Penguins, Planets and Pandemics: How citizen science is being used to advance scientific discovery

Digital, Featured, Science, Space 2020-10-27

Life in lockdown has had us all scrambling for something to do with our extra free time. Some have taken up painting or gardening, while I’ve been spending a lot of time participating in various citizen science projects, which have seen a large rise in participation since lockdown began in March.

Public participation in science has never been easier. The use of smart technologies and the internet is ingrained in everyday life and can be used to contribute to scientific research from the comfort of your own home. Citizen science, a term used to describe scientific research undertaken with the help of amateur volunteer scientists, is freely available to anyone, and often all you need is a curious mind and access to the web.

Citizen science allows huge amounts of data collection and classification to take place on a scale that would not be possible without volunteers. This type of collaboration between the public and professional scientists has resulted in a large collection of scientific research being published.

Aggregate platforms such as Zooniverse feature projects from a range of disciplines, with subjects available to choose from including space, medicine, nature and history. Participants can invest as much or as little time as they like, giving plenty of flexibility.

Projects are often simple classification tasks and come with detailed instructions. Humans are sometimes preferred over computers for these tasks as we are notoriously good at spotting patterns (like when you spot a face in your morning slice of toast).

I set out to discover if these citizen science projects are really as simple as they seem. I decided to take part in three projects from different areas of science to find out once and for all if ‘anyone can do it’. Far from the chemistry sets of my childhood, these science projects needed nothing more than my trusty laptop. So, with my projects chosen, my laptop set up and a brew in hand, I set off on my quest of discovery. If you want to get started in citizen science, I have outlined a few of my current favourites, where to access them, and how these simple projects aid key studies across the world.

Penguin Watch
With penguin populations declining worldwide, impacted by climate change, pollution and commercial fishing, long-term studies are required to aid the understanding of these seabirds. Penguin Watch aims to monitor and protect penguin populations, using thousands of volunteers to compile a database of information on the birds. These volunteers identify penguins in time-lapse footage from Antarctica, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia.

Most seabirds spend their time at sea and feed near the top of the food chain meaning any changes in their population could indicate an underlying problem within the ecosystem. The key aims of the project are to determine the effect of different environmental conditions on breeding success and timing as well as to identify why some penguin chicks don’t make it to adulthood.

While clicking on penguins on a computer screen may not seem like a particularly exciting way to spend a Saturday afternoon, I was surprised to find how relaxing it was!

Planet Hunters
Ascending to outer space next, I’ve also been taking part in the Planet Hunters project. This citizen study uses data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to detect planets in other solar systems (called exoplanets) as they pass in front of stars.

In 1995, when the first exoplanet was discovered, it confirmed the existence of planets similar to Earth across the universe. Since then, thousands of exoplanets have been discovered with the help of dramatic improvements in telescopes over the last half-century. Many of these planets resemble those found in our own solar system, however other strange solar systems have been discovered with giant planets orbiting very close to their star (called Hot Jupiters) and planets orbiting around more than one star (circumbinary planets).

Finding these planetary systems allows researchers to investigate the formation and evolution of these distant planets and maybe one day answer the question: are we alone in the Universe?

The Planet Hunters project has recruited human volunteers, the best pattern spotters on Earth, to spot changes in the light patterns of distant stars that could indicate an orbiting planet. Volunteers involved in the project have found over 100 new planetary systems so far. I’m yet to find a planet myself, but the sci-fi fan in me remains hopeful!

COVID Symptom Study
And finally, in what could be the most universal citizen science project currently underway, I have been using King’s College London’s app daily to help track COVID-19 across the UK. In partnership with healthcare company Zoe, the COVID Symptom Study has become one of the largest citizen science projects in the world, demonstrating the enormous potential citizen science has to help advance scientific understanding. Involving the public heightens the social relevance of the research, establishes trust between scientists and the public, and allows large scale data collection to take place in a fraction of the time.

To aid this work, I simply log in to the app every day and spend around a minute reporting how I’m feeling, if I’m experiencing any symptoms and whether I’ve had a test for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).

The study currently involves over 4 million participants and has been crucial in the identification of anosmia (loss of sense of smell and taste) as a symptom of COVID-19 as well as identifying local hotspots. Taking part takes no time at all and has become a part of my daily routine.

I only tried out 3 citizen science projects on this occasion but there were 89 to choose from on the Zooniverse platform ranging in subjects from history to nature. I’m not sure what my next citizen science adventure will be. Perhaps I will find myself on safari searching for giraffes, or maybe head back in time to stargaze under ancient skies. What I do know is that this is not the end of my journey in citizen science!

Have you ever taken part in a citizen science project? Get in touch with @AmyAtNotch and @NotchCom on Twitter to let us know about the projects you’d like to be involved in.