Archive for the ‘In the News’ Category

3, 2, 1…Project MERCCURI Blasts Off to the ISS Today!!

By April 14th, 2014 at 11:40 am | Comment


What happens when you combine professional cheerleaders, microbiologists, and astronauts? The answer is Project MERCCURI and the Microbial Playoffs… in SPAAACE!

SPACE FLORIDA, FL — Today, something  amazing is headed toward the ISS—microbial life from earth!This moment is the culmination of a citizen science experiment called Project MERCCURI (Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Researchers on the ISS), a collaboration between NASA, UC Davis, SciStarter, and Science Cheerleaders.

Watch the launch LIVE today at 4:58pm ET / 1:58 PT on NASA TV!!

There were two main goals for the project. The first involves a huge competition that will take place on the ISS between 47 different microbes that have been collected by thousands of public participants from the surfaces of various public spaces (mostly sporting venues). The microbial competitors will face off against each other to see who will grow the fastest, and the race will be monitored by astronauts on the ISS, using standard laboratory equipment. Researchers at UC Davis will host an identical race using the same kind of equipment on Earth.

The second  goal involves sending 4,000 cell samples to Argonne National Lab to be sequenced by Jack Gilbert. The lab will identify which microbes are present on the surfaces of cell phones and shoes and compare them to other cell phone and shoe samples from around the country. While astronauts do not carry cell phones or wear shoes, they will be swabbing similar surfaces onboard the ISS, like foot holds that they strap their feet into while they are operating the external robotic arms and their wall-mounted communication devices.

You can get to know all of the microbial competitors, who they are, where they’re from, and why they are so cool on the official website. If you want, you can even print your own Microbial Trading Cards. Cell phone and shoe collections will continue through April!

The microbes are sailing into space today aboard Space X’s Dragon spacecraft. SciStarter’s founder, Darlene Cavalier, is on site today at the launch. She notes, “We’re here, in part, as representatives of the thousands of citizen scientists who participated in this important research project to study microbes on Earth and in space!”


Thank you to all who made this project possible. It’s pure proof that the sky is the limit for what we can do in science, together.

For more, follow #SpaceMicrobes on Twitter.

Image: Darlene Cavalier

Citizen Science on the Radio: WHYY Features Spring Projects!

By March 20th, 2014 at 9:54 pm | Comment


Illustration by Tony Auth

This week on The Pulse and SciStarter’s segment about citizen science, producer Kimberly Haas highlights some spring projects that you can get involved in this season.

Spring is in the air, and so it citizen science! As SciStarter founder Darlene Cavalier told WHYY, ”Springtime is the time for citizen science [...] So you can find, in our project finder, everything from collecting information about precipitation to checking out bird nests and looking for incubating eggs.”

Listen to a teaser of the piece below, then read WHYY’s related blog post to learn more about the variety of projects you can get involved in. You’ll find the full audio there.

Here’s where you can help. If you’re a citizen science researcher, project manager, or participant in the PA, NJ, or DE areas, we want to hear from you! If you have an interesting story to share about a citizen science project or experience, let us know. Send your stories for consideration to



WHYY (90.9 FM in Philly) Friday on-air schedule:

6-9 a.m. – Morning Edition
9-10 a.m. – The Pulse
10 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Radio Times
10 a.m. following Sunday  – The Pulse (rebroadcast)

Your Radionuclides and You: Citizen Scientists Can Help Monitor Fukushima Radioactivity

By February 25th, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Comment

The story of a nuclear disaster and what can do you as a citizen scientist to help assess the residual aftermath.

[In the news - KQED Science recently spoke to project organizer Ken Buessler about the radiation in our ocean.]

Three years ago on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami shook Japan. The loss of power that ensued eventually led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant overheating. Four out of six reactors suffered meltdowns, spitting radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and directly into the ocean. 19,000 people died or went missing.

Almost immediately, the news ignited fears of how this would impact marine ecosystem and human health over time. Today, three years later, there is still no U.S. government agency monitoring the spread of radiation from Fukushima along the west coast or Hawaiian Islands.

In reaction to this, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the Center of Marine and Environmental radiation (CMER) are providing the equipment and the facilities to track the spread of radionuclides across the Pacific Ocean. Even further—they’re opening this process up to the public, to you.

