the community site for and by developmental biologists

Why we need amateur-professional collaborations

Posted by , on 9 March 2015

Could we simultaneously make it easier for professional scientists to do research on tight budgets, and improve public understanding of science, by facilitating professional-amateur collaborations? Not that long ago, amateur scientists such as Darwin, Wallace, and Mendel laid the foundations of modern biology. Today, a few button clicks gives access to vast troves of knowledge, and a few dollars buys technologies that even well-funded labs could not get a few decades ago. So, it should be much easier for amateurs and hobbyists to do scientific research now than it was in Darwin’s era. The IGoR wiki aims to pool the talents of professional, amateur, and novice scientists.

But why should professional scientists care? One reason is that doing research often requires far more skills than one person can truly master, and many of those skills are not emphasized in academic training. For example, in my own work I’ve often needed to do a little bit of machining, electronics, photography, and programming. Of course I could have saved a lot of time if I had mastery of those skills, in addition to all the skills that are more central to my research. It would have been very convenient to have an easy way to connect with the many non-scientists and amateurs who have expertise in the skills I needed.

Being able to tap into the wider, non-professional community could allow scientists to do research faster, cheaper, and better, by gaining access to a wider range of skills. One might be able to crowd-source the design and construction of a custom device, or a new image processing algorithm. Perhaps aquarium hobbyists could help one figure out how to culture an interesting non-model organism in lab. For example, I’d love to be able to keep my favorite bryozoans growing year round without running seawater, so I could do a side project that’s been nagging at me but which I can’t devote time to. Perhaps amateur naturalists could also help find collecting sites for interesting organisms. There are endless other possibilities.

Flat4Facilitating amateur-professional interactions would also improve public understanding of science. This is especially important in areas that intersect with developmental biology; voters are routinely called upon to make decisions related to stem cells, genetics, or evolution. The premise of every graduate school is that the best way to learn how science works is to do it, yet there are few opportunities for adult non-scientists to experience the creative and intellectual side of research. The success of the citizen science movement shows that many people are interested in participating in science. However, most citizen science projects are designed to get a large number of volunteers to do a defined task, rather than to help non-scientists plan research and interpret results. This leaves a big gulf between non-scientists and professionals.

We could help to solve both problems at once by creating mechanisms to make it easier for experienced scientists to tap into the skills and talents of amateurs and hobbyists, and for novices to tap into the knowledge and advice of experienced researchers. By doing both at once, one could build a broad community representing diverse skills, resources, and experience levels.

IMG_2671_small_filteredDevelopmental biology is ripe for this. Although a lot of developmental biology depends on expensive reagents and high-tech equipment, plenty of high-value, low-tech research remains to be done. Two of my all-time favorite papers (1, 2) used nothing more than glass needles and intelligence to identify, and partially solve, a paradox of ctenophore development: when an embryo is split in two, each half develops into half an embryo; yet the adults can regenerate an entire half of their body. The authors documented ontogenetic transitions in these phenomena, and then deciphered the roles of specific cell lineages in patterning and regeneration. In my own work, I’ve found that the most useful biomechanical techniques for working with embryos are things like micropipette aspiration, which would be easily accessible to amateur microscopists (it was developed in the 1950’s (3)). There are myriad questions in developmental biology that could be investigated with low-budget techniques.

Are there many interested amateurs and non-scientists who might want to do real research? Yes! There is a growing number of community labs (generally focused on synthetic biology) in bigger cities. There are other online or offline communities of enthusiasts of various organisms. One of my favorite examples is a mushrooming club I joined in Pittsburgh, because there were hobbyists who had an amazing knowledge of mycology. Another of my favorite examples is Slimoco, an online community of slime mold enthusiasts: artists, engineers, hobbyists, etc. Yes, there are plenty of people with kooky ideas; but if the best way to learn how science works is by doing it, then creating mechanisms for participation in the creative and intellectual life of science should help more people become better scientists.

I’m trying to implement one idea for building an online community for research and outreach (IGoR), and I’d greatly appreciate your input on it. Setting it up as a wiki should help people break out of their existing social or professional networks, and it should help one discover unexpected forms of solutions, or problems one hadn’t considered. It is open to experienced scientists who want to tap into the talents of non-scientists and amateurs, but it’s also open to novices who want to try their hand at doing their own research with community feedback. Being equally open to professionals, amateurs, and novices should help build a diverse enough pool of skills, knowledge, and resources to solve many kinds of problems.

If you are interested in the idea, please take a look. Quick and easy things, like posting comments and rating pages on the IGoR site, will help the wiki take life and become a valuable resource for scientists at all experience levels.

1. Henry JQ, Martindale MQ. 2000. Regulation and regeneration in the ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi. Developmental biology.227(2):720-33. DOI:10.1006/dbio.2000.9903.
2. Martindale MQ. 1986. The ontogeny and maintenance of adult symmetry properties in the ctenophore, Mnemiopsis mccradyi. Developmental biology.118(2):556-76.
3. Mitchison JM, Swann MM. 1954. The Mechanical Properties of the Cell Surface: I. The Cell Elastimeter. J Exp Biol.31(3):443-60.

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Categories: Outreach, Resources

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