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Interviews

Interviewing SciStarter: How to Advance Science as a Citizen

"We’re stronger in citizen science -- and just in society in general -- if we unite and share." Check out our interview with Caroline Nickerson, Program Manager of SciStarter, the company that's allowing everyone to be a scientist and discover more about the universe

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November 6, 2019

SciStarter: the Opportunity Platform for Citizen Science

What is citizen science?

Citizen science is the collection and analysis of data done by ordinary members of the general public as opposed to a professional scientist disciplined in their respective fields. Citizen science projects and programs are usually run by an experienced scientist or researcher, but many times, they would be able to find their discoveries or breakthroughs faster if they had extra helping hands. For those who respect the planet and the value of learning, it's one important way to advance science.

This is where citizen scientists come in: as volunteers, hobbyists, or curious learners, citizen scientists are a critical part of making a direct contribution to scientific research. The purpose of citizen science is to bring connect the world of science with the community to advance our learning about the world as efficiently as possible. Benefits for this include increased learning, community support for science, and transformative experiences for those who want to do their part to progress the world.

Ways to advance science through citizen science projects

There are many ways to help advance science no matter where you are or what your limits can be. Many citizen scientists start finding ways to advance science through examples such as:

  • Observing wildlife
  • Counting species in an area
  • Serving as experiment subjects
  • Identify stars and planets
  • Mapping natural resources

These scientific tasks themselves can be fun for a weekend activity or be a way for people to volunteer and give back to the community. Citizen science itself is unique because it combines experiential learning and helping a noble cause.

How to get involved with citizen science

This week, we're featuring a company that shows us it's never too late to fall back in love with science. Many of us fall out of touch with science when it gets too difficult in school, but as we get older, we recognize science as the field that's bringing us more knowledge about our natural world and how it works.

Science challenges beliefs by seeking truth and encouraging experimentation, and it matters because it's working hard to meet current and future challenges of disease, climate change, pollution, food, water, urbanization, and energy.

Recognizing the gap that stands between scientists and the public, SciStarter is a company that's helping ordinary citizens connect with science research and experiments. Their online community brings together millions of scientists and allows the general public to not only learn about and appreciate science research, but also actively contribute to the progress itself.

Many of the projects on SciStarter's website involve biodiversity, environmental science, astronomy exploration, or medical research, and the platform allows individuals and groups of all ages to find a way to contribute to the scientific process. Imagine the progress we'd make and all the things we'd learn about the universe we're in if we got as many hands involved as possible.

Interviewing Caroline Nickerson, Program Manager of SciStarter

Tell me about your company and how you got started there

Caroline Nickerson and Darlene Cavalier

"SciStarter came from an idea my boss, Darlene Cavalier, had while she was in graduate school. In her work in media at Discover Magazine and in organizing the Discover Magazine Awards for Disney, she wanted to know: was there a place in science for someone like her, without a formal STEM background, to meaningfully contribute? Citizen science, or public engagement in research, was the answer.

Darlene’s my inspiration; I love working with her and admire her work with Science Cheerleader, ECAST (Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology), all of the other realms -- and of course, I admire her work at SciStarter. I came on board at SciStarter in early 2018 to help with our syndicated blog network, which runs on SciStarter, Discover Magazine, and Science Connected blog platforms. Earlier this year, I became a Program Manager at SciStarter, which means I get to do a little bit of everything.

At its core, SciStarter connects regular people to real science they can do, either by collecting data, analyzing data, or even helping lead projects. Citizen science is as diverse as science itself, so anyone of any age anywhere in the world can find a project that suits their needs or interests on the SciStarter project finder. SciStarter also has a number of citizen science programs -- we’re developing a tools database, we host a Girl Scouts journey, maintain an affiliate program so projects can get cool analytics and so users can track impact to different citizen science programs across their dashboards, facilitate school portals for Broward County Schools and North Carolina State University, create curated pages like SciStarter.org/NASA and SciStarter.org/NOAA, bring kits to libraries across the country with our partners at Arizona State University, release a podcast -- and more!

I get to spend my days doing things I care about and helping people find real research they can do."

How close are you to SciStarter's vision of success, and what milestones are you looking towards in the next few months?

