No PhD NeededPosted: January 10, 2013
Sebastian Seung could have hired an army of undergraduates to do crucial legwork in his neuroscience lab at MIT. Even with the help of powerful computers that would have taken years. Instead, he and his lab turned it into a game, called it Eyewire, and 10,000 people played it on the first day. Many are still at it. These players hold all conceivable occupations, but in their free time they are neuroscientists: a prime example of scientists partnering with the public in citizen science projects. Collecting or organizing vast amounts of data might take one or two scientists years, but with thousands of people helping, data sets are complete in months or weeks, and discovery accelerates.
The goal of Eyewire is to trace individual neurons in the the tangles of a mouse’s retina. Many people map the same neuron, and results are averaged for better accuracy. Accuracy against the average wins points, though sometimes a player has to be the trailblazer, the first one to map a new neuron, slowly expanding the map. Collectively, the players turn tangles into data, mapping neuron types, connections, and extensions. Seung is hoping to map the retina as a stepping stone to mapping the whole brain, developing a set of connections he thinks may be unique to each person. This connectome, he says, may make each of us who we are. But to map this vast connectome, the pathways of billions neurons in each person’s head, Seung needed help from both a powerful artificial intelligence, the computer game, and thousands of citizen scientists around the world playing it.
Games like Eyewire are part of the growing phenomena that is citizen science: scientists enlisting the help of nonscientists. These citizens can help collect vast amounts of data or complete work in weeks that previously might have taken years, enabling scientists to have a better and bigger picture of how the world works. Citizen science isn’t a new idea. It got its start in 1900, when Frank Chapman of the newly formed Audubon Society suggested that instead of the tradition of shooting as many birds as possible on Christmas, people count them instead. The Christmas Bird Count still exists, with 63,227 people all over the world counting and documenting all the birds they see in a set area over 24 hours. This bird census data goes to population biologists, ecologists, ornithologists, and naturalists, providing reams of valuable information impossible for them to collect on their own.
The list of projects goes well beyond neurons and birds, ranging from ant studying to whale-song listening. Citizen water monitoring has been around for years; kits are available to test water acidity and pollution. But rain acidity can has also been tested through a citizen science project measuring gravestone erosion. People seen wandering around graveyards nowadays probably have micrometers instead of necromancy tools.
Do you know your ants? images from The School of Ants project
Some projects ask certain people to participate, based on location or job. Sport anglers and boat captains can sign up for the Tag a Tiny Tuna project, to tag and release adolescent tuna, and 1,004 tuna now carry little tags that look like a piece of spaghetti. Right after Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers could help University of Illinois researchers looking at how traffic flows after major disasters, simply by downloading a smartphone app.
Info that can prove very useful can also be fun to collect, projects anyone can do. A dog cognition lab at Columbia wants short videos of people just playing with their dogs. A facebook application known as Piggydemic was created by Tel Aviv researchers to let you ‘infect’ friends with a virtual virus, helping them epidemiologists study patterns of disease spread. The ZomBee project wants people to watch for bees acting like the living dead, to track the parasites that turn bees into zombees. The volunteers for FrogWatchUSA catch frogs and follow their development. Other people chose to watch squirrels for the Squirrel Project or sharks for the Shark Observation Network. Even people who hate biology can have fun playing the game Foldit, which allows citizen scientists to twist amino acid chains around into new protein configurations. And then there is outer space; stargazers can help identify different types of galaxies at Galaxy Zoo or features on the surface of Mars at Planet Four.
All of these projects are ready to launch many long careers of armchair scientists, though there are many projects too involved to be done from an actual comfy chair. There are more projects profiled at Scientific American’s ongoing list, and even more at the Citizen Science Alliance and the Zooniverse. No white coat, PhD, or crazy scientist hair needed to get involved!