Popular characters like Dexter or Johnny Test inspired many of us to become scientists. However, these cartoons engendered in our minds a perception that all scientists work in a lab. This is quite untrue. Today, if you are among the internet users that constitute 57% of the world population, then you can also become a scientist. In fact, the contributions of the public can be so profound that a day has been dedicated to commemorate it — the 5th of December — which is known as the International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development.

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen science involves the active participation of and collaboration with the public in research to advance scientific knowledge. It attracts the public attention primarily through social media by highlighting everyday concerns like access to safe drinking water: interested people are then given the luxury to come forth and assist scientists in problem-solving with relevant instructions and tools. It is appealing to the general public as they are motivated to solve issues that can improve their lives. Citizen science has also given the public the opportunity to belong to a breed of scientists that takes pride in their work: Monty Harper’s theme song Citizen Scientist is an embodiment of this statement.

Through the Lens of Time

History provides a kaleidoscopic view of citizen science in which people’s curiosity has led to discoveries. 

An instance that shows that one does not need a scientific background to achieve greatness is the story of a girl from the nineteenth century, Mary Annings, who inspired the famous tongue twister ‘She sells seashells by the seashore’. Owing to her brother, Joseph, who found a fossilized skull, Anning discovered the first ichthyosaur (fish lizard). The fossil today rests in the Natural History Museum.

At the Natural History Museum: Actor playing the role of Mary Anning & the ichthyosaur display. Images Courtesy: The Intrepid Tourist

She also pioneered the study of coprolites (dinosaur feces). To support her family, she sold fossils that she had collected from the cliffs near her house. Her findings eventually piqued the attention of the scientific community with whom she managed to forge a relationship. However, the collaboration was not mutually beneficial since the scientists did not credit her when presenting her findings. Poor financial background and gender discredited her. Nevertheless, things were not as doom and gloom for her as nine years before her death, she received an annuity funded by members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London. Despite her being uneducated, Mary became one of England’s leading paleontologists due to practice and experience.

Over the years, citizen science has drastically evolved. Our need to address caveats in the knowledge at a faster pace has led to the advent of the Human Genome Project. The development of an automated process helped in identifying the 20,000-25,000 genes and determining the sequences of the chemical base pairs that compose the human DNA. Today, there is enough data to keep at least a generation of geneticists busy: a place where citizen science has become an indispensable asset. Projects such as Phylo have resolved the issue of multiple sequence alignments by abstracting it in the form of puzzles. People can solve puzzles better than computers since they have a knack for identifying visual patterns; in this case, citizen scientists have offered their services free of charge. By doing so, the public can help biologists infer the source of certain genetic diseases. This shows that it is a necessity to form collaborations beyond the scientific community, a goal that SciStarter accomplishes. 

SciStarter

SciStarter has matured from a graduate school project that Darlene Cavalier worked on at the University of Pennsylvania. It includes about 3,000 projects that you can browse through different customizable search parameters. As a host to an active community of around 100,000 registered citizen scientists, it also accommodates additional millions through website traffic.

The projects on SciStarter have achieved many milestones, uniting people globally through numerous efforts. Some of the projects that were very popular in 2019 will be mentioned here briefly. 

One of the most bookmarked, viewed, contributed to, and joined citizen science initiatives was iNaturalist which aimed at capturing the beauty of biodiversity on Earth. Participants of the project have access to all the resources provided by other participants of this project. The app makes the project all the more accessible to participants of all age groups since nearly everyone possesses a smartphone nowadays. The project is the fruition of the collaborative efforts between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. 

Darlene Cavalier. Image Courtesy: National Geographic Society

Another popular project was Stall Catchers which investigated the reasons behind the decrease in the brain’s blood flow among the patients of Alzheimer’s. As blood flow imagery is too subtle to be analyzed by most algorithms, scientists outsourced their work to citizen scientists. The gamers annotate these vessels as either flowing or stalled. They earn points and compete with other gamers to correctly classify more videos. A fruitful project as the unified efforts of enthusiastic citizen scientists such as those on the Citizen Science Day of April 13, 2019, helped accomplish 3.5 months of lab-equivalent research time. Findings of such citizen scientists will be credited in soon-to-be published research articles that will help to alleviate this life-threatening disease. 

Call to Action

Citizen science allows you to enjoy your pleasure of sitting online. Knowing that you are part of a bigger picture and your contributions matter is a great pleasure in itself that outweighs the guilt. Do you think you can rise to the challenge?

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