As a child, did you ever dream of becoming a famous scientist, but ‘life’ just seemed to get in the way? Or maybe you discovered your love of science later in life and thought it was too late to restart your career? Or even still, maybe you finished a degree but never found a job in the industry, but still yearn to pursue your love of discovering and exploring the intricacies of the natural world?
When talking to people about their current jobs, I often hear the list of barriers, which at the time seemed too great for them to overcome. In actual fact, though, many wished that they had persevered. I simply respond with, “Well, it’s not too late.” They usually give a surprised look and provide me with a mixture of responses equating to: “It’s too late in life to pursue my interest in science, but even if I did drop everything, how on earth would I be able to get into it now? I mean, I can’t afford to go back to university full-time and the current concepts aren’t exactly fresh in my mind anymore.”
This is when I get to tell them the good news. Citizen science is alive and kicking in just about every scientific field imaginable. It's also in need of people just like yourselves! That’s right - the chance to fulfill that childhood dream without even having to make a career change is far more achievable than ever before.
Citizen science is the movement in which members of the public partner with scientists to answer real-world problems. Around the globe, citizen science is growing exponentially and contributing important data to a host of different projects with real and significant outcomes. For example, citizen scientists have contributed to transcribing old ship logbooks to digitise the data, monitoring bird populations for eBird, playing computer games that may help scientists learn more about retinal neurons, collecting water samples to help estimate the health of river and estuary systems for a group called Estuary Watch Victoria, and even participate in the search for the next exoplanet (a planet which orbits a star outside the solar system and may have life) by measuring the brightness of a star using images taken by LCOGT’s telescopes.
More recently, an emerging branch of citizen science includes Australian projects that utilise smartphone and tablet technology to help identify populations of different animal and plant species. There are more than 1,100 active and searchable global citizen science projects listed on SciStarter, all of which are waiting for volunteers like you and me to sign up.
Closer to home, I interviewed Andrew Gray, a co-founder of BioQuisitive, a citizen science project with big plans right in the heart of Melbourne. In a nutshell, BioQuisitive is located in Brunswick and is an open community laboratory that provides a safe environment for people from all walks of life to come and learn about biology and life sciences, and get involved in workshops, classes and projects.
Gray’s journey began just like most of ours. He had a passion and imagination for science but didn’t have a place to express it. It wasn’t until he was asked to start up an enterprise through the Global Challenges Science Program at Monash University that he began to explore the possibilities. While always being a fan of hackerspaces (essentially a shared resource in which a group of members all passionate about a similar field can collaborate), he realised there was no shared science space available. The only similar space in Australia was in Sydney, founded by none other than Meow-Ludo Meow Meow, the director of Biohacker Space BioFoundry. Gray met with Meow Meow and was shown what was possible by being introduced to his network and laboratories. At that moment, the possibility of creating a similar but unique space became a reality.
A little way down the track and after countless hours of hard work and persistence, BioQuisitive is now a thriving haven for citizen scientists from a diverse range of backgrounds. As Gray explains, “… we're breaking the mould here in a country where a paradigm exists in how people partake, who will partake, and where they will partake in science. Just yesterday I had a member of the public, with little to no scientific background, learning and conducting molecular biological experiments by transforming bacteria to do new things.”
While I expected the projects of a new, start-up citizen science movement to have the bare bones in regards to resources and the calibre of projects being undertaken, I was remarkably amazed to discover the opposite was true.
“Members are working on a variety of projects. Bio-printers, isolating and harnessing the power of plastic eating bacteria, using CRISPR to knock out various metabolic pathways in yeast, Microbial Fuel Cells, and renewable energy projects,” Gray explains. “Previously we have even worked on projects in collaboration with Cornell University and MIT media lab.”
Asked about what BioQuisitive hopes to become in the future, Gray says, “Our community is comprised of people from all walks of life. We have scientists in research and academia, artists, musicians, brewers, accountants, economists, lawyers and many more contributing to make this work as a team. It's unreal to me, and I'm still finishing my undergraduate degree, but I feel like this is how science should be practiced.”
While BioQuisitive may not be for everyone, it is one fantastic example of how getting involved in citizen science has never been so achievable. Right now, there are literally thousands of opportunities to be the scientist you always wanted to be.
For more information on BioQuisitive, don’t hesitate to get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.bioquisitive.org.au/
Stephen studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope to further contribute his knowledge and skills to the local community.
Banner image courtesy of Ollie Toth.