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It’s a fair question: why do I do citizen science?

Bobcat-DSC_9312-copy-2-300x203A guest post by Sharman Apt Russell

Citizen science enlarges my world. When I am in the mood, I classify galaxies at the online site Galaxy Zoo, looking at images from the Hubbell Space Telescope or Sloan Sky Digital Survey. In summer, once again I will be looking for tiger beetles along the banks of the Gila River as part of a personal research project under the mentorship of two entomologists, David Pearson and Barry Knisley, co-authors of The Field Guide to Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. My task is to fill in a small blank spot on the world map of tiger beetles: the larval biology of the Western red-bellied tiger beetle, a ferocious predator about a third of an inch long. Citizen science gives me this breadth of scale—from the vastness of galaxies hundreds of thousands of light years away to the micro-world of insects with their skittering movements in the sand and surreal, scary mouthparts and iridescent colors seen under the microscope.

This winter, for the New Mexico Site Steward program,  I will check for damage to certain archeological sites in the Gila National Forest, picking up and feeling the texture of pot shards decorated with fine lines of black on white, feeling connected to women who lived here and made these pots a thousand years ago. On other weekends, I go hiking in the national forest to help New Mexico Wilderness Alliance inventory possible new wilderness areas. New wilderness! The hope of keeping this forest healthy and wild for generations to come… Citizen science gives me this depth of time, a relationship with the distant past and the far future.

citizen scienceCitizen science also introduces me to new communities. Sometimes I accompany the local tracking team for Sky Island Alliance’s Wildlife Linkages as they look for tracks in arroyos near my home: the tangible presence of bears and mountain lions, foxes and coatis, coyote and deer. A few years ago, when I worked with a group of five bird-banders for MAPS or Monitoring Avian Population Survey, I held in my hands the delicate beauty of a vermillion fly-catcher or yellow chat or Lucy’s warbler. These friends, human and nonhuman, remain part of my life. For the national Nature’s Notebook program, I monitor the growth of desert willow, four-wing saltbush, honey mesquite, and yucca in my back yard. I’ve come to know these plants well, becoming surprisingly enamored of saltbush: the way tiny bladders on these leaves store and release salt as an antifreeze that keeps the bush green through cold months, the abundance of fine pollen on the male catkins and the brown papery four-winged seeds that eventually cover the female plant, seeds once ground by Native Americans into flour and still eaten today by birds, mammals, and my neighbor’s goat.

Citizen science engages me with a world that offers me constant gifts: a monarch butterfly, its wings a brilliant orange and black like a stained-glass window; the print of a bobcat short-tailed, delicately-spotted, tufted-ear, and perhaps close by; the crunchy sweet beans on a thorny mesquite. Those gifts were always there, always offered up, but I didn’t always notice them.

 Of course, citizen science also means that I can be a small part of protecting this world, tracking the diversity and abundance of native species, monitoring the spread of invasive plants and animals, and documenting the effects of climate change. That’s all to the collective good and fosters the optimism that comes with taking action—the faith we need to face the future.

But really, I know, I do citizen science because it makes me happy. I do it for these gifts, for this beauty, for this excuse to go out walking with my friends.

sharman_apt_russellScience and nature writer Sharman Apt Russell celebrates citizen science in the pine forests and Chihuahuan desert of southwestern New Mexico where she teaches writing at Western New Mexico University, Silver City, NM as well as Antioch University in Los Angeles. Her ten published books include Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World (Oregon State University Press, 2014), An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect (Perseus Books, 2003), and Anatomy of a Rose: The Secret Life of Flowers (Perseus Books, 2001). Her work has been translated into a dozen languages and her awards include a Rockefeller Fellowship, Pushcart Prize, and the Writers at Work Award. For more information, go to

Featured TED: What New Power Looks Like

TEDHere’s an interesting talk about what peer-to-peer and crowdsourced movements (like citizen science) are doing to change how power is distributed and used.

Reverse The Odds… On Cancer

Reverse the Odds

Screenshots courtesy of Cancer Research UK

Lots of us play computer games; indeed, according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), 67% of US households play video games, and the average gamer spends 8 hours a week playing them. Given how addictive and compelling some games can be, it’s nice to know there are lots of citizen science games available to make enjoying your screen time less of a guilty pleasure.

On that note, Cancer Research UK has just released a new game called Reverse the Odds. Available on iOS, Android, and through Amazon, your goal is to help the Odds – cute little creatures who happen to live in a world that is falling apart. You play by completing puzzle games and upgrading their world to restore order.

How does this help cancer research? The game designers have integrated cancer analysis into the game play. You’ll be shown images of magnified samples of real tumour tissue donated by former patients. As you answer questions about what you see, you help researchers learn more about cancer.  According to the game’s site, the questions will include:

  • How many cancer cells do you see?
  • How many cells are blue?
  • How strongly are these cells glowing?

By playing this game, you will be helping Dr. Anne Kiltie of Oxford research biomarkers for bladder cancer. Dr. Kiltie wants to know what biomarkers could indicate whether a patient will respond better to surgery or radiotherapy. Since something as radical as bladder removal treatment will have a major impact on a patient’s quality of life, while not being aggressive enough will affect survival rates, the decision is a crucial one.

As with all citizen science projects, there is training provided, and the data you provide will be checked several times by other players, so even if you get a few questions wrong, it will not hurt the project.

You can learn more about the science here. While you’re at it, check out 10 Persistent Cancer Myths Debunked.