Social + citizen science meets my porch

The envelope arrived a few days ago. Happy to see that my data loggers from the North Carolina State project known as Your Wild Life arrived. They are tiny metal cylinders, but powerful in their own way. For those of you who don’t know much about citizen science, I’m a volunteer helping gather data for a lab run by Rob Dunn, a biologist and writer. I was lucky enough to meet Rob and hear a lecture from him during the NASW conference in 2012.

Meeting Rob and hearing him discuss the microbiomes of our homes made me sign up for one of his lab projects called “The Wild Life of our Homes.” Rob’s team is collecting data from about 1,000 houses across the United States. When I write “data” you should picture a giant Q-tip.

To help Rob’s project, I had to swipe this giant Q-tip across a few surfaces in my house. The microbes captured by these swabs will be analyzed in a laboratory in Colorado. (Wild Life has promised me photos of this lab.) Just to return to the data loggers – some of us who sampled our homes are gathering additional information on temperature and humidity. (That’s what the two loggers at my home will be doing.)

But my participation in Rob’s project is honestly just part of an evolving interest of mine in what some people call big data. For someone like myself, who writes mostly about medicine and health, big data might have seemed more the territory of computer scientists. But believe me, big data is a part of all of our health lives. Carl Zimmer has written eloquently about this in this story.

Collecting information on the thousands of microbes (and their genetic footprints) in my house may turn out – years from now – to yield some useful information about health. As you may know, there are already people studying the internal (gut) microbiomes of people for clues to how that data may be mined for useful patterns. One of these research groups is also using citizen volunteers – Ubiome.

You can follow both Wild Life and Ubiome on Twitter at @yourwild_life and @ubiome

In Seattle, I meet scientists who are working at this intersection all the time. The Institute for Systems Biology is just one example. ISB has held conferences about the microbiome for several years, and you can listen to archives from 2012 at that link.  On the campus of the University of Washington, there are dozens of people I know who use algorithms to analyze giant data sets related to human health. There is much more to come on all of this.

Theater of the polymers

How much science could our audience absorb from 10 experts with only 6 minutes each? That was the experiment in science communication that played out at the Neptune Theater, a run-down but beloved ex-movie-house near the University of Washington campus in Seattle.

More than 100 people showed up to hear “Short Takes on Plastic” in February as part of a partnership between the Burke Museum and Seattle Theater Group, related to the exhibit Plastics Unwrapped at the Burke. The experiment is about bringing research out into the community in new ways.

During the rapid-fire presentations – we heard about the project to build composting latrines out of water bottles (via melting) and then re-form them using 3D printers. “Think of it (printer) as a computer controlled hot glue gun,” said Matt Rogge, the ex-Peace Corp volunteer who dreamed up the bottles-into-latrines model that somehow reminds one of weapons-into-plowshares.

We heard about Agilyx, a Portland, OR, company that is turning 10 tons of plastic every day into oil. Yes, crude oil. (Plastic comes from oil in the first place, frequently.)

Kim Holmes, another Portland expert, explained that designing for the environment in the first place might reduce how much plastic we use and therefore how much we have to recycle or transform.

Other experts explained the pre-plastic lives of Victorians, and the sans-plastic life that a Burke staffer attempted for one month. “I carried a lot of glass jars around with me in my backpack,” explained Samantha Porter.

Chemical engineer AJ Boydston spends much of his research time trying to create “better” plastics that will biodegrade and will not persist in the environment for 450 years.

Ironically, for a communication experiment audience, it turns out that communication is a key ingredient in recycling. Jack Johnson said people on campus can’t seem to distinguish between the coffee-cup lids that are compostable and those that are recyclable. Johnson helped create a Garbology project on campus, where student volunteers sort and catalog campus garbage.

UW sends the mass equivalent of 667 elephants to the landfill every year. If the lid confusion were fixed, some of those metaphorical elephants could be saved. When an archive becomes available for Short Takes, we will post it here.

Pipettes in lab giveaway

There are people in Seattle who organized a lab-supply giveaway, no kidding, just for the sake of getting those beakers and pipettes to a better home.

One small gesture, on one January afternoon, but it is emblematic of Seattle science. My scientist friends tell me this is not universal. When I interviewed Lee Hartwell, before he retired from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he said, “this city is different.”

When I interviewed Clay Siegall from Seattle Genetics, he praised the science climate of Seattle. I’ve heard similar things from a dozen of the leaders in life sciences – that this region nourishes a culture (pardon the pun) where collaboration is prized.

I would never accuse Lee Hood, the founder of the Institute for Systems Biology, of lacking a competitive spirit. But he won the National Medal of Science recently from  President Barack Obama and Lee definitely has nourished a posse of colleagues and biotech spinoffs from his own work in systems biology.

Do you want other examples? What about the crowdfunding site – Microryza? They help scientists post “wish lists” for research funds.

What I hope to do at this blog is celebrate intersections and overlaps and shares and crowdfunding and seeding and inspiration. Some of that inspiration may come from patients themselves and not researchers.

When I was reporting a story on malaria research, a source told me that the U.S. Army granted some research money for human clinical trials here because “we are known for having a willing public” that will sign up for such trials.

I’ve met some of those patients, and I’ve met many many scientists. I hope to bring you more stories from this Seattle science zone.