Editor’s Note: This story is part of a partnership between Rewire and Peril and Promise.
Are you passionate about the environment, public health or the natural wonders of the world? If you’re intrigued by the idea of studying anything from adorable pikas to Alzheimer’s disease, but you don’t have a formal science background, joining a citizen science project is a great way to meet people while also making a difference.
Citizen scientists around the world are tracking trends that help predict the future of our planet. These projects are a great way to channel your natural curiosity into something exciting and important.
“Anyone can be a citizen scientist,” according to the U.S. Forest Service. While people pursuing scientific professions face many barriers to entry, citizen science projects offer opportunities to pursue meaningful research, regardless of your income, academic background or other factors that might make formal science study feel intimidating.
Rewire reached out to two citizen scientists with remarkably different backgrounds who both worked on the same project with the Field Museum of Chicago: Kalman Strauss, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, and Joann Martinec, a 61-year-old retired businesswoman. Their project focuses on liverworts, a small, ancient plant found all over the world.
Don’t let the name of these plants fool you. While they sound disgusting, these eyelash-sized plants are important indicators of climate distress. Their size makes them more vulnerable to climate change and global warming than larger plants and animals.
“They’re like canaries in a coal mine,” said Matt von Konrat, collections manager of plants at the Field Museum in Chicago.
Strauss already had a “fascination with bryology, the study of mosses, liverworts and hornworts,” when he became involved with the museum’s citizen-sourced MicroPlants project in 2014.
“Unfortunately, these microscopic plants can be very difficult to study and identify on your own,” Strauss said in an email to Rewire. “So, after reading a few bryology books and still filled with questions, I found Matt von Konrat’s name on the Field Museum website…
“At the time, my biggest dream was that he might answer my questions about the bryophytes, and maybe even meet with me once. Instead, he ended up inviting me to volunteer with him at the Field Museum and get involved with citizen science.”
Analyzing photos of these teensy plants can provide insights into the differences between how species respond to climate change–and what that means when it comes to the health of our planet.
Researchers use microscopes to scour photos for these minuscule plants, a cumbersome undertaking when thousands of images are involved.
That’s where the work of Strauss, Martinec and other citizen scientists comes in.
The team adapted an existing online astronomy site for citizen scientists so thousands of people–on site and around the world–could collaborate on the MicroPlants project.
Even without formal science backgrounds, the information citizen scientists have collected has been enlightening and accurate. A study of the project found that the 11,000 citizen scientists working on the MicroPlants project provided data that “were quite comparable to those undertaken by experts,” regardless of their age or educational background.
Another online project combines social networking with citizen science. eBird calls itself “the world’s largest birding community” and encourages users to share sightings, learn more about hot birding locations, track the number of species they’ve seen and more.
Recently, Joshua Horns, an eBird user and doctoral candidate in biology at the University of Utah, and other researchers used eBird data to show something that could help birds around the world: There is just a 0.4 percent difference between bird species population data collected by eBird users and that collected by the U.S. government.
This finding is valuable because many countries don’t conduct formal bird population surveys. Citizen-collected data could fill this gap, and help scientists keep track of rare and at-risk species.
Citizen Science Day is April 14. Celebrate by getting involved in a project you believe in.
“Try lots of citizen science projects until you find one that you love,” Martinec said.
Besides the MicroPlants and eBird projects, Strauss recommended checking these out:
Can’t find an exciting project in your area? SciStarter has a list of projects that you can explore based on your interests and location.
This story is part of our partnership with Peril and Promise, The Challenge of Climate Change, a national public media initiative reporting on the human stories of climate change. Lead funding for Peril and Promise is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is also provided by Marc Haas Foundation and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.
Rachel Crowell is an Iowa-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel also welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow them on Twitter at @writesRCrowell.