Monday, June 9, 2014

Where Are the Best Places for a Citizen Scientist to Live? - Part I

Much of this blog has been about large, national and international scope citizen science projects.  But that only scratches the surface of what's available.  In fact the large number of citizen science projects happen at the local state parks, community colleges, and local high schools.  So we can't ignore all those great opportunities.  But what happens if you don't live somewhere with a lot of citizen science projects?  Are there places you can move to and  get more involved?  Let's find out.

There are many places we can go to find information bout each US city and which will rank them by the criteria we want.  Sites like Find Your Spot come to mind where you fill out a number of personality questions and receive a list of likely places.  But what criteria should we use?  Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Access to Universities and Community Colleges: There is nothing like a nearby institution of higher learning to cultivate to inspire a passion for research.  Many universities are built around research and have a world of resources available for everyday people if you ask nicely enough.  But even if their tools are locked up tight, the opportunity to learn about advanced topics through seminars and open campus days often available, and many professors plain love to talk to local residents about their labs.  It's their favorite subject! And those professors are often the same ones who indulge their science passions further as citizen scientists in fields outside their day-to-day interests.  But most importantly, these research professors are the ones designing and managing citizen science projects for people in the community to join. 
  • Proximity to Museums and Science Centers: There is no better place to inspire everyday people to science like a local science museum.  They explain complicated topics in ways that everyday people can understand, and help relate it to their lives.  They also run programs that involve the local community, many of which are citizen science projects.  So finding a good science museum is another ticket to finding well-run projects. 
  • Access to National, State, and Local Parks: What better place is there to see hundreds of unique plants and animals than in the national parks set up to protect them?  Not only that, many of these parks are in places with significant geologic figures, or even scientific bounty (such as Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah).   And, as we've seen at universities and museums, there are many great local citizen science programs eager for volunteers.   
  • Dark Skies: For astronomy lovers nothing beats a deep, dark sky field for excellent star-gazing.  Whether it is a meteor shower, approaching comet, or bright planet everything is crisper on a clear night.  Experts typically recommend getting out at least an hour for major metropolitan areas to get the best views so rural areas typically get the best views.  But you'll know you're in a good spot once the Milky Way's dusty veil is clear even with a moon in the sky. 
  • Environmental Consciousness: Many of the most active citizen science projects are performed by people protecting natural resources.    In fact much of the field actually grew up from this community, where local citizen would test local waterways for contaminants or count the wildlife due to pollution concerns.  So an area with a high "green" contingent where the public is highly sensitive to environmental concerns will also be a great place to find interesting citizen science projects.
But these are just a few thoughts to get things rolling.  Are there other factors you can think when identifying areas supportive of citizen science?  Let me know in the comments below and I'll be happy to include them.

But where in the US are these places?  Tune in to next weeks post for a few answers.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Feeding My Baby: A Case-Study of Citizen Science in Everyday Life

Who knew my citizen science skills would come in handy so soon after childbirth?

Becoming a new father has been challenge for me as it is for everyone.  There is so much to learn about caring for a child, caring for the new mother, and helping your child not just live, but thrive. Add to that all the personal baggage, as well as societal and psychological expectations, that are brought into parenting, and it can be overwhelming. Fortunately our pediatrician's office has been a great source of information.  The doctor's and nurses pull from the latest medical research and their own experience to guide us on our way.  But as much as science knows about child development, it becomes quickly clear how much is not known.  Even for one of the babies most basic

Every one of the 4 million families with newborns must deal with is how to handle bottle feeding (either breast milk or formula).  Both are very valuable commodities that you don't want to waste, so the simple question arises of how long a bottle lasts either with or without refrigeration.  With nearly every one of the using bottles of some sort you'd think there would be simple answers. But there aren't.  So that's where my citizen science background comes in.

In a perfect world my doctors, the American Academy of Pediatrics bible "Your Baby's First Year", or any other authoritative source would have answered this question.  But they don't.  So we turn to one of the most trusted yet often least reliable sources...the Internet.  Which is where I found some of the best information from a blogger who is also a true citizen scientist, whether she knows it or not.

In her post ""The 2 Hour Rule: Is a Bottle Safe When it's been Left Out too Long?" this question is addressed head on. 

