Citizen Science – New explorers out there.

“From the oceans to the soil, technology is changing the part that amateurs can play in research.” Nature.

Nowadays, participation of amateurs in science is for research, what crowdfunding is for the start-up scene – an amplification of capacity. Digitalization has empowered a process called citizen science. In a nutshell, this is any kind of research performed by nonprofessionals. We took a closer look at one institution that enables guided science education of amateurs and offers projects to participate scientifically.

Get your hands dirty!

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories extended their traditional research to the college, pre-college, and public levels when in 1988 the world’s first science center entirely devoted to genetics education was founded: The DNA Learning Center (DNALC). We had a chat with Christine Marizzi, an Austrian Scientist jumping across the pond to teach biology to the public at the DNALC.

Christine Marizzi: “I left Vienna after receiving my PhD in Genetics with the prospective to start a PostDoc in New York City. At the same time I got to tour the DNALC and met the executive director David Micklos, who encouraged me to apply for an open position. During my undergraduate years in Vienna I had a great time working as a tutor for wienXtra and the Vienna Open Lab – and here was the chance to go full time and be part of a small but influential group of people.”

At the DNALC, Christine works as an educator to teach kids of various ages not only the magic of cell biology and genetics, but also the crucial skill to approach issues in a scientific manner.

Christine Marizzi: “Over the last decade the consensus regarding STEM education was calling for a reform. First we need to foster conceptual understanding, higher-level thinking, and practice of STEM rather than memorization of terms, facts, and techniques. Secondly we need to adopt inquiry and student-centered approaches that begin with students’ own questions. And lastly we need to increase opportunities for interdisciplinary and collaborative work. Providing students with authentic research experiences has emerged as an effective way to address many of these needs, while students engage in relevant work applying science practices, discovery, iteration, and collaboration. The project mission is for students to gain an intuitive understanding of the crucial interdependence between the health of humans and the health of the natural environment. Most importantly, students learn about science in the same way as scientists – by doing real experiments and analyzing real data.”

Give me your DNA and I tell you what you are!

One impressive DNALC project is the Urban Barcode Project (UBP). “DNA barcoding allows non-experts to objectively identify species once a DNA barcode is established. Just as the unique pattern of bars in a universal product code (UPC) identifies each consumer product, a “DNA barcode” is a unique pattern of DNA sequence that identifies each living thing.”, Christine explains to us.

Her students come up with their own projects and use DNA barcoding to determine organisms or even identify novel DNA barcodes which are published with the students as authors. Thus the data is freely available for use by other researchers. To make unhandy scientific software, cumbersome databases and highly complex knowledge accessible to kids, the DNALC develops easy-to-use web-based tools.

Christine Marizzi: We develop frameworks making it easy for teachers to implement hands-on learning and we provide multimedia learning materials for biology education. The DNALC’s Internet development effort was recognized with a 2012 Science Magazine Prize for Online Resources in Education. “

One such bioinformatics workspace is DNA Subway for open access DNA analyses. This bioinformatics platform is based on the metaphor of a subway line which can be used as step-by-step introduction. A user-friendly DNA subway ride provides tools to visualize sequencing data, identify DNA variations and to put the results in a larger context. If a new DNA barcode is identified, a stream-lined tool makes it easy for students to publish data that meets standards of the scientific community. However, the Urban Barcode Project has so far revealed not only new barcodes but also surprises.

Christine Marizzi: The DNA barcoding projects have produced many interesting results! In 2012, the grand prize winners of our NYC Urban Barcode Project competition found that the ginkgo capsules they tested had no ginkgo DNA, but plenty of rice DNA. The same results were later supported in 2015 by the New York State Attorney General, which has ordered GNC, Walmart, Walgreens, and Target to cease and desist selling a number of herbal supplements because DNA barcoding tests showed they did not contain the advertised plant. Another project used DNA barcoding to study the worldwide trade of seahorses on eBay and at local NYC markets to check whether vendors abide by trade regulations or sell endangered species. Eric won the 2014 UBP grand prize after presenting his results that several vulnerable species of seahorses are sold internationally and domestically, and that most domestically traded seahorses are under the 10 cm size protection limit.”


