Another surprising finding is the degree to which participants consider citizen science to be a social activity. Of the five tasks volunteers listed as most important in defining their work for COASST, two – “communicating project results” and “recruiting others to participate” – were social. The other three tasks were “collect data,” “make measurements” and “enter data.”
“Activities that help connect family members and friends, and provide opportunities to meet new people who share similar interests, can also be scientific in nature,” He said. “COASST fulfills both science and social interests for coastal residents.”
he study’s conclusions based on the surveys included some take-home messages for organizers of hands-on citizen science efforts:
Long-term participants tend to be motivated by a project’s mission and goals, and successful programs communicate scientific findings back to participants so that they can see their individual contribution as part of the big picture of project results.
Experienced participants focus on where they conduct their project activities, indicating that sense of place is important to volunteers.
Both new and long-term participants focused on their social interactions as a central part of project activities, suggesting that successful hands-on, citizen science combines high-quality scientific activity with building and maintaining social relationships.
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  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.”
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.
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’ 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?
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 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.
The Science and Technology Innovation Program welcomes applicants for academic calendar internships. STIP focuses on understanding bottom-up, public innovation; top-down, policy innovation; and, on supporting responsible and equitable practices at the point where new technology and existing political, social, and cultural processes converge. We recommend exploring our blog and website first to determine if your research interests align with current STIP programming.
We offer two types of internships: research (open to law and graduate students only) and a social media and blogging internship (open to undergraduates, recent graduates, and graduate students). Non-degree seeking students are ineligible. All internships must be served in Washington, D.C. and cannot be done remotely.
For graduate students, law students, or those accepted to a graduate-level program, we offer a research internship. This is normally project-based (see below for special solicitations), with current projects falling into roughly categories:
Some flexibility may be available, as STIP also overlaps with other Wilson Center Programs. We encourage anyone with cross-disciplinary interests to apply, specifying the names of two programs they wish to work with.
Assignments may include:
Conducting independent research on science and technology innovation issues relevant to STIP initiatives
Co-authoring a journal article or Wilson Center policy brief
Developing grant proposals
Writing articles and blog posts for the STIP website, in conjunction with specific projects as described above.
Undergraduate/Social Media Internship
Open to undergraduates, recent graduates and graduate students, our social media and blogging internship is open year-round. We do not limit by specific majors, but instead look for students who are interested in engaging with issues around STEM from a multitude of perspectives, including the applications to science, policy, and the public.
Researching issues around biotechnology, nanotechnology, genomics, citizen science, and serious/educational video games
Assisting the preparation of publications and/or outreach materials
Performing administrative assignments in support of STIP activities
Special Project Intern: Citizen Health Innovators Project
We are seeking a research intern with a specialty in topics including precision medicine, biomedical research and innovation, and/or science policy, ethics and regulation on biomedical research to work with our Citizen Science and Health Project. Applicants with backgrounds in technology development or science and technology studies (STS) will also be considered. Experience conducting cross and trans-disciplinary research is an asset.
The project associated with this internship will relate to analyzing key challenges and promises arising in the domain of citizen and patient-driven biomedical research and innovation, including interesting trends in precision medicine. The intern may:
Co-author analyses on challenges and promises in citizen and patient-driven biomedical research and innovation
Conduct research and/or capacity building to support the mission of the Citizen Health Innovators Project, for example by advancing work in mapping citizen and patient-driven innovation and matching these trends with tech skills and regulatory expertise
There will be opportunities to write and gain expertise – this is part of the internship goals.
Support operations may include:
Conducting independent research on science and technology innovation issues relevant to STIP initiatives, as requested by supervisor.
Co-authoring a journal article or Wilson Center policy brief on topics pertaining to innovations in genomics and health.
Developing grant proposals.
Writing articles and blog posts for the STIP website, in conjunction with specific projects as described above.
Desired skills include:
Familiarity with precision medicine, biomedical research and innovation, and/or science policy, ethics and regulation on biomedical research
Familiarity with national regulation and guidelines on precision medicine in USA
Ability to write for multiple audiences (academic publications, white papers, social media, etc.)
Ability to work independently with minimal day-to-day guidance.
This internship is unpaid.
Special Project Intern: Earth Challenge 2020
Citizen science involves members of the public in scientific research to meet real world goals. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Earth Day Network (EDN), The U.S. Department of State, and The Wilson Center are launching Earth Challenge 2020 as the world’s biggest ever coordinated citizen science campaign. EC2020 will collaborate with existing citizen science projects as well as build capacity for new ones as part of a larger effort to grow citizen science worldwide. We will become a nexus for collecting billions of observations in areas including air quality, water quality, biodiversity, and human health to strengthen the links between science, the environment, and public citizens.
We are seeking a research intern with a specialty in topics including citizen science, crowdsourcing, making, hacking, sensor development, and other relevant topics.
This intern will scope and implement a semester-long project related to Earth Challenge 2020 deliverables. In addition to this the intern may:
Conduct ad hoc research on a range of topics in science and technology innovation to learn while supporting department priorities.
Write or edit articles and blog posts on topics of interest or local events.
Support meetings, conferences, and other events, gaining valuable event management experience.
Provide general logistical support.
This is a paid position available for 15-20 hours a week. Applicants from all backgrounds will be considered, though experience conducting cross and trans-disciplinary research is an asset. Ability to work independently is critical.
Interested applicants should submit a resume, cover letter describing their interest in Earth Challenge 2020 and outlining relevant skills, and two writing samples. One writing sample should be formal (e.g., a class paper); the other, informal (e.g., a blog post or similar).
Application Process and Materials
Unless otherwise stated, internships are unpaid.
International students are eligible, but they must hold a valid F-1 or J-1 visa and appropriate work authorization. All international students must obtain written permission from their Designated School Official or Responsible Visa Officer at their university stating that they are in valid immigration status and eligible to do an internship at the Center.
The Wilson Center is an equal opportunity employer and follows equal opportunity employment guidelines in the selection of its interns.
For all internships there is a singular process to applying: to apply please email Elizabeth.Newbury@wilsoncenter.org with the following information. Please specify in the subject line the intended time period for your internship with [SEMESTER] [YEAR] Internship e.g. “SPRING 2018 Internship”. If there is a specific topic area or project, please note that in the subject line of the email, e.g. ‘FALL 2018 Internship for Digital Futures Project.’
Due to the sheer volume of applications we receive, only those candidates selected for interviews will be contacted. To ensure your consideration, please submit only a completed application.
A completed application will have the following materials.
Cover letter explaining your interest in STIP
1-2 page writing sample ideally demonstrating your work in science and technology research.
Good luck! And, one more thing, application deadlines,
Fall Internship: August 1
Spring Internship: November 15
Summer Internship: March 15