First she checks with the most authoritative source she can find, the Infant Formula Council.  They should have the most expertise on the subject and access to a wide variety of research.  The main problem is the potential for bias as a manufacturer's trade group.  So she balances that recommendation with one from the non-biased American Academy of Pediatrics.  Not only will they give a new perspective, but they represent the collective wisdom and expertise of doctors.  Also, between these two, she has looked to the "Experts" for advice and is willing to accept it at face value.  However, while both discuss the topic in generalities neither provides a concrete answer.  So she must continue looking.

The next step is to review the literature.  This is tough to do as an amateur but not impossible.  It just takes some persistence with Google or other search engine and then hoping the articles are publicly available (much more on this in a future blog post).  But it is not a blind is informed by the dangers described by the "Experts" above.  She is not dismissing their concerns, but trusting them and using them as a source for further exploration.

Finally, when all is said and done, she finds a related study on the impacts of time on formula feeding.  It's not completely on topic and does not directly answer her question.  And it was paid for by a bottle manufacturer.  All issues which she notes in the article.  But she does present it to inform her final decision.

Which is...

Sorry, I'm not going to reveal that.  You can find the answer yourself here.  The point is not whether formula can be used after two hours, or the relative merits versus breast milk.  It's to demonstrate some key points I've been trying to make ever since starting this blog.

  1. Just because you are not a Ph.D. scientist, don't be afraid to ask questions and wade into the debate.  It is possible for everyday people to understand, and be part of, the conversation of science.
  2. Trust but verify the advice of experts.  Relying on the knowledge of people studying a specific scientific issue is a vital starting point.  You can't just throw away everything science has learned and start on your own.  But also don't be afraid to question the experts.  They aren't infallible, and haven't always looked at things from every angle.  This does not question their authority or integrity, it is the standard due diligence allowed, and required, from every good scientist.
  3. Be prepared to be wrong.  In this case there was no evidence that her approach was harmful to her child.  But in reading the article there is every sense she was willing to make a change if the evidence was compelling.  That intellectual honesty is crucial for scientists and citizen scientists alike.

In other words, perform your research with a humble confidence. Don't worry that you don't have a degree in child development or have not spent years in medical school.   You can still investigate questions for yourself and help us all out.  Just make sure to put it on the web so others can take advantage too!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Babies...For Love and Science

Last month it finally happened...we welcomed Baby OpenScientist to the world!  He is a seven pound - fourteen ounce wonder of nature.  He brings up great joy and contentment.  He's also a great opportunity for new science.

From the moment of birth our baby was weighed, tested, and measured so doctor's can track his health.  In the age of electronic records it's the perfect opportunity to collect data on a person's life from the very beginning.  Data that can not only be useful in the future to potentially diagnose disease, but also to support research studies on the causes and courses of disease.

In our family we are adding to this data with the BabyConnect program available for both Apple and Android devices. This app let's you collect information on every diaper change, every nap, and every height/weight check your baby goes through.  It also can track medications, vaccinations, developmental milestones, and playtime activities.  These can be logged, charted, summarized, or downloaded for manipulation on your own computer.  All of his is key information for tracking your baby's health.  And it is key information that could be used in future research studies that need detailed health data from your newborn.

I will have more on these uses in future posts, but for now it's good to start early and get the data collected.

All of this now leads me to the book "Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid."   Taken from articles previously appearing on Psychology Today blogs and recent peer-reviewed research studies, the book walks parents through experiments they can perform with their children demonstrating interesting aspects of their development.  For example, experiments that help show your baby really does like looking at mom's face, or that they understand what objects are theirs (versus those that aren't).  So it's a highly educational book to understanding your baby's growth. 

In addition, reading this book teaches great new ways to play with your kid.  For example, the section on infant reflexes is an interesting look at the motions babies perform without ever being taught, and demonstrate the power of genetics to inform early behavior.  But triggering those reflexes while lying on the floor is also a great way to play with your child.  It's scientific, you learn about your baby, and it's a bonding opportunity.  How can you pass this up?

Although it would take a while to perform all the experiments the book is a bit short.  However, you can also visit the author's Experimenting With Babies web page for updates as new research offers opportunities for new experiments.  So start with the book and playing with your child now, and keep adding new games as they get older.  You'll be happy you did.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Where Does My Baby Come From?