"One big thing we’re looking forward to is Citizen Science Month in April. We’re hoping to galvanize libraries and communities across the country to do environment and human health-related citizen science projects in April.

I think the beauty of SciStarter is that we experiment, and so there may never be one vision of success. We just want to get people excited about and doing citizen science."

What are SciStarter's values and missions, and how do you incorporate them into your day-to-day?

"The main value of SciStarter is “Grow by Connecting.”

Research from our partners at North Carolina State University indicates that most citizen scientists tend to do multiple projects. So, it makes sense to have a place like SciStarter where people can find different citizen science projects to contribute to. Everyone benefits -- we connect the people who run projects with citizen scientists who can do projects. And just anecdotally from what I see at work, project leaders who are part of the affiliate program and able to see anonymized data about other projects their participants are contributing can join with other projects in cool collaborations.

Also, users often appreciate being able to go to their SciStarter dashboard and see what they’ve done -- it really brings a sense of pride. The things you learn when you receive and answer emails from the info@scistarter.org inbox!"

What advice do you have for people who want to make a difference in this world?

"Be willing to say “yes” to new things and give them a chance! A positive attitude is key for learning and growth.

Like I wrote for the last question, a saying we have at SciStarter is “Grow by Connecting.” We’re stronger in citizen science -- and just in society in general -- if we unite and share. Try to see people as collaborators instead of competitors."

What has been a moment that made you think "Yes. This is why I do what I do"

"As a Floridian, I’m passionate about mitigating climate change. The work we’re doing with science centers right now to address climate hazards with citizen science really touches my heart.

Essentially, this project, supported by an environmental literacy grant by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for Citizen Science, Civics, and Resilient Communities, honed in on four hazards (extreme heat, extreme precipitation, sea level rise, and drought). SciStarter’s role in the project is to help different science centers pick a citizen science project to address one of the hazards.

Then, we’ll have special instructions about how to do each project on our SciStarter.org/NOAA page. The Museum of Science, Boston has led the way with their awesome “Wicked Hot Boston” initiative. They set up an extreme heat investigation on ISeeChange (note: ISeeChange addresses all sorts of climate and weather events around the globe, not just extreme heat), trained and engaged citizens in monitoring heat, found preliminary results about the geographic distribution of heat in Boston, and then (last week!) had a forum where members of the public did a city planning simulation about extreme heat and had a dialogue with local resiliency planners from Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge.

On a personal level, I absolutely love working with the Museum of Science, Boston team and can’t wait to see what the other science centers do. I think citizen science is the key to fighting climate change, because it helps us understand the scale of the problems and can be partnered with meaningful resiliency planning. As I wrote for Science Connected, “Citizen science is for everyone, and mitigating climate change requires action from all of us.”"

What are some of the coolest citizen science projects you've seen or experienced on SciStarter?

"I love all the projects! I think the affiliate projects are my favorite, because I can go to my dashboard and see my contribution stats. One of the affiliates, Stall Catchers, is really awesome because it’s a gamified way of accelerating Alzheimer’s research. Anyone with an internet connection can play, which is why I love it -- research for a global audience!

I also think Stall Catchers has a particularly special community; many people who play and communicate with each other in the chatbox lost a loved one to Alzheimer’s, and connect on that level. We worked with Stall Catchers and other partners for Citizen Science Day this year, and that was a lovely experience. I think we got a lot of people involved, and there was an amazing research result. Here’s an article recapping what happened globally and an article about what went on during Citizen Science Day at the Microsoft Headquarters.

project image

Stall Catchers empowers people to meaningfully address a problem like Alzheimer’s disease. And along the way, it brings people from all over the world together in a really beautiful partnership."

These are The Good Startup's Top Citizen Science Project Picks:

Be a part of the progress. Start addressing local and global problems for science today at SciStarter.org.


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Thanks for being interested in doing good. Please remember to click the social media icons to share The Good Startup with friends!
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Do Things Worth Doing.

The Good Startup is this ambiguous, awkward brand going through puberty right now. Rebellious, existential - but still a heart of gold - my mission is to still do the most I can to make your life better (and more badass) than it was before.