Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Zooniverse of Opportunities

What makes science, SCIENCE? Ask any science professor and they will tell you it’s all about the research - the thrill of discovering a bit of something new in one little corner of our big, beautiful world. But, scientific research can be time-consuming, expensive, and often hard to conduct without extensive training.  Despite these challenges, Professor Karen Neal knows her biology students need research skills, so she set out to find a solution, and what she discovered was a “Zooniverse” of opportunities!

The zooniverse is: “the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research.” Think “crowd-funding” with the contribution being research instead of money. In the “zooniverse” volunteer researchers – meaning students or anyone interested in a particular topic – can assist professional researchers and make discoveries and create new datasets that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. “With our wide-ranging and ever-expanding suite of projects, covering many disciplines across the sciences and humanities, there's a place for anyone and everyone to explore, learn and have fun.” 

Aside from being totally free, the true value of this amazing website is that the projects are real, the opportunities to practice the craft of research are real, and students communicate with professionals all over the world who are real. Imagine, from the confines of Richmond, Professor Neal’s students can help digitize a Danish collection of butterflies and moths, tag rainforest wildflowers, search for orangutan nests in Borneo, or follow the movements of thousands of animals on the Serengeti. And these are just a handful of the hundreds of projects offered. This is Biology with a capital “B”, well beyond the lab table and a microscope. 

But, that’s not all. Once their research is complete, students can then formalize their results and present their findings in a setting that simulates a scientific conference. They are challenged to communicate “in Science” to share their discoveries with peers and faculty – even the Dean. For students unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with expressing themselves, this requirement could cause more squeamish moments than their first dissection.

This experience has proven priceless for students such as Bryanna Mountford, pictured here with co-Honors student Jeramiah Meadows. Bryanna had Professor Neal’s Biology class, then through her summer internship she was chosen to present her research to an international conference in Canada. When asked if she was scared, she answered nonchalantly, “no, not really.” Bryanna had learned something well beyond biology from Professor Neal.

How did Professor Neal find the “zooniverse”? Professor Neal challenges herself just as she challenges her students. She had heard about other Honors programs where students doing some amazing things. She wanted to her students to have amazing opportunities too. Funding being what it is, she knew whatever opportunities she found would need to be without cost, but would need to be academic and professional. She knew a resource had to be out there somewhere, and she started to dig. Zooniverse was the result of her diligence and creative excavation. Thank you, Professor Neal.

When asked about her goals for her students, without the slightest of hesitation, Professor Neal lists three things she wants her students to take away: 1. A full understanding of the rigor that goes in to scientific research; 2. A realization that science is not scary or beyond their grasp; and 3. For them to tell others that science is not scary, or beyond their grasp. Personally, she wants each student, sometime during the semester, to have just one, at least one, “ah ha” moment. Then, she says, “I will feel like I am doing my job.” She pauses, and repeats, “I will feel like I am doing my job.”

In case you didn’t know, Professor Neal is also the organizer and the engine behind Reynolds Annual Science Night. Each spring for the past 15 years on the Wednesday before Spring Break, Reynolds opens its doors to the public for an evening of scientific fun. You never know what to expect. Everything from snakes to statistics may be demonstrated, presented or displayed by the School of Mathematics, Science and Engineering. On March 14, 2018 over 500 people packed in to Burnette Hall on the Reynolds Parham Road Campus to get a dose of the riot of real science. Don’t miss the next Science Night in 2019.