In less than a week I will be a new father.  We don't know the exact time or place but my wife is due around the start of Spring.  The perfect time for our new family to be born.

But where does this baby come from?

Looking at our relatives there is a strong Italian heritage, as well as Irish, Eastern European, and German blood.  All this comes from family stories and genealogy research both sides have done.  But can we go back any deeper?  And are there any surprises that we don't already know about, such as Native American or other ancestors?  Until recently there was no way too know.

Fortunately my wife signed us up for The Genographic Project from the National Geographic Society.  Scientists behind this project have collected over 150,000 genetic markers from people around the world.  They have also collected ancestry information on all these markers, allowing them to identify where each of these genes comes from and when it developed as humans evolved. This all comes together as a kit that allows the anyone to send in our own DNA samples and have them compared to find out where we come from.  So last year's Christmas present will help us learn what our child's background will be.

As an added bonus, by participating in the project users also help to expand the database of ancestry information for future use.  So you learn about yourself and contribute to helping the next person learn even more.  What's wrong with that?

Getting Started is Easy:

  1. Visit The Genographic Project web site and order the kit.  At $199 it is not cheap, but they are providing you with advanced genetic testing and the money goes to supporting, and continuing, this scientific work.  So it helps you while continuing to push the research forward.
  2. Photo Courtesy:
  3. Wait a few days for the kit to arrive in the mail. There's a picture of it directly above.
  4. Once the kit arrives one of the first things you'll want to do is register it with National Geographic using the enclosed code.  From The Genographic Project web site click on the "Results" tab and provide your name, email address, registration code, and provide a password. Since they are taking your DNA and since ancestry is personal information, the system is designed to keep everything anonymous unless you choose otherwise.  That means protecting your username/password since even the project administrators can't access your information without them.
  5. Time to collect your two from your left cheek and one from your right.
    1. Carefully open one of the small vials and place it within close reach.
    2. Open the first swab and insert the "brush" side into your mouth.
    3. Vigorously rub the swab against your cheek for 45 seconds.
    4. Place the swab tip over the open vial, insert the tip in, and push down on the top of the swab.  This will release the tip  into the vial. 
    5. Close the cap.
    6. Repeat with the other cheek.
    7. Place both vials into the plastic collection bag (with some air in the bag for cushioning).
  6. Sign and detach the informed consent form included with the kit. 
  7. Place the vials and the consent form into the pre-addressed envelope, and add five first-class stamps. 
  8. Mail it in and wait for the results! 
Interestingly, this test does not look solely at the nuclear DNA from the nucleus of your cell but also at DNA located on the cell's mitochondria.  Since mitochondrial DNA is only passed down by your mother through her egg (it is not part of the male sperm) this provides great ancestry information from the mother's side.  For your father's side, that information is kept on the Y chromosome.   This is the most accurate way we know of tracing lineage on both sides of your family.  Unfortunately this means that since female participants do no have a Y chromosome they will only get information about their father's side of the family.  So any female readers of this blog should take that into consideration before purchasing the full kit.  I'd hate to see you disappointed.

That's all there is to it.  If you'd like to learn more I suggest watching the following video from the Genographic web site:


Of course this is just half the story...we also have to get the results and interpret them.  That should come in six to eight weeks when the analysis is finished.  So check back then to find out what we've learned.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Best Editing or Least Editing...How will 2014 Oscars Fare?

Last year I went public with the theory that that longest movie each years seems to win the Oscar for Best Film Editing each year.  It's as if the Academy Awards were honoring the film with the least amount of editing.  That has never seemed right to me but I had nobody to tell.  Until now.

Looking at my stats from last year's post, the longest film was more than twice as likely to win the Oscar (at 43%) than it would be by chance (20%).  In other words, nearly every other "Best Edited" film is also the longest.  This is way more than should be expected by chance and I seemed to really be on to something.  Of course, last year the Academy snubbed me by letting a much shorter film win.  But I don't yet feel discredited.  The Academy will surely revert back to the mean soon.

Taking the length of each with data from and, we see the following for this year's films:
  1. American Hustle (138 minutes) -- Should win the Oscar!
  2. Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave (tie at 134 minutes)
  3. Dallas Buyer's Club (117 minutes)
  4. Gravity (91 minutes)
So what does this year portend? Check in to the Oscar's Sunday night to see, and come back here when the longest film wins yet again.