Citizen science – Many hands make research work

Read the full story in August issue of Alaska Beyond magazine.

Seattle area resident Laura James spends many hours each year piloting an underwater exploration robot beneath Puget Sound waves to count sea stars, many of which are experiencing “sea-star wasting syndrome.” The syndrome, which has caused extensive die-offs from Alaska to Mexico, may start with a deflated appearance, unnatural twisting and lesions and rapidly progress to loss of arms, softening of tissue and death.

The hairball of citizen science

The hairball is jargon for data scientists. It means a special graphic that illustrates intersections.

When I visited the Citizen Science Association’s first conference in San Jose, Calif., in February, it felt like a living hairball. Every one of the 600 people was already a networker, an accelerator, or somehow a person forced by curiosity to ask other people to help assemble science answers.

There were birders (Loon counters from Maine), microbiologists, physicists and policy wonks.  If some of you don’t know the delicious explosion of citizen science, please detour now to read about games of proteins, games of neuron-mapping, games of whale song matching and thousands of other projects here.

But like catching lightning bugs and magic in a bottle, there were people who thought the very labeling and defining of citizen science might break its tender wings. This first-ever conference tried to find the most common ground between projects and hoped that sharing best practices (and sharing conference rooms) would save some people time and trouble finding the right methods.

I don’t have answers for any of the wonderfully provocative questions I heard in San Jose. But I came home from #citsci2015 (as tagged on Twitter) newly impressed with the collective power of citizens. My own panel about microbiology included two projects where I donated samples: The Wild Life of Our Homes and Ubiome.

Our panel included California high-school science teacher, Bethany Dixon, DIY biology volunteer Patrik d’Haeseleer, David Coil and  Jenna Lang, both of the Eisen Lab at the University of California at Davis, Adam Robbins-Pianka of American Gut and Holly Menninger of Your Wild Life at  North Carolina State University.  Collectively, we bonded most over what  is not known about microbial ecosystems rather than what is known.

Studying the ecosystems that microbes create has been compared to discovering a new Amazon rain forest. It is tantalizing to find out that obese people and diabetic people have different microbes in their guts, but we are far from understanding why.  The microbiomes of individual houses differ, as my panel member Menninger is studying, but we may be years from understanding how and why. We were a panel of people at peace with puzzling complexity.

Imagine every one of the thousands of different microscopic creatures living in your gut playing an unknown and changing role in your life and your health. That’s quite a hairball, and untangling it will take years. I’m very glad to have met the people at #citsci2015 as passengers with me on this journey.

If you are pursuing citizen science in some way, please let me know. I will continue writing about it here.

Sharing my microbial fingerprints

Any day  now, I’m going to get lab results I’ve been waiting months to know. They will tell me something about my deep insides.  These will be maps of  thousands and thousands of microbes that live inside my gut and in my house.

But just like some ancient relics pulled from tombs of lost civilizations, nobody knows exactly how to read these maps yet. I’ll get the names of my microbes and the sequences of their DNA, but I won’t know exactly what the maps mean.

At a public meeting in Seattle on Feb. 25, I’m joining scientist Scott Meschke to talk about the human microbiome.

For more than a year, I’ve been part of two different citizen science programs. Both are aimed at understanding more about our health and the myriad ways we are tethered to the health of the microscopic creatures that share our homes and our bodies. One project sampled my body and the other my home.

While much of these projects happens via computers and online interactions, it began in a face-to-face encounter that I had with scientist and author Rob Dunn. I was on a field trip as part of a meeting of the National Association of Science Writers at the University of North Carolina.  During one stop, Dunn pinned me as tightly as an insect sample to styrofoam display while he talked about microbes. Science knows more about exotic environments from mountains to the sea floor, but little about the  “wild life” inside our homes. He launched a project to collect samples from every state and try to find patterns of meaning there. I sent in my samples to The Wild Life of Our Homes. More than one thousand other people joined me.

Wild Life sent detailed instructions for me. They wanted samples of dust from different parts of my house.  They wanted dust that had not been disturbed for a while, so one sample location was the upper sill above a doorway. The other project, Ubiome, asked me to mail in a sample of feces.  The two projects are separate, but both are measuring microbiomes associated with me. Both have promised results soon.

Researchers have found intriguing differences between microbiomes.  To give one example, people with diabetes have different microbial percentages than people who don’t have diabetes.  Obese mice (and perhaps people) have different organisms in their gut than non-obese mice.  A subset of children with autism seem to have differences from children without the diagnosis, and more mouse research suggests that changing the gut may change the behavior of the mice. Lots of speculation, but very little research that would prove causation.

If you will be in Seattle in February, join me and Scott Meschke to talk about microbiomes. What might I learn from mine? What might we all learn collectively from thousands of samples?

If you are new to these ideas, enjoy an  animator’s vision of what it all might mean, courtesy of National Public Radio.

 Image above used with permission of the Pacific Northwest National Labs. Taken by Janine Hutchison. Green is lactobacillus reuteri, purple is collagen microsphere, and brown is intestinal cell.