Midtown Raleigh News

Behind the globe, research booms in downtown Raleigh

Every day, Arielle Parsons heads to her laboratory at the Museum of Natural Sciences to conduct her research on chicken coop predators – with thousands of people watching.

She works in the Biodiversity Research Lab, and with 220,000 visitors streaming past since the doors opened in April through the end of May, she’s gotten to practice an unusually interactive breed of science.

“It’s nice to kind of have this interaction, because we’re doing citizen science here, and this way you know who you’re doing it for and who you’re doing it with,” Parsons said.

For museum-goers, the new Nature Research Center at the Museum of Natural Sciences is an exciting, hands-on place to visit, learn from and leave after a few hours. Parsons is just one of the researchers who help anchor the dynamic, real-world atmosphere by making the museum their scientific workplace.

Three times a day, in-house researchers give presentations in the giant globe of the SECU Daily Planet Theater. Every afternoon, the Window on Animal Health lures visitors to the second floor to see veterinary procedures in action.

Since the museum opened, it’s not just ticket sales that have been busy. Here’s a look at the research that’s been going on behind the iconic globe on West Jones Street.

Martian meteorite in the Astronomy Research Lab: They know it’s from Mars because the gases trapped inside have the same composition as the atmosphere on the red planet, said museum spokesman Jonathan Pishney. Thin slices show a beautiful mix of the minerals olivine and pyroxene. Researchers are also examining the Allende meteorite, a 4.6 billion-year-old relic from the start of the solar system.

Lemur armpit bacteria in the Genomic Research Lab: Yes, you read that right. Lemur expert Julie Horvath plans to investigate the particular biology of lemur armpits and compare the bacteria there to that found in humans and baboons. The idea is to learn more about the evolution of bacteria, how it behaves and how it ends up where it does.

Parsons’ work on chicken coop predators: She has recruited volunteer chicken-owners in urban, suburban and rural areas to set up remotely triggered camera “traps” outside the coops and in a separate control area nearby. Any moving animal triggers the traps, allowing Parsons to document the species and concentration of predators.

Analyzing the data will help determine whether chicken coops attract predators, as well as provide important information in case of rabies outbreaks in the area. That means sorting through hundreds of photos, but thanks to her unique glassed-in workplace, Parsons doesn’t have to do it alone. She sometimes invites visitors to help her look through the photos and catalogue the species seen – a collaborative process she calls “citizen science.”

“For myself, this means being able to investigate the potential power of citizen science for answering these questions,” Parsons said. “When you have the power of citizen science to help you, the data you collect can be massive, so you get more precise answers to your questions.”