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September 2007

I, Citizen Scientist

Learn how you can help combat climate change by researching everything from Alaska's Bering Glacier to tracking pumas in Argentina through citizen scientist programs

Our group (none of whose members is in rehab) is typically eclectic. Kaye, the doctor, is a veteran of 13 Earthwatch expeditions. He’s tracked butterflies in Vietnam, chopped down invasive trees in the Galapagos Islands, studied marsupials in Australia, and scuba-mapped a coral reef in the Philippines. At 68, he’s like a science addict on a bender, merrily blowing through his retirement fund to collect as much data in as many exotic locales as he can before he shuffles off the mortal coil. The rest of us are novices. Alice Gamper is a shy 19-year-old college student from Scotland. David Outman, 33, works for a nature conservancy group in Massachusetts. Matthew Goodwin, 48, owns a construction business in the Boston area. Tina Woolston, 34, works at Earthwatch headquarters in Maynard, MA (staffers get trip discounts). Paul Bonazzi, 32, is a high school science teacher from New Jersey. Bonazzi came with his father, 59-year-old R.D., an auto technician.

Each group member has his or her own reason for coming. Gamper wants to get some experience handling small animals before applying for veterinary school. The younger Bonazzi plans to post a daily blog to show his students how real science is done in the field. His dad confesses to a recent environmental awakening. “I’m here to make up for all those catalytic converters we ‘customized’ back in the ’70s,” he says, half-jokingly.

The use of amateur assistants isn’t without controversy. Some scientists distrust volunteer-collected findings. It’s a legitimate concern. Poorly trained or wrongly utilized volunteers can produce data so inaccurate as to be useless. In addition to studying badgers and using volunteers, Buesching and Newman study the effectiveness of citizen science. They’ve found that information gathered by amateurs, under the right conditions, can be as good as, or better than, that collected by professional researchers. The novelty and challenge of identifying animal scat, for instance, can motivate a trained volunteer to find more specimens than a bored graduate student who’s sweeping his 500th test plot.

Our training starts with a brisk 5-mile hike along the Nova Scotia coast. It’s a postcard scene, with pond-dappled forests running down to meet the rocky, windswept shore. But Buesching and Newman want us to see beyond the surface beauty. “Take a look at this,” says Newman. He bends down to pick up some animal poop. “It’s raccoon feces,” he says, picking it apart with his fingers. “See the shell bits? He’s been filling up on mollusks.”

After an hour, the hike becomes a treasure hunt. The group is scanning the ground for scat. We identify deer droppings (which look like raisins). Snowshoe hares (Kix cereal). Porcupines (Cheetos Puffs). Soon, we’re spotting and identifying animal poop with increasing precision. Bonazzi the science teacher is videotaping it for his students. He holds up a fox dropping to Goodwin, the contractor. “Go ahead, Matthew, work your way through that,” he says. Goodwin demurs. “No thanks,” he says. “I’m holding out for something a little more special, like moose.”

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