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Birds on the brain

By April 13th, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Comment

An adult Red-shouldered Hawk. Photo: Brian L. Sullivan

An adult Red-shouldered Hawk. Photo: Brian L. Sullivan

As spring revs up to full gear, I enjoy taking runs around my neighborhood to enjoy the colorful bursts of flower and bits of cheerful birdsong. If you too have a soft-spot for feathered creatures, consider becoming a citizen science observer for one of these three great projects!

If you live in a city or town, the first project is for you! The Cornell Lab of Ornithology runs a year-round celebration of urban birds. Right now there’s a contest on to see who can spot the craziest nesting place for birds. The funky nests in funky places challenge asks contestants to peer into and over anything they can think of to spot a nesting spot. Any nests on top of a telephone pole nearby? What about in that old woodpile out back? A previous contestant found a nest inside an old tractor!

Sneak up to the funky nest and take a picture (without disturbing the nesting occupants!) then email your story and photo to urbanbirds@cornell.edu before June 1st to be considered.

For birders in the city or country, sign up with eBird, a world-wide, online bird-monitoring program gearing up to collect tons of bird-related data in 2011. Consider contributing your time (or funds) to their amazing effort to catalogue bird ranges throughout the western hemisphere (and beyond!). Over the past few years, the number of observations submitted by citizen scientists like you has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2010 alone, they report that over 1.3 million hours were spent by birders gathering data for eBird checklists!

This year eBird is working to make the collected data more accessible, through animated migration maps and other viewing tools. For now, you can take a look at the data they’ve already collected.

An American Oystercatcher on the Atlantic seashore. Photo: AOWG

An American Oystercatcher on the Atlantic seashore. Photo: AOWG

Finally, for those of you on the eastern seaboard, from Massachusetts down to Florida, keep an eye out for American Oystercatchers with colorful plastic bands on.

The bands were put on by scientists to help us better understand the migration patterns and habitat of these birds to aid conservation efforts. The color of the bling tells you in what state(s) the bird has been banded.

To report a sighting, fill out this online form.

The first class of Citizen Scientists: Student perspective

By April 5th, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Comment

Dr. Stephanie Stockwell helps a student learn about the structure of viruses (i.e., their protein coat) through an origami activity.

Dr. Stephanie Stockwell helps a student learn about the structure of viruses (i.e., their protein coat) through an origami activity.

A few weeks back, I had an opportunity to speak with faculty at Bard College about the school’s new Citizen Science program. This week, I’ve got the inside scoop from the freshmen who took part in the intensive three-week course.

Four students in Dr. Kate Seip’s section of the course were kind enough to share some of their experiences via email. These students cited the professors’ emphasis on practical, real-world application of science knowledge, and their ability to foster in-class discussion as being instrumental for helping them understand the importance of these issues.

Cindy, a budding psychology/neuroscience major, said that Seip and the Citizen Science course have solidified her interest in neuroscience. Though she initially had reservations about spending three more weeks at Bard College during the winter, Cindy maintained an open mind. Indeed, the lack of specific course credit (or grades) seemed to “foster students’ independent quest for knowledge regarding infectious disease and science as a whole.” Her favorite aspect of the course was the laboratory rotation in which students extracted DNA, collected and grew bacteria, and learned about bacteria resistance. Getting up at 8:30am wasn’t even so bad (icy pathways and skin-cracking wind notwithstanding!).

Johannah, a psychology major and cognitive science minor, particularly enjoyed hearing about Seip’s background and why she chose to pursue scientific study. Along with other students, Johannah participated in outreach efforts in local elementary schools as part of the civic engagement portion of the course. In one outreach event, she and others made oobleck with the students.

James, a biology major, thought that the Citizen Science program included “an appropriate balance of lab work, computer modeling, and lectures/information sessions.” He felt that he “lucked out” by being assigned to Seip’s class, as she was “dedicated to the subject material and the program, while being relatively laid back.”

Though James felt that the Citizen Science course could have challenged the students a bit more, he found the lab work was particularly exiting because it was “the most interactive and hands-on part of the program, and it was just an all around fun experience.”

“[Dr. Seip] was dedicated to and passionate about her field, [which] inspired the rest of us to dedicate ourselves to the program. None of the material we studied was dry or boring, and it was easy to see the real-world significance in what we read,” James said.

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The first class of Citizen Scientists: Faculty perspective

By February 10th, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Comment 1

Bard College's first class of Citizen Scientists just completed their three week program.

