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Citizen science: Working on real scientific projects in your home or community

Are you passionate about science and looking for ways to become involved in real scientific studies? If so, you’re not alone! Due to the increasing connectivity of the Internet over the past decade, there has been a boom in the availability of so-called “citizen science” projects, and millions of everyday people have been able to participate in real scientific research. These projects allow regular people to collect data either on their computer or in their communities to aid scientists in making important discoveries in almost any field.

Below are descriptions of just a few of the many available resources! (Remember to ask for a parent’s help using the Internet if you are underage.)

Video games that help solve complex scientific problems:

There are a few fun video games that regular people can play to help scientists; one of the oldest and most popular games is called Foldit. In Foldit, gamers compete to find the best possible ways to fold proteins. Anybody can play, even if you don’t know anything about proteins and how they fold! Foldit players have been credited with many major discoveries, including discovering the structure of a protease from a virus that causes AIDS in monkeys. The structure of that protease had stumped scientists for over 15 years, but thousands of Foldit players worked together to solve the structure in just 10 days!

In EteRNA, gamers compete to find the best way to design and fold RNAs, important molecules the cells in your body use to transmit information and do chemistry. EteRNA players with the best submissions to certain challenges will see their designs actually built in the laboratory of Dr. Rhiju Das, a Stanford professor! After the designs are made, the RNAs are tested for their ability to do important tasks, like killing tuberculosis. EteRNA players have even been featured as authors on real scientific studies! Teachers can find a classroom-friendly version here.

Opportunities to collect data for real scientific studies:

Sometimes, scientists need help to collect enough data to make important conclusions. These scientists turn to citizen scientists on the Internet to help them search for valuable information. One website, SciStarter is looking for citizen scientists who can go out in their local communities to collect data. SciStarter has been credited with a number of important discoveries, including a 2014 study that asked participants to swab shoes, phones, and other surfaces to identify the microbes living in public spaces. Some of these microbes were sent into space to test the effects of microgravity on microbes, and participants even managed to collect a brand-new species of microorganism!

One of the most popular citizen science websites is Zooniverse, an online web portal that hosts dozens of scientific projects. Zooniverse tasks can usually be done on your computer, and they often involve missions like categorizing the shapes of galaxies or identifying color patterns on bird wings. Zooniverse has a community of over 1 million registered users whose work has resulted in the publication of over 100 scientific articles.

Donate CPU time on your computer to scientific research:

Scientists sometimes analyze mind-bendingly large sets of data to look for important patterns and make conclusions. These scientists often write programs to analyze these massive datasets and submit them to supercomputers, where they can take weeks to process! However, there are a limited number of these supercomputers, and it can be hard to get access. That’s where you can help: most likely, you have a computer that you aren’t always using. Scientists have made programs that you can download to your computer that borrow extra CPU time (meaning time you’re not using your computer, like while you’re asleep). When lots of people combine their computers together, it’s like making one giant supercomputer that helps scientists analyze enormous datasets.

One of these programs is called Folding@home. Developed at Stanford, Folding@home is one of the world’s fastest computing systems; it has clocked in at 135 petaFLOPS, or over 7x faster than America’s fastest single supercomputer and 45% faster than the fastest single supercomputer in the world (Sunway TaihuLight in China)! This computing power has allowed researchers to simulate the folding of long, complex proteins at unprecedented speeds and has resulted in the publication of 139 scientific articles.

Another option is Berkeley’s BOINC, which is a platform for volunteer computing. Volunteers can choose from dozens of available projects to donate computing time. BOINC was originally developed to host SETI@home, which uses computers to analyze radio telescope data and searches for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Other resources:

Reddit hosts an awesome web forum for citizen scientists, which features opportunities to participate in projects and news articles and discussions related to citizen science. Additionally, don’t be afraid to use Google to search for citizen science opportunities in your favorite research area! There are always fun new ways to help scientists.

Now get out there and become a valuable citizen scientist!

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