National Citizen Science Day is April 14. Here are three ways to get involved.

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At its heart, so much about the scientific discoveries that have moved human civilization forward comes down to one thing: data.

For hundreds of years, this paradigm has ruled the scientific process – scientist collects data, scientist analyzes data, scientist comes to conclusion based on that data. But many of today’s scientists are turning to an invaluable tool for gathering data sets that are orders of magnitude larger than what they could collect by themselves or with their research team: ordinary folks, non-scientists who are willing to do the legwork because they simply want to be involved.

Scientists utilizing volunteers to amplify their data-collection efforts is known as citizen science, and researchers across the planet (and even in space, just ask NASA) are using Regular Janes and Regular Joes to do everything from collecting samples of the microbes in and on our bodies (University of California at San Diego’s American Gut project) to studying and reporting the numbers of birds at our feeders (Cornell’s Project Feederwatch).

A trio of Western Washington University professors are working on projects that involve citizen science. And given that April 14 is National Citizen Science Day, maybe this is the perfect time for you to get involved in science that means something to you.

Watermelon snow

Did you know that algae lives in snow? Every year as winter slowly gives way to spring and alpine snowfields across the Cascades and Olympics begin to melt, Chlamydomonas nivalis, a species of green algae that thrives in freezing water, makes its appearance. In addition to the green chlorophyll pigment that all algae has, this species also has a red pigment, and a bloom of this algae can turn whole snowfields pink – hence the name, “watermelon snow.”

WWU Assistant Professor of Biology Robin Kodner tracks watermelon snow colonies and is working to better understand the species’ ability to evolve.

“It’s easier to study evolution in algae, because they have large populations and reproduce quickly,” Kodner says. “This will help us develop a good model for understanding how organisms respond and evolve in changing environments.”

WWU Assistant Professor of Biology Robin Kodner enlists the help of graduate students and the public in collecting samples of algae that turn snow pink. (Courtesy of Robin Kodner)
WWU Assistant Professor of Biology Robin Kodner enlists the help of graduate students and the public in collecting samples of algae that turn snow pink. (Courtesy of Robin Kodner)

Kodner enlists climbers, guides, hikers, and budding naturalists to assist in her research by collecting snow samples and sending them to her in a kit that she will send to participants. Learn more at kodnerlab.wordpress.com/citizen-science.

The Coastal Almanac project

WWU Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Marco Hatch in Western’s Huxley College of the Environment is working on a citizen science initiative called the Coastal Almanac in which residents of coastal areas answer questions important to their community.

“Under this model, these communities won’t have to be passive consumers of information – they will be the primary researchers and the active participants in the process, as well as the stewards of the data once the process is complete,” he says.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Coastal Almanac, which Hatch is working on with peers at Oregon State and University of Washington, is based on putting the research process into the hands of non-scientists, whether it is a query about the impact of global sea-level rise or a better understanding of how ocean acidification might affect local shellfish populations.

“We can all be scientists. What we want to show with the Coastal Almanac is the inherent connection between the geosciences and these communities,” he says.

To find out more about the Coastal Almanac project, contact Hatch at marco.hatch@wwu.edu.

Cyanoscope

Robin Matthews, director of Western’s Institute for Watershed Studies, loves algae; she gets giddy just talking about it – even the types so toxic they can make you really sick.

For example, she says the dinoflagellate protists that cause toxic red tides and paralytic shellfish poisoning aren’t plants, although they look and act like what most folks think of as algae. And neither are the group commonly called the blue/green algae, which now occupy most of Matthews’ research time. Blue/greens aren’t plants or animals; they are cyanobacteria, the only phylum of bacteria that obtains its energy through photosynthesis, and in high levels they can be particularly dangerous to humans and pets.

Robin Matthews, director of WWU’s Institute for Watershed Studies, takes a water sample at Anderson Lakes in Whatcom County. (Photo by Geoff Matthews)
Robin Matthews, director of WWU’s Institute for Watershed Studies, takes a water sample at Anderson Lakes in Whatcom County. (Photo by Geoff Matthews)

After enough days of warm, calm weather in many of our regional lakes, certain types of blue/greens can bloom in numbers that produce dangerous toxins like microcystin, which has been linked to liver damage and possible liver and colorectal cancers; although, she stresses that just because a bloom has occurred doesn’t mean that it’s toxic.

“One of the issues is that, while many people know that algae can be harmful, they don’t realize that the vast majority of algae are not harmful at all,” she says.

This is why Matthews is partnering with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on a citizen science project called Cyanoscope to help people  learn how to recognize potentially toxic algae blooms — which would help local agencies target which lakes to test for toxins.

“It’s identifying a ton of cool new blue/greens – what’s not to like?” says Matthews, who is part of a team of volunteer scientists analyzing the samples. She added that the state of Washington maintains a good site full of regional toxic algae data and info at www.nwtoxicalgae.org.

From the high slopes of the Cascades and Olympics to coastal towns and your local pond, there is a citizen science initiative waiting for your help – and your data. Get involved!

Western Washington University offers a variety of degree options at various locations throughout the state, in addition to opportunities to impact communities. To learn more about how to support Western Washington University and access to higher education, visit foundation.wwu.edu.