Bard College's first class of Citizen Scientists just completed their three week program.

As we mentioned in an earlier post, Bard College recently created an intensive three-week program in citizen science to be taken by all freshmen each January. I was able to discuss the tremendously successful inaugural session with one of the program’s instructors, Dr. Kate Seip.

Seip, a postdoctoral researcher at The Rockefeller University, had participated in other science outreach initiatives during graduate school, and jumped at the opportunity to teach freshmen at Bard. Seip was excited to share her love of science with students from varied majors, in large part because “science is inherently interesting – it taps into a curiosity that I think we all have about why the natural world works in the ways that it does.”

Several instructors taught the group of approximately 450 incoming freshman during the three week course. Seip thoroughly enjoyed the experience of teaching in an “incredibly rich environment of like-minded scientists who prioritized rigorous undergraduate education, enjoyed mentorship and one-on-one interactions with students, and valued science literacy.”

The theme of this year’s Citizen Science program was infectious disease. Each topic of the course required students to learn a few science basics, and then house those ideas in the context of a complex society and world. Seip herself was responsible for teaching one section of 20 freshmen students who hailed from diverse majors from photography to physics. She spent 4-6 hours per day with her group, doing everything from wet-lab bench work to computer modeling to analyzing case studies and discussing biomedical ethics.

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Want to “geocache” wildlife? There’s an App for that!

By January 24th, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Comments (2)

Record and share wildlife encounters with WildObs' suite of smartphone apps.  Photo: WildObs

Record and share wildlife encounters with WildObs' suite of smartphone apps. Photo: WildObs

Ever spotted an amazing critter and wanted to tell your nature-loving friends where it was located? Ever wondered where you could view a white-tailed jackrabbit? WildObs is the app for you!

Short for “wildlife observations,” the WildObs website and suite of iPhone and Android apps allow nature enthusiasts to record wildlife observations and then share photos, stories, and locations of these sightings with other interested people. In short, WildObs is working to connect people, places, and wildlife.

Want to know where to find a Bohemian Waxwing? Looks like one was recently sighted near Manchester, NH! Hoping to spot a baboon? Well, another fellow had luck seeing one in Amboseli National Park in Kenya!

Members post sightings and also list their hopes for sightings-to-come. The most wished-for observation these days is the reclusive cougar.

The WildObs iPhone collection, including Naturalist, Observer, Lookout, and Lookup allows spotters to record their viewing events in near real-time and to figure out what species they are looking at. The app uses GPS to tag the wherebouts of your own sightings, and will also let you see what animals fellow WildObs members have spotted near your current location. To learn how to use WildObs, check out their “how to” videos.

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EteRNA: Biology plus videogames equals cutting-edge science

By January 14th, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Comments (6)

Learn how RNA folds, then create your own shapes to test in the lab. Photo: EteRNA

Learn how RNA folds, then create your own shapes to test in the lab. Photo: EteRNA

What class of molecules dominated the primordial stages of evolution, and seems to function as an exquisite operating system for our cells? RNA — the single-stranded cousin of DNA. Scientists suspect that a better understanding of RNAs will allow us to more deeply understand healthy cells, and to design better treatments for those infected by disease. (See below for more RNA info.)

Now EteRNA, a collaborative online game, allows ordinary citizens to help biologists take a crack at solving a challenging RNA mystery, namely: what are the rules governing its folding? Players who assemble the best RNA designs online will see their creations synthesized in a Stanford biochemistry lab!

Drs. Adrien Treuille (Asst. Prof. of Computer Science at CMU) and Rhiju Das (Asst. Prof. of Biochemistry at Stanford) met while completing their postdoctoral research at the University of Washington, and collaborated on another online venture — FoldIt — aimed at understanding protein folding. Hoping that a similar approach could be used to crack the mysteries of RNA folding, they teamed up with doctoral student Jeehyung Lee to create a multi-player RNA-folding game. In an added twist, the RNA that players design is then synthesized in a Stanford biochemistry lab, to see if the folding pattern was indeed correct.

What’s so hard about RNA folding?

“Our computational models are not yet sophisticated enough to correctly predict when a particular RNA design will fold correctly in practice,” Treuille said in an email interview. “It is easy to create RNA designs which computers predict will fold properly, but which will not when synthesized. … We hope that the EteRNA community will be able to put forth a more complete set of hypotheses about when RNAs fold properly, and use these hypotheses to design a set of new RNA designs that fold into exotic, and ultimately medically useful shapes.”

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