How Radioactive is Our Ocean?(official site)is a citizen science project that allows the public to propose sampling locations, raise the cost for testing and shipping of the supplies ($500-600), take samples and analyze 20 liters (about 5 gallons) of seawater for signs of radiation (cesium-137 isotopes) from Fukushima. Everything is provided by WHOI and CMER. There are three main ways that you can participate:

  1. Help the project reach their goal by donating to sample an existing site. Click  “HELP FUND A LOCATION” on the main page and choose to support one of the many sites that are underway;
  2. Propose a new sampling site. Click “PROPOSE A LOCATION” and see what is involved. If accepted(we are trying to get spread of locations up/down coast), we ask for a donation of $100 and we’ll set up a fundraising webpage, add that page to our website, and send you a sampling kit once your goal of $550 to $600 has been reached.
  3. Donate to general capacity building and public education activities at CMER.

Here’s a video showing how you would take samples from locations near you:

How is radioactivity measured in the ocean?

“We live in a sea of radioactivity,” says Ken Buesseler, marine chemist at the WHOI. “The danger is in the dose.” Buesseler spent the bulk of his career studying oceanography and the spread of radionuclides from Chernobyl in the Black Sea. He goes on to explain:

The unit to describe the level of radiation in seawater samples is the Becquerel (Bq), which equals the number of radioactive decay events per second. This number is reported per cubic meter (i.e. 1,000 liters or 264 gallons) of water.

A typical water sample will likely contain less than 10 Becquerels per cubic meter (Bq/m3) from cesium-137. The amount of cesium-137 that leaked into the water as a result of Fukushima was in the penta-Becquerels (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 Becquerels). By comparing the amount of cesium-137, which has a relatively long 30-year half life, and cesium-134, which has a much shorter, 2-year half life, scientists can “fingerprint” the contamination from Fukushima and estimate how much was released into the Pacific.

Is that much radiation significant?

The world’s oceans contain many naturally occurring radioactive isotopes like potassium-40, which comes from the erosion and breakdown of rocks. Bananas, known for their potassium content, release about 15 Bq on average. That means that the radiation leakage was about the same as that of 76 million bananas, to put things in perspective. This is actually around and about (perhaps a little over) the amount of radiation Fukushima was allowed to dump into the environment before the disaster. However, WHOI and CMER still make the case that it would be important to monitor and track cesium-137 and cesium-134 levels in the ocean, given future projection.

Screen shot 2014-02-04 at 9.30.16 PM

Fukushima plume predictions for cesium-137 levels in the Pacific Ocean for April 2016

How are marine species affected?

Because the cesium-137 isotope is soluble, it mixes well with ocean currents. “The spread of cesium once it enters the ocean can be understood by the analogy of mixing cream into coffee,” writes Buesseler. “At first, they are separate and distinguishable, but just as we start to stir the cream forms long, narrow filaments or streaks in the water.” After they form streaks, they blend in and are diluted (think about how coffee turns into a lighter color after you add cream).

Fish and other forms of marine life can take it up and excrete it, depositing it in the sediment below. The marine life most contaminated with Fukushima radiation is found nearest to the reactor, but some species, like Bluefin tuna, are far-ranging and even migrate across the Pacific. When these animals leave the Northeast coast of Japan, some isotopes remain in their body, but others, like cesium-137 and cesium-134, naturally flush out of their system.

If you’re interested in proposing a sampling location to help the WHOI and CMER study the distribution of radionuclides in the Pacific, get started with the project or help spread the word about it!

Image: EPA,


Goodman, Amy. “Fukushima is an ongoing warning to the world on nuclear energy.” The Guardian. 16 January 2014.

Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Leak: What You Should Know

CMER public education links, such as ABCs of radioactivity

Lily Bui is the Executive Editor of SciStarter and holds dual degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine. She currently works in public media at the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Cambridge, MA. Previously, she helped produce the radio show Re:sound for the Third Coast International Audio Festival, out of WBEZ Chicago. In past lives, she has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician.  In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns. Follow @dangerbui. 

Citizen Science on the Radio: The Great Backyard Bird Count

By February 8th, 2014 at 12:08 am | Comment


This is the sixth year Pat Evans will be participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count from New Jersey. (Kimberly Haas/for The Pulse)

This week on The Pulse and SciStarter’s segment about citizen science, producer Kimberly Haas  tags along with local birdwatcher Pat Evans as she studies migratory bird patterns and fluxes in bird populations from New Jersey.

The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place from February 14th to 17th this year, so get started and let us know how many birds you count in the comments! Or “tweet us” (get it?) at @SciStarter when you participate!

