Archive for the ‘Syndicated’ Category

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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Discussion on Data Visualization through CitSci.org’s Feature Friday

By July 31st, 2014 at 9:10 pm | Comment

Want to learn about data visualization in citizen science? Take part in CitSci.org’s Feature Friday!

 

What: This feature Friday will focus on data visualization on the CitSci.org site.

Who: Anyone who is interested in data visualization in a citizen science setting. Please join our conversation with your valuable input. Researchers, coordinators, and volunteers are all welcome.

When: August 1, 2014 (1-2p MST)

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The Nine Simultaneous Lives of Cats: Cat Tracker

By July 27th, 2014 at 9:46 pm | Comment

Discover Magazine’s September print edition featured an infographic called “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Cats.” Felines seem to lead elusive, mysterious lives. Fortunately, the citizen science project Cat Tracker allows you to track your cat beyond what we can directly observe.

Cats are moody.

In the blink of an eye, a cat can change from aloof to affectionate, playful to predatory, carefree to curious. The myth about nine lives is oddly suitable, but not as nine sequential lives. Instead, it is as though cats have nine personalities which results in living nine lives all at once.

Now their multifaceted personalities make us laugh with LOL Cats.

lol_cats_by_anamalous4_httpbit.ly1AgO0w5

photo credit: anamalous4 (http://bit.ly1AgO0w5)

But the joke is on us. Pet cats remain a mystery living right under our noses. We share our homes with them. We adopt them into our families. And if we let them outside, then there is a significant part of their lives for which we are clueless. Curled up on our laps rests Dr. Jekyll, but out the door goes a stalking Mr. Hyde.

A new collaboration between cat owners and scientists seeks to find out where cats go and what they may eat along the way. The scientists of Cat Tracker are a team of professors and students at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, in NCSU Biological Science (Your Wild Life), and at the NCSU Veterinary School. The cat owners so far are mostly in North Carolina, though recruits are now signing up from many other states, and soon in Australia and New Zealand.

Cat owners outfit their pet with a tiny satellite tracking device on a special collar. Undergraduate Troi Perkins programs the GPS units, fits them into cases that she makes on a 3-D printer, and then visits owners and helps “harness the little fuzz balls.” People outside of the Raleigh area participate in a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) style in four easy steps.

Together, a GPS unit and harness costs about $50. Each cat wears the gear for about a week. Then, while their pets feign innocence upon return from numerous excursions that week, the owners remove the collar, attach the GPS unit to their computer, and download the secrets movements of the silent footed. The cat owners submit the tracking information to a public data repository on animal movements, called Movebank. Until now, Movebank was only used by professional researchers. With members of the public engaging in animal tracking, the amount of information will quickly rise.

motorcat_collar

photo credit: Your Wild Life

Some participants opt to go one step further in their desire to understand their cat companion. They divert the contents of the litter box from the garbage to specimen cups picked up by the NCSU researchers. These fecal samples will be examined for microbes and DNA from the potential remains of wildlife.

To date, Cat Trackers has gathered data on the movement of over 40 cats.  Their goal is to track 1,000 cats.

Troi says she most commonly hears Cat Tracker participants say, “Oh my… my cat has traveled over the highway?!” She explains that people are usually surprised by their cat’s outdoor explorations and curious to know whether their cat is a loner or hanging out with their neighbor’s cats. She say, owners “just want to see if their cats are crossing busy roads, visiting other people’s houses, or going into remote wooded areas.”

Researchers wonder similar things, particularly about visits to wooded areas. Cats are not necessarily as benign as their purring might make us believe. Cats transmit diseases to humans. Cats eat birds and other wildlife. A study by Smithsonian and US Fish & Wildlife Service researchers gave estimates that cats kill at a minimum of one billion birds and seven billion small mammals every year.

Roland Kays, Director of the Biodiversity Lab at the NC Museum of Natural Science explained that tracking at least a thousand cats will reveal secrets “not only about the typical cat movements, but also about the extraordinary ones.  Given that cats are so common in the country, if even 5% of them are moving out into the nature preserves it could be quite harmful to native wildlife.”

Rob Dunn of NCSU’s Your Wild Life explained that “the big result so far is that there are a lot of cats that walk short distances most days and then every so often, for whatever reason, bolt for it often up to a mile before coming right back And then a few cats just seem lost.” On the Cat Tracker website, the cat movements look like starburst pattern in every direction around their home.

cat_tracks_movebank

photo credit: Your Wild Life

As residential areas expand adjacent to natural areas, and become increasingly important for biodiversity conservation and for human wellbeing, conflicts between bird-lovers and cat-lovers escalate. Perhaps more information can help find common ground.