Amateurs and professionals: Can they pull on one string?

Science often has an ambivalent relationship to the involvement of laypersons. It is one aspect to give people the chance to understand science, but a whole other story to let them participate in the scientific process. Can citizens assist science, and can they produce reliable and valuable data?

Christine Marizzi: I think that this has changed with the current worldwide Citizen Science movement. Strong signs for a push in this direction are services provided by the American Citizen Science Association and the promotion of Responsible Research and Innovation by EU research and innovation policy. The Citizen Science movement advocates an inclusion of non-specialists in the research process that demands interaction between lay people and researchers. On the institutional level, many initiatives have been developed by science centers, museums, and science communication departments to bring people closer to the processes and questions of scientific inquiry through festivals, discussion platforms, TV shows, and science fairs. On the other hand, a vibrant DIY, hacker, and maker scene is growing exponentially, with scientifically and technologically literate citizens challenging institutional ownership of the research process and influencing innovation. Science communication and engagement initiatives have made much progress in engaging non-scientific communities. It starts with increasing scientific literacy and offering hands-on experiences to add data to the shared knowledge of the scientific community. Examples of dynamic connections being made between science and society are BioBlitz initiatives, in which teams of volunteers work together to find and identify as many species as possible. A common challenge for this type of collected data is how useful it is for the scientific community. While data analysis is simplified by apps such as iNaturalist that allows uploading of captured pictures, the participating Citizen Scientists can identify a species only by phenotype, meaning only by looking at it, and most probably with help from research scientists trained in taxonomic keys. Those initiatives can be combined or replaced with DNA barcoding that allows non-experts to identify species based on their DNA sequence. Covering the full range of biodiversity that cannot be captured by mere phenotyping, and by using the same tools at the same time as research scientists, the produced data is of high quality and value for the scientific community. This is very empowering and students in our program appreciate having fun while doing something important.”

Some people argue that there is a risk of giving laymen access to genetic manipulations.

Christine Marizzi: Not necessarily. Science outreach institutions like the DNALC or community labs like Genspace NYC that give access to simple labs covering genetic manipulation are working under high safety guidelines. This includes providing an appropriate lab space, working only with certain organisms and non-caustic reagents, a scientific advisory board that evaluates and approves projects and experts overseeing all activities performed in the lab. Plus, there is only so much you can do at a kitchen table at home, as most science sounds easier than it is and needs reagents that are expensive, not that easy to purchase and to handle. Nevertheless, the DIY Bio scene has brought us fantastic projects, valuable discussions, amazing BioArt and very low cost scientific tools such as 3D printers or portable labs. I predict DIY bio will continue being a strong player and I actively seek collaborations with community labs.

Community labs like the DNALC and Genspace seem to flourish in the US. Although the number of citizen science projects in Austria is increasing, projects are focusing mostly on collecting data. Community labs that are required for people to work genetically are still sparse.

Christine Marizzi: The most obvious cultural difference is that the US embraces genetic engineering, including genetic engineering of food, while Austria is traditionally more skeptical. For my work as science educator this meant certain labs would not have been possible at the Vienna Open Lab. I have also experienced that science education is taught way more hands-on in the US. An experimental study showed that students who did hands-on biotech labs scored almost one grade higher on quizzes of required Biology content tests than students who did the recommended pen-and-paper lab. In addition, hands-on learning is ideal for English language learners, giving first generation immigrants and other underrepresented minorities in science a real entry point into science. Growing up in Austria I wish I had this kind of early access to virtual or hands-on education, and this is one more reason why institutions like the Vienna Open Lab, Open Science and TEDxVienna are so important.”

Photo credit: Cover image by Pixabay

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About Lisa Landskron

Being a scientist in the field of molecular biology & leading the TEDxVienna Blogger team, Lisa loves to do biochemical as well as digital experiments to create and spread ideas.

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