NC State researchers enlist the help of citizen scientists

swheeler@newsobserver.comJuly 11, 2014 

  • Get involved or follow Your Wild Life

    Find out more at www.yourwildlife.org or on Twitter, @YourWild_Life. Also, discover the ants living in your backyard by downloading the “Book of Common Ants,” a free e-book by Eleanor Spicer Rice, a collaborator on School of Ants.

CORRECTION: Previous versions of this article misstated the job titles for Holly Menninger and Julie Urban, but have been corrected below. Correction made Monday, July 14, 2014.

RALEIGH -- Scientists ran from site to site to survey ants feeding on planted bait. They evaluated ant behavior, made predictions and deliberated over data.

All of them were under the age of 12.

“Anybody can be a scientist,” says Maddie Vernon, a fifth-grade ant researcher and student at Efland Cheeks Elementary School, near Mebane.

Students like these around the globe are discovering science by participating in Your Wild Life research projects, a program launched by Rob Dunn, a biology professor and writer at N.C. State University.

The Your Wild Life team is telling stories about the microbes, insects, plants and animals that humans interact with every day. The project, underwritten by the National Science Foundation, began in 2011, and since then Dunn and his team at NCSU and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences have launched more than 10 collaborative projects involving citizens in research.

“It’s an opportunity for everyone to collectively contribute to building scientific knowledge,” says Holly Menninger, director of public science for Your Wild Life, in the Dept of Biological Sciences at N.C. State.

The citizen science projects have generated exciting scientific discoveries while at the same time increasing public engagement in science and expanding the skills of scientists.

Projects such as Cat Tracker, Meet Your Mites and The School of Ants have answered questions about animal diversity living on our our skin and in our backyards.

Meet Your Mites scientists collected face mites from people from all around the world attending events at the Museum of Natural Sciences. Using a swab of oil and a metal tool, scientists scraped mites into a vial for DNA processing to identify them and the bacteria they host. By comparing human mites and the microbes living on them, scientists are finding that mite microbes may be associated with the skin condition rosacea.

The School of Ants project has revealed the diversity of ant species living in urban environments and engaged science enthusiasts in the process. Students and public participants from all 50 states have collected ants in different environments using a Pecan Sandy cookie, which has an ant’s preferred combination of sugars, fat and protein. Participants shipped ants to the N.C. State laboratory where entomology experts identified them and evaluated patterns in species distributions.

“I realized through exposure people become interested in science,” said Andrea Lucky, director of the School of Ants project and a former post-doctoral student in the Dunn laboratory.

Kristin Bedell, a teacher at Efland Cheeks Elementary School, got involved with the School of Ants project to engage her students in the scientific process. Kids drop out of science because they do not understand academic language, Bedell said.

“Kids need to learn science in a language kids understand, by experiencing science,” she said.

Thinking like scientists

The project has taught students how to generate hypotheses, collect data and evaluate results, skills Bedell believes are difficult to learn through reading. This process allowed her students to think like a scientist and facilitated their interest in pursuing the study.

“Before, I was not that interested in science,” said Maddie, one of Bedell’s students. “But now I find it much more interesting.”

Public participation in science can also improve the quality of research.

The efforts of more than 1,000 people from all over the U.S. and abroad led to the collection of more than 500 ant samples. The expansive collection effort would not have been possible without help from the public, says Lucky, the project director. Dunn believes he is now making the most exciting discoveries of his life because of the public.

“There are many kinds of science we just can't do without the public,” he said. “The public allows us to see many things we couldn't otherwise, particularly those things that rely on pooling many individual observations and insights.”

The Meet Your Mites project has allowed scientists to collect much more data and ask bigger questions with public participation.

The mites living on our foreheads have illuminated human histories, according to Julie Urban, the Meet Your Mites scientist and assistant director of the genomic laboratory at the Museum of Natural Sciences. By analyzing DNA of Demodex mites living on people from all over the world, Urban has evaluated whether the genetic relatedness of forehead mites reflects where humans live.

“My experience with citizen science is broadening what I see as relevant information in my own practice,” says Urban. “And it’s just fun.”

The Your Wild Life team continues to improve science and education. Lucky and her team have published the School of Ants methods in the July issue of “Ecosphere” to enable other scientists to launch their own citizen science projects. The publication provides advice on how to overcome the challenges of large public projects and develop protocols to meet data quality standards.

Other Your Wild Life Projects include Camel Crickets and Your Bacteria: Belly Button Biodiversity and Armpit Life.

Wheeler: 919-829-8994

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