It was over 9,000 years ago when our ancestors started taming nature. First we learned how to turn wild plants into crops. We stored the harvest, but this brought mice. So then, in the Near East, people domesticated cats to function as mousers. We turned wild cats into pets. We’ve bred them to be fluffy and leisurely, yet fierce and playful. Siamese, Tabby, Calico. Their appearances are as different as their personalities. Lions congregate together in prides. House cats simply have pride. An over-abundance of it.

All of our pet cats retain their heritage, balancing a dual identity of being a little wild, a little tame. Cat Tracker provides an in-depth peek into the behaviors of cats, whether predatory, social, or antisocial. Dunn told me that one household with nine cats just signed up. As more owners with multiple cats participate, perhaps we’ll gain insight into the idiom about herding cats and finally come to grips with the futile attempts to control this chaotic group.

This post first appeared at Discover‘s Citizen Science Salon.

Want more citizen science? Head over to the SciStarter portal, where you’ll find 800+ opportunities to choose from.

Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: Patients Who Were Research Subjects and the Doctors Who Listened – the Citizen Science of HIV/AIDS Research

By July 20th, 2014 at 10:21 pm | Comment 1

Editor’s Note: Flight MH17 was a horrible tragedy, with many lives lost, including HIV/AIDS researchers en route to a conference.   In Caren Cooper’s latest Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop, she explains how citizen science assisted with AIDS research, and how AIDS activists were able to become participatory members of the medical and scientific process.  Here, in full, is Caren’s post.

Many prominent people involved in HIV/AIDS research lost their lives when Malaysian plane MH17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine. HIV/AIDS researchers exemplify how scientists serve the public good. A key to HIV/AIDS research has involved embracing a certain type of citizen science.

The rapid advances in HIV/AIDS treatment in the late 1980s and early 1990s occurred because of major changes in medical research brought about by the lay public. In part, AIDS activists were eager to reform clinical trials in the United States. But equally important, the biomedical research community was (ultimately) receptive to this change.

The term citizen science in this blog is used to describe projects where the public engages in scientific research. It is usually through collecting and sharing observations or by coding data online. Citizen science can also be used more broadly to describe ways that the lay public participates in and influences the practice of science. (Indeed, the term “citizen science” was initially coined by Alan Irwin in 1995 to mean just that).

Oraquick_HIVtest_by_Marcello_Casal_Jr

Oraquick HIV test, photo by Marcello Casal Jr

A colleague recently sent me a 1995 journal article by Steven Epstein. Now a prominent sociologist, his article is a condensed version of Epstein’s dissertation research about the social movement of AIDS activists. (For further reading, see his book).

I summarize Epstein’s research in this post. He examined how AIDS activists became seen as credible agents of the scientific community and developed into important partners to AIDS researchers and government officials in the United States.

In 1981, AIDS was recognized as an epidemic. In 1985, the HIV antibody test became available to the public. People, mostly in their twenties and thirties, were learning that they were infected long before they showed any symptoms. But this was long before any effective treatments were discovered. A positive test result was a like a death prophecy. Some accepted their fate; many others became activists searching for a cure.

In the United States, the group primarily seen as affected by the disease were already seasoned activists in making the public aware of gay identity. The homophile movement of the 1950s was followed by the gay liberation movement of the 1970s. The gay and lesbian community had already “demedicalized” gayness. They had redefined their social status, becoming a legitimate “interest group” in the pursuit of civil rights. They had resources, people of influence, funding, a strong public relations arm, lobby groups, and community-based organizations.

This group understood that the future of their health required a close working relationship with scientists. Anything less would be group suicide. AIDS research involved all types of scientists who had strong credentials, such as immunologists, virologists, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, and physicians. How could the lay public improve their research?

The answer was speed. Initially, AIDS activism focused on the FDA and the desire for more rapid approval of experimental drugs and the ability to obtain unproven treatments from other countries. When none of the existing drugs were working, activists focused on the NIH, seeking more drugs to test. It was in this way that treatment activists influenced not only the design, conduct, and interpretation of clinical trials, but also the speed in which they were carried out. The timeframe for testing the safety and efficacy of AIDS drugs was reduced, counted in months, rather than years. 

Treatment delayed was treatment denied. By 1987, more than 46,000 Americans were infected with HIV and over 13,000 had died from AIDS.

