I had a chemistry set growing up. It was small with tiny white bottles holding dry chemicals that sat perfectly on the four tiny shelves of an orange plastic rack. My dad would let me use the workbench in the basement to do experiments - entirely unsupervised!! You might expect that I did really interesting chemical reactions, and this formative experience helped me to develop into the curious scientist that I am today. Completely wrong. I remember following the instructions, mixing the chemicals, and then getting stuck because I didn't have a Bunsen burner. So many chemical reactions rely on heat, and the green candle stuck to the white plastic top of an aerosol hairspray can wasn't going to cut it.
My main options for doing science as a kid revolved around my failed chemistry experiments, my tiny microscope and slides, and a butterfly net that never netted a single butterfly (not for lack for trying). However, today with computers (that's right - no computer growing up - that's how old I am!) there are hundreds if not thousands of ways for people to get involved in science, without having to invest in a Bunsen burner. This citizen science movement, relies on amateur or nonprofessional scientists crowd-sourcing scientific experiments. I'm talking large scale experiments run by grant-funded university-based scientists that have the possibility of really affecting how we understand the world around us. One example you may have heard about is the now defunct Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) which used people sitting at their computers to analyze radio waves looking for patterns that may be signed of extraterrestrial intelligence. They didn't find anything, but it doesn't mean that they wouldn't have if the program had continued!
Here are five ways that you can become involved in science from where you're sitting right now!
1. American Gut: Learn about yours (or your dog's) microbiome
For $99 and a sample of your poop, you will become a participant in the American Gut project. After providing a sample, the scientists will sequence the bacterial DNA to identify all of the bacterial genomes that are present in your gut. This study already has over 4,000 participants and aims to better understand all of the bacteria that covers and is inside your body - called your microbiome - and to see how the microbiome differs or is similar between different people or between healthy people versus those who may be sick. The famous food writer Michael Pollan wrote about his experience participating this the American Gut project in the New York Times. They are also looking at dogs and how microbiota are shared with family members, including our pets!
2. Foldit: solve puzzles for science
Puzzles can be infuriating, but at least they have a point to them when you get involved in the Foldit project. Proteins are the building blocks of life. Made out of long strings of amino acids, these strings are intricately folded in your cells to make specific 3D shapes that allow them to do their job (like break down glucose to make energy for the cell). Foldit has you fold structures of selected proteins using tools provided in the game or ones that you create yourself. These solutions help scientists to better predict how proteins may fold and work in nature. Over 240,000 people have registered and 57,000 participants were credited in a 2010 publication in Nature for their help in understanding protein structure. Read more about some of the results here.
3. EyeWire: Mapping the Brain
The FAQs on the EyeWire website are fascinating because as they tell you that there are an estimated 84 billion neurons in the brain, they also insist that we can help map them and their connections. After a brief, easy training, you're off the the races, working with other people to map the 3D images of neurons in the rat retina. You win points, there are competitions, and a "happy hour" every Friday night. The goal is to help neuroscientists better understand how neurons connect to one another (the connectome).
4. Personal Genome Project: Understandingyour DNA
The goal of the Personal Genome Project is to create a public database of health, genome and trait data that researchers can then use to better understand how your DNA affects your traits and your health. This project recruits subjects through their website and asks detailed medical and health questions. Although they aren't currently collecting samples for DNA sequencing because of lack of funding, they have already sequenced the genomes of over 3,500 participants. The ultimate goal is having public information on over 100,000 people for scientists to use.
5. MindCrowd: Studying memory to understand Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer's Disease is a disease of the brain and one of the first and most apparently symptoms is memory loss. MindCrowd wants to start understanding Alzheimer's disease by first understanding the differences in memory in the normal human brain. It's a quick 10 minute test - I took it and it was fun! They are recruiting an ambitious 1 million people to take this test so that they have a huge set of data to understand normal memory.
This is a randomly selected list based on what I'm interested in and things that I've participate in, but you can find a much longer list of projects you can participate in on the Scientific American website. Also, if you're interested in learning more about the kind of science that people are doing in their own homes, the NY Times wrote an interesting article: Home Labs on the Rise for the Fun of Science. If decide to try one out, share which one in the comments and what you think!
Dr. Cathy Seiler is the Program Manager for the tissue biorepository at St. Joseph's Hospital and Barrow Neurological Institute. She has her BA in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Boston University and PhD in the Biological Sciences from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Her research and teaching focuses on genetics, cancer, and personalized medicine. Find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thingsitellmymom