Sunday, September 4, 2011

More Citizen Scientists in the News

Photo Courtesy:
Iván Martínez / Wikimedia Commons
It's been a big week for citizen scientists.  The media is taking notice of the everyday people contributing to science on a daily basis, and highlighting their achievements for everyone to learn from.

Yesterday I stumbled across a recent Washington Post article about the work of high school student Alexa Kenzler.  She asked a very simple question: "How much dry cleaning fluid remains on clothing after it is cleaned"?  Given the environmental and personal health ramifications this question should have been answered years ago.  When she discovered nobody ever had, she contacted Georgetown University professor Paul Roepe and they began working the problem together.  As the Post describes it:
...what started out as something to “sponsor the kid’s curiosity” prompted a chain reaction in the university lab: an e-mail exchange, an invitation to collaborate and, this week, a paper published online in a peer-reviewed environmental journal. The paper gives new details about the amount of a toxic chemical that lingers in wool, cotton and polyester clothing after it is dry-cleaned.

“At the end of the day, nobody, I mean nobody, has previously done this simple thing — gone out there to several different dry cleaners and tested different types of cloth” to see how much of the chemical persists, said Roepe, who supervised the study.
Since then what started out as a school research paper (Grade - 100 out of 100) also won her first place in Chemistry at the Arlington County Science Fair, and she hopes to compete in the much larger Intel International and Engineering Science Fair next year. 

Beyond academics and and feel-good story about a local kid rising to the top, this is important data necessary to understand the impacts of the nearly 15,000 dry cleaners nationwide using perchloroethylene as the main cleaning solvent.  It also underscores importance of everyday people getting involved and asking questions about the world they live in.  "Professional" scientists can teach us much and government can protect public health when it understands the dangers.  But people need to keep asking the questions, whether they are tenured professors, government regulators, or bright 15-year-olds who just want to make a difference.

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