Storm_NIH_die-in_1990_National_Institutes_of_Health_Library_Branson_Collection

Storm the NIH “die-in” in 1990, National Institutes of Health Library, Branson Collection

To take one example, Mark Harrington, a script writer with no scientific background, epitomizes the involvement of AIDS activists in science. Like other activists, Harrington helped ACT UP to organize demonstrations. In 1988, it was “Seize Control of the FDA.” On May 21, 1990, it was “Storm the NIH.” These protests drew attention, but a more nuanced discussion of scientific practices was needed. Activists did not want to be victims, or be powerless or oppressed. They wanted to help discover treatments, even if that meant trying lots of drugs that did not work. Harrington responded by learning the technical details of AIDS, until he could participate knowledgeably in scientific discussions. By 1992, Mark delivered his first plenary at the Eight International AIDS conference.  He began co-authoring peer-reviewed papers, and continued to publish for years (including, for example, a 2006 paper in PLOS Medicine).

How did Harrington go from street demonstrator to scientific collaborator? AIDS activists like Harrington took a four-pronged strategy to gain credibility and authority.

Abacavir_(Ziagen)_300mg_by_Bastique

Activists learned medical language: Abacavir, now used to treat HIV and AIDS, is a nucleoside analog reverse transcriptase inhibitor; photo by Bastique

First, influencing drug testing required a working knowledge of pharmaceutical companies and government. To be successful, the activists had to learn to speak the language of the researchers and learn the culture of medical science. Activists learning about biomedical research found it similar to learning a foreign language and entering another country. Immersion was best. This meant attending scientific conferences, critiquing research projects, even being tutored by scientists. They would read a protocol, learn as much as possible about how the drug is known to work, learn about virology, immune systems, statistics, as well become familiar with the regulations just like an informed patient. Harrington prepared a 50-page dictionary of the vocabulary. Soon activists could talk about viral assays, reverse transcription, cytokine regulation, epitope mapping. Once activists spoke the language, scientists were receptive to discussions.

Second, activists presented themselves as informed, knowledgeable representatives – voices of people who were suffering with AIDS/HIV. Researchers wanted to work with activists too because then they could better ensure that enough people would enroll in their treatment trials and comply with protocols. Activists brokered the relationship between researchers and patients.

Third, activists linked arguments about scientific methodological to moral arguments. For example, early trials were of middle-class white men, but affected populations included injection drug users, people with hemophilia, women, minorities, and heterosexuals. Activists conceived of experimental treatments as a social good to which everyone should have equal access. The history of clinical trials in the United States is full of stories of abuse, lack of informed consent, and people unknowingly exposed to risk and harm. Activists shifted discourse to emphasize the right of human subjects to assume the risks of experimental therapies and to be informed partners in scientific methods. They wanted policy that was credible both morally and scientifically.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, activists were taking sides in debates about clinical trials. Before activists took sides, most researchers performed only randomized, controlled, clinical trials with particular methods that did not allow research subjects to have access to potentially helpful treatment.

People who already tried one treatment would be excluded from tests of a new treatment in the name of “clean data.” But not all researchers believed in clean data. The world, after all, is messy and many researchers thought drugs should be tested in real-world situations.  Activists favored the pragmatic “messy” practice. They feared the “fastidious” practice of clean data from homogenous groups because it prevented terminally-ill patients from trying new treatments.  Activists argued that the only way to obtain clean data in a messy world was to unfairly manipulate and control people. But you could, they and scientist-allies argued, get reliable answers quickly in the real-world if there was a change in clinical trials.

Underlying the four-prong strategy is the basic premise that AIDS clinical trials function simultaneously as research and medical care.

After constant efforts, AIDS activists gained authority, which usually only comes from academic degrees and institutional affiliations. They went from diseased victims to activist-experts. They became citizen scientists.

Today such activists are voting members of NIH committees that oversee drug development.

They are representatives at FDA advisory committee meetings where drugs are considered for approval.

They serve on institutional review boards of hospitals and research centers.

And, like many of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines flight 17, they fly to global conventions on AIDS research.

Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop: Does citizen science get lost in translation?

By July 14th, 2014 at 9:35 pm | Comment

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Every week, Caren Cooper’s Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop delves into relevant citizen science topics.  During a recent trip to Italy for a citizen science summer course, Caren discovered the challenges of communicating about citizen science.  While the definition itself is open to interpretation, the word “citizen science” is also not a universally-known term.  In the spirit of citizen science, Twitter was crowdsourced for translations, and nine different ways to say citizen science were summarized.

Caren ended the blog with the following question:

Do you know of the use of the term citizen science in other languages? In which languages does it translate? Where does it not translate?

You can share your responses in the comments section of her blog, or in the comments below.