Editorial: Citizen Science in the Great Outdoors | AIChE

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Editorial: Citizen Science in the Great Outdoors


This is an expanded version of the editorial that appeared in the August 2018 issue of CEP.

You might recall from some of my previous editorials that I love being outdoors in nature. So the title of a recent press release was no surprise to me: “It’s official — spending time outside is good for you.” Like many people, I feel happier when I am out in nature. Now I know I’m getting healthier, too.

Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett of the Univ. of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School analyzed more than 140 studies involving over 290 million people in 20 countries. She found that “spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant benefits. It reduces the risk of Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth, and increases sleep duration. People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, and stress. In fact, one of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to green space significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary cortisol — a physiological marker of stress,” Twohig-Bennett says.

A study led by Stephanie Schuttler, a postdoctoral research associate at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, advocates nature-based citizen science (NBCS) as a way to reconnect people to nature. The term citizen science refers to public engagement in scientific research, often during data collection. “Citizen science programs … encourage participants to search for, observe, and investigate natural elements around them,” Schuttler says. For example, she is working with teachers to incorporate camera-trap research, which uses remotely activated cameras to capture photos of wild animals, into the K-12 curriculum, and she will use the student-collected data to study urban mammals.

Schuttler explains that our experiences with nature shape our attitudes and behaviors toward conservation, and that to develop a desire to preserve nature, we “need to not only go outdoors or learn about nature, but develop emotional connections to and empathy for nature.” Her colleague Caren Cooper, assistant head of the museum’s Biodiversity Lab, adds that NBCS “provides a structure and purpose that might help people notice nature around them and appreciate it in their daily lives.”

I had the pleasure of hearing Cooper speak at a recent seminar on the future of research communications. She likened citizen science to Stone Soup — the folk tale about hungry travelers tricking villagers into sharing their food. After the townspeople refused to give them anything to eat, the travelers filled a pot with water, put a large stone it, and put it over a fire, then told curious passersby that they were making stone soup. They offered to share the soup when it was finished, but said that it needed something else to improve the flavor. One villager after another added a small amount of food to the pot. Eventually, the travelers removed the stone — and a delicious meal was shared by the travelers and villagers alike. Just as many villagers made small contributions to the soup, in citizen science, many people contribute data for the benefit of all.

Cooper told us about a citizen science project the museum was involved with — Belly Button Biodiversity. Robert Dunn, a professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State Univ., and his team launched this project in 2011 to investigate the microbes inhabiting the human navel and the factors that might influence them. Volunteers (more than 500 in all) twirled a sterile swab in their navels to collect their microbes, and the researchers sequenced the microbes’ DNA. They found “a jungle of microbial diversity” — more than 2,300 species in just the first 60 samples they analyzed. Six of those species (which they call oligarchs) were present in more than 80% of the samples; many of the remaining species were rare, some appearing in only one navel. Their website has links to interactive charts and Excel files containing the results so any interested citizen scientists can explore and analyze the data.

Citizen science was essential to research at one of my favorite places to enjoy nature, the Grand Canyon. Most of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is accessible only by rafting, making it difficult for researchers to collect the high-resolution data they need to study that remote ecosystem. Theodore Kennedy, an aquatic biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and his colleagues overcame that challenge by recruiting rafting-trip guides, private boaters, and educational groups to help with data collection. Each night at dusk, these citizen scientists set out a light trap — a fluorescent black light placed on top of a small plastic storage container containing ethanol — for one hour. Kennedy’s group identified and counted the aquatic insects in more than 2,500 samples to evaluate the effects on the ecosystem of upstream hydropeaking (the release of water to generate electricity during peak power-demand periods) by the Glen Canyon Dam. The USGS says this type of citizen science “will be critical in understanding how any changes in flow releases from Glen Canyon Dam may be affecting the aquatic insect community that supports the entire food web of this ecosystem.”

I’ll be immersing myself in nature when I hike in the Grand Canyon this month, and I plan to look for citizen scientists at work and opportunities to participate myself. I hope you get a chance to enjoy the outdoors this summer, and maybe collect some scientific data at the same time.

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