Monday, June 9, 2014

Where Are the Best Places for a Citizen Scientist to Live? - Key Traits

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.
  • Entrepreneurship: Many of the key traits of citizen scientists are shared by successful entrepreneurs. Both are highly independent, dedicated, intellectual, and comfortable with risk. They are also willing to question authority and defy conventions.  These traits help you build a business from scratch or offer your data to tenured researchers as an equal. So citizen scientists will look for areas that welcome similar personalities as themselves and they fit right in.  As an added bonus, in an entrepreneurial city any scientific discoveries can be more easily turned into profitable businesses or used in other ways to make money.  A perfect way to motivate, and support, the citizen science community.
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.

(Updated 8/10/2014 to add Entrepreneurship as a sixth trait).

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!