How do U…participate in crowdsourced science?

Wherever and whoever you are, you can join in the work of scientific discovery. All it takes is time and an internet connection to join in one of many scientific and research projects currently underway, spanning biology, history, chemistry and more. What else were you going to do with your evening? Netflix?

People who participate in crowdsourced science are important because human eyes and brains can do things that computers can’t, like read handwritten records or classify the shape of a galaxy. So those kinds of tasks are limited by how quickly a human can complete them—unless you can get more and more humans working on the same task. That’s where crowdsourcing comes in. Each person’s relatively small effort adds up to create massive datasets that become part of real science.

How do U get started?

A good place to start is zooniverse.org. There you can find 78 (as of this writing) projects in subjects like history, art, medicine and astronomy, among others.

“Zooniverse is a hub for citizen science research projects, where people can navigate through multiple projects across various disciplines, learn the ins-and-outs of these projects, and contribute directly to projects of interest,” says Austin Green, a doctoral student in the School of Biological Sciences. He uses Zooniverse to help with entering the data he collects from motion-activated cameras that capture images of the wildlife in the canyons of the Wasatch Front.

Sarah Bush, an associate professor also in the School of Biological Sciences, uses Zooniverse to help with classifying photos of parasites like fleas, ticks and mites from 22 museums and institutions throughout North America.

“We have a collection with over 80,000 parasites from around the world,” Bush has said about the project.  “There are slides from extinct birds, new species, and new genera hidden in our collection, we just need help determining what we have. The slides you see may be new species of parasites from your backyard, or they might be a parasite collected 100+ years ago in the far reaches of New Guinea.”

Her project is called “Flea Circus” and you can find it here.

Astronomy is another hot topic in crowdsourced science, as telescope images generate lots of data that need to be classified. Anil Seth, associate professor of physics and astronomy, has used crowdsourcing to help identify star clusters in the far-away Triangulum galaxy and the Small Magellanic Cloud (also a galaxy). His research team is processing the data collected through Cluster Search. Although Seth’s project isn’t currently collecting data, you can join in other astronomy projects, including the popular Backyard Worlds and Galaxy Zoo.

Zooniverse isn’t the only place to find projects, though. Using your phone, you can help chemistry professor Thanh Truong design and test potential treatments for COVID-19. The app he developed, called ViDok, allows users to tweak the chemical structures of molecules and then test to see how strongly they bind to proteins on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.

“Even if we all get vaccinated, a cure for the disease is still not yet available and thus drug discovery for COVID-19 is still needed,” he says. “ViDok enables people, even with little knowledge of chemistry, to appreciate and contribute to the drug design process.”

Find the ViDok app on the iOS App Store and on Google Play.

What else can U try?

  • The Natural History Museum of Utah needs your help with several crowdsourced projects. Help the museum digitize hand-written and printed records, track the movements of the recently-arrived fox squirrel along the Wasatch Front and document nature—plants, birds, insects and mammals alike—in your neighborhood. Learn how to join these and other citizen science opportunities here.
  • Are you a birder? (Perhaps inspired by a previous entry in this series?) Log your sightings and explore records of sightings around the world at eBird.
  • Wondering if the trees in your neighborhood are blooming earlier or later in spring than usual? Head to Budburst to join a network of people observing and reporting plant timing around the country.
  • Feeling more like a gamer than a scientist? Then try Foldit, in which players figure out how to fold a protein based on its structure. Your score on each “puzzle” depends on whether you followed the physical rules of how proteins are known to fold and how tightly you can manage to fold them.