Thinking Outside the Lab: The Ascent of Citizen Science

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Lisa Winter

Guest Author

70 Thinking Outside the Lab: The Ascent of Citizen Science

Traditionally, it has been thought that good science can only happen inside of a fancy laboratory with the help of a big budget. While that can certainly help, a growing number of people are making incredible scientific discoveries without the need for university or industrial affiliations. 

As technology advances, it becomes easier to collect tremendous amounts of data with relatively little effort. The problem then becomes not having enough time to process all of that information in order to obtain meaningful results. Rather than have a graduate student or two spend all of their time sifting through data, the processing can be crowdsourced to a large number of volunteers. Millions of people around the globe participate in citizen science.


The volunteers who participate cover a wide spectrum of occupations and education levels. While there are research professors involved with this work, most of these projects do not require any scientific training and can be accomplished from home.


Zooniverse is the largest and most successful website in the citizen science movement with nearly 900,000 volunteers. Since its inception in 2007, over 60 journal articles have been submitted from data processed by these volunteers. There is incredible breadth to the projects available to choose from to fit all areas of expertise, time commitments, and levels of education. 

One Zooniverse project, Galaxy Zoo, was designed just to record the shapes of different galaxies. Upon encountering some unidentifiable objects, a small group of volunteers learned about spectra and signal-to-noise ratios in order to determine try to resolve what they saw. They began to collaborate with the scientists running the project, and some of the volunteers were included as co-authors on the paper when it was determined they had discovered a new class of galaxy. There are now over 20 published articles on the topic.


Robert Simpson, who works Research and Development at Zooniverse, speaks highly about the incredible things that can happen when many people come together that would be impossible with individual researchers. “Galaxy Zoo is successful scientifically because it has so many people look at each object in the catalog. Planet Hunters can only find weird exoplanets because several people find them in the data. Citizen science in these cases is not just some odd way of doing science that has some public outreach involved, it is using public outreach as a research tool.”


EyeWire is a "gamified" ctizen science project that has allowed over 80,000 people from across the globe to map neurons in the retina. Resolving the different number of neurons in the retina and understanding which types are connected will help establish how we have the capability for sight. The project is run from the lab of neuroscientist Sebastian Seung at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

Participating in EyeWire is easy, as it only takes an email address and a short tutorial session to get started. The imaging software used to locate the neurons is good, but not perfect, and the objective is to fill in any mistakes the computer has made by examining individual 2D slices of a 3D cube. Over 80,000 people have helped resolve the structure of these retinal neurons.


Part of the fun of making a scientific discovery is getting naming rights. EyeWire hosts friendly competitions to try to boost participation in a short amount of time. Anyone who completes 100 cubes is eligible to submit a name for a newly discovered neuron, and members vote for it. Earlier this year, Team Facebook won a group challenge and named their neuron IFLS in honor of our own Faceboook page. One of the most recent neurons has been dubbed “Zoidberg,” after the alien doctor from the show “Futurama.” After all, if you need to name a neuron, why not Zoidberg?


SciStarter features a wide range of projects and has a tool to match prospective volunteers with a well-suited task. The topics are much more friendly to the less experienced citizen scientist, who can find easily accessible projects on which to cut their teeth and get excited about performing science.

Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, recognizes that there is a growing number of ways to get involved, which could be overwhelming to volunteers. SciStarter seeks to streamline that involvement.


“You should be able to do at least a half-dozen projects without moving your feet and without logging into multiples websites,” Cavalier explains. “Stand on any given street corner and you can use your phone to measure, record and share environmental quality and noise levels, track wildlife, map phenology changes, measure precipitation or spot roadkill, etc. It wouldn't take you more than 5 minutes to spot and share this information but it would take you a while to find the project sites, login, upload data using different protocols, then track or manage your involvement all those new communities you just joined.”

DIY Biotech

For a more hands-on approach, there are a number of DIY biotech (also called biohacking) labs popping up in homes and communities all over the world. These spaces provide the proper equipment to explore molecular biology through genetic modification of organisms, manipulating stem cells, and to have a friendly place to connect with others and increase knowledge. 

Cory Tobin is a Ph.D. student from Los Angeles who engages in research that is unaffiliated with his regular workload. He doesn't think his community-based projects are much different from his university-affiliated projects, claiming: “it's all science." He says the largest misconception about citizen science is "that it's a bunch of un-knowledgeable people replicating simple experiments who will never contribute to the scientific literature in any significant way. I will concede that there are plenty of people who probably meet that description, but I argue that there are, one: plenty of unaffiliated scientists doing good work; and two: plenty of tenured professors who publish absolute garbage.”  


The basic principles of cellular biology can be learned very quickly, and with only a couple weeks of training with an experienced mentor, anyone can get involved and begin to perform their own experiments.


As it turns out, you can help out scientific endeavors without even having to actively do anything. Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) allows you to donate your computer’s processing power to different number-crunching programs while it would be otherwise idling. Off to bed? Help research global warming. Headed to work? Let your computer model protein folding while you’re away.

There are currently over 80 projects listed that need additional computing power that run off of many different operating platforms. If you’re the type of person who always leaves your computer on, don’t just let it sit there, wasting electricity. Put it to good use!


Get Involved 

There is incredible camaraderie involved with citizen science. Though their backgrounds may be diverse, they are unified by a common interest and the desire to improve themselves through extracurricular research. Zooniverse’s Robert Simpson recalls an instance where a woman was timing her contractions based on how many tasks she was able to complete, cheered on by the rest of the Zooniverse community. 

There is no minimum required level of participation for citizen science. Some of the tasks take only a few minutes to complete, making it easy to fit in to a busy schedule. Many of the video game-style projects are quite addictive and more fun than work. Some projects present the opportunity to master different lab techniques, which can then be added to a resume or CV.

Cory Tobin is quick to point out that accolades should not be the driving force behind involvement. “Even if someone never contributes anything to the literature, they are still benefiting themselves by taking a proactive approach to their own education. I can only applaud them.”


  • tag
  • zooniverse,

  • scistarter,

  • diy biotech,

  • citizen science,

  • crowdsourcing