Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

We want your germs! For Citizen Science!

By April 10th, 2015 at 5:00 am | Comment

Photo: CDC

Microbes are germs and they are everywhere! Most are good for you. Some are not.

Learning more about microbes (where they live, how they behave) can teach us more about their influence on diseases, cures, and our entire ecosystem.

Here are five microbial citizen science projects you can do now.

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Citizen Scientists Keep Watch for New Epidemics

By December 2nd, 2014 at 7:53 pm | Comment

Iain Wanless / Flickr. Dying crows were one early sign of West Nile Virus entering North America

Iain Wanless / Flickr. Dying crows were one early sign of West Nile Virus entering North America

In 1999, crows began dropping dead in the United States. A crow here, a crow there – nobody thought much of it at the time, says Joshua Dein, a veterinary scientist working with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But this was the precursor to outbreaks of the West Nile Virus in North America. Since scientists knew the virus infected crows at a near 100% mortality rate, Dein says it is possible public health officials could have been forewarned about the oncoming virus had someone been monitoring the crow situation.

But this is a goal easier said than done. Early detection of disease events that affect wildlife is often difficult to achieve because sometimes the evidence is diffuse and hard to collect. “When you have hundred dead ducks in one place that usually gets attention. You usually when you get ones or twos – not so much,” Dein says. Read the rest of this entry »

5 Citizen Science Projects to Keep You Healthy!

By November 10th, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Comment

These projects are sure to go viral!  

Flu activity is expected to increase in the coming weeks. What can you do about it? For starters, get your flu vaccine (the CDC recommends an annual flu vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older). Then, get involved in our editors’ list of citizen science projects designed to study viruses and bacteria, including a couple that track sickness in wild animals and plants.

Sign up for a Do-It-Yourself saliva collection system to use at home when you feel sick. Samples will be analyzed at a central laboratory that checks for 20 different viral infections. Log on to see your own lab results and those of people near you. Get started!

Help scientists monitor the flu as it spreads across the UK and nine other European countries. Report your flu-like symptoms on a weekly basis, online. Get started!

The Wildlife Health Event Reporter

Report sightings of sick or dead wildlife to help prevent wildlife disease outbreaks that may pose a health risk to people, too. These researchers hope to harness the power of the many eyes of the public to better detect wildlife disease phenomenon.  Get started!


Plants get sick, too! Help scientists identify plant cells that “clump” together by looking at these online images. Clumping usually means there’s a bacterial infection which can be devastating for plants and seriously compromise crops.  Get started!



Malaria is a prevalent and killer disease in poorer countries. Scientists are trying to discover new drugs to target new proteins in the parasite. This project aims to find these new targets.Donate your computer power to aid in antimalarial drug research. Get started!


Project Image Credits (In order): GoViral, DOD, Wildlife Data Integration Network, Clumpy, Wikimedia Commons

When Dog Vomit Smells Delightful

By October 1st, 2014 at 10:15 am | Comment

What can a change in our capacity to smell can tell us about our health? (Image credit: PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay CC0 )

Editor’s note: The Smell Experience Project is one of more than 800 projects on SciStarter. Use our project finder to search and participate in citizen science that interests you!

I hate the smell of a mall. Everything reeks of that seemingly incurable lust for stuff—‘buy me, buy me’ is the cry. It’s as if the building is overdosing on the smell of money, and perspires that sickly-sweet perfume. You can lick it off the air. But that’s just me—my daughter loves it.

It’s not accidental. There are firms who research and provide signature scents for companies like Tommy Hilfiger. recently reported on this. And if you didn’t know that, consider this: scientific papers have been published that actually test the impact of ambient odors on mall shopper’s emotions, cognition and, wait for it… spending!1  The authors concluded that the cognitive theory of emotions explains the influence of ambient scent best, and they went on to discuss managerial implications. I guess if LL Bean could manage that I would become more entranced with the idea.

Recently, the Smell Experience Project, a citizen science project that tested volunteers for a change in odor perception, published its findings. Imagine that you walked into Macy’s and smelt something like dog vomit, but it was the actual signature scent—you would know that your nose is misleading you—that would be a give-away. Dolores Malaspina, MD the researcher at The Institute for Social and Psychiatric Initiatives who is using this information is particularly interested in what a change in olfaction or odor perception actually tells physicians and psychiatrists. She says, “We have a large amount of publications showing that olfaction is related to symptoms and cognition in schizophrenia and that there are strong sex differences in cases and controls. In the disease we have appreciated olfaction as an indicator of higher cognitive control, in addition to olfactory specific mechanisms and regions. We can use profiles of olfactory function to address the heterogeneity of schizophrenia, that is, to find different subgroups of cases.”

Another question that can’t be ignored is whether the deficits in olfactory perception could be a cause of behavioral distress or disorders. To address this question Malaspina and colleagues conducted an Internet based study of 1000 people reporting a change in olfactory function2. She says the results were intriguing, “They showed that olfactory dysfunction substantially impacts a person’s quality of life, despite being of little concern to treating physicians.” The results show that olfactory stimulation and processing may help maintain a healthy brain, and people who loose their sense of smell may experience emotional consequences.

While there may be less practical problems associated with impaired or distorted odor perception than with impairments in visual or auditory perception, many affected individuals report experiencing olfactory dysfunction as a debilitating condition. Smell loss-induced social isolation and smell loss-induced anhedonia (the inability to experience social enjoyment) can severely affect quality of life.

I might mention that Discover has published a long list of Malaspina’s work, and she notes that, “Discover was also one of the first magazines to take my findings on paternal age and psychiatric illness seriously. They published this in an article by Josie Glausiusz entitled Seeds of Psychosis in the 2001 edition.”

Changes in odor perception can be a symptom of a condition, such as depression, head injury, dementia, or allergies, or a side effect of medication. Because the changes are subjective and difficult to measure, medical professionals often do not ask patients about changes in their sense of smell. As a result, there is little documented information about these changes. With the Smell Experience Project researchers successfully turned to the public for their help to better understand how changes in sense of smell can serve as an important and useful health indicator.


  1. Impact of ambient odors on mall shoppers’ emotions, cognition, and spending – A test of competitive causal theories Jean-Charles Chebat, Richard Michon, Journal of Business Research, 2003.
  2. Hidden consequences of olfactory dysfunction: a patient report series Keller and Malaspina, 2013

Categories: Health

Exploring Citizen Science

By August 1st, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Comment

This post, written by Christine Nieves, originally appeared on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Pioneering Ideas blog.  Check out the citizen science projects mentioned in the post, such as: FoldItSound Around You, and FightMalaria@Home.

Christine Nieves / RWJF

Christine Nieves / RWJF

I remember the distinct feeling of learning about Foldit. It was a mixture of awe and hope for the potential breakthrough contributions a citizen can make towards science (without needing a PhD!). Foldit is an online puzzle video game about protein folding. In 2011, Foldit users decoded an AIDS protein that had been a mystery to researchers for 15 years. The gamers accomplished it in 3 weeks. When I learned this, it suddenly hit me; if we, society, systematically harness the curiosity of citizens, we could do so much!

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