Listen here to learn more about how this all contributes to a larger picture! Here’s an excerpt from WHYY’s related blog post:

“All you have to do is bird, either one of the four days or all four days, a minimum of 15 minutes,” [Stephen Saffier] said. “Just look out your back window, count the birds that are there in your yard. You can go to parks, you can go to schoolyards. And you tally that information on a piece of paper and then you submit it online and it all gets bundled up into this data source for Cornell and Audubon.

Recently, Science Matters, a multi-platform initiative to engage the public in STEM media, created a how-to video for those interested in participating in the GBBC this year. Their intern Margaret Carmel gives us a walkthrough.

Here’s where you can help. If you’re a citizen science researcher, project manager, or participant in the PA, NJ, or DE areas, we want to hear from you! If you have an interesting story to share about a citizen science project or experience, let us know. Send your stories for consideration to


WHYY (90.9 FM in Philly) on-air schedule:

6-9 a.m. – Morning Edition
9-10 a.m. – The Pulse
10 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Radio Times
10 a.m. following Sunday  – The Pulse (rebroadcast)

Homebrew Sensing Project: DIY Environmental Monitoring

By February 3rd, 2014 at 12:44 am | Comment 1

The non-profit Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab) previously won a Knight News Challenge in 2011 and received $500,000 to fund a tool kit and online community for citizen-based, grassroots data gathering and research. The second Knight News Challenge the group won, a $350,000 Knight award focused on health data, will allow the group to build and deploy inexpensive technologies for monitoring.

Connections between the hacker culture of the 1970s and emerging DIY science continue with the funding of the Homebrew Sensing Project. Born of Public Lab, this project aims to create low-cost sensor technologies for environmental research and monitoring. Following its namesake’s (the homebrew computer club) lead, this project’s participant composition complicates distinctions between expert and hobbyist or amateur.

The three individuals leading up the project are Shannon Dosemagen, Jeffrey Warren, and Mathew Lippincott. I was able to chat with Dosemagen, also a co-Founder of Public Lab, via email. Situating the Homebrew Sensing Project within the Public Lab’s effort tells us a lot about the motivations behind the project. “Public lab,” Dosemagen writes, “isn’t just a nonprofit that creates tools, we’re interested in creating a community.” Connecting with community organizations, NGOs, and research institutions they have created an extensive network that helps connect with a community and connect communities.

Connecting communities and providing a space for them to interact, Public Lab provides what Dosemagen describes as “a space where people with different expertise can interact.” This is a particularly important interaction among different kinds of expertise, including specialized technical as well as local knowledge, and reflects the efforts of Public Lab, Dosemagen tells us, to “recognize that not only researchers linked to academic institutions bring value and expertise to projects such as this, but that everyone can bring something to the table through the experience and knowledge sets that they have.”

Engagement among experts is demonstrated through the “barn raising” activities, events where members of the community come together to create something (be it tool or tutorials), Public Lab undertakes. Winning a another Knight Challenge means that the group can continue such efforts with the Homebrew Sensing Project. This project aims to address growing concerns about exposure to various human-made hazards and the associated risks, including health risks. To do this, the group wants to create inexpensive tools that can be used with mobile devices, allowing community members to take readings and analyze the information without the high costs associated with traditional lab testing. The group will undertake these efforts by refining their hardware and software platforms and developing new ones. As well, Dosemagen writes that a “portion of this grant will go towards supporting an outreach role and community partners,” which means that further community building and crossing of boundaries between communities will be part of this important initiative. If you’re interested in learning more about Public Lab or following this project you can find more information about the project in their news release.

Public Lab’s Homebrew Sensing Project extends their work on a DIY spectrometry project. The initial project, Dosemagen noted, began a few years ago and publicly “launched in 2012 with a Kickstarter” and the results have been impressive. To date, she tells us, Public Lab has ”over 2,000 accounts on, over 14,000 spectral samples uploaded, [and] 750 members in the spectrometry Google Group.” In addition to all of this work, the group has “shipped 3,500 spectrometers worldwide that range between a price point of $10 and $70,” with the price point being a particularly notable feature in how accessible that is when compared with traditional spectrometers that typically begin at several thousand dollars.

Ashley Rose Kelly is a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at North Carolina State University. In August 2014 she will join the faculty in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue. Ashley studies how emerging technologies may be changing science communication. She also teaches scientific and technical communication courses as well as an introductory course on science, technology, and society. You can find Ashley on Twitter as @ashleyrkelly