Online citizen science for the holidays

By NASA's Earth Observatory (Flickr: Southern Lights) [CC BY 2.0 or Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsChristmas: it’s been and gone; the turkey coma is ebbing, but the sandwiches/chili/even more sandwiches are recurring. The weather outside is frightful, so what else to do other than hibernate in front of a screen?

While you’re cooped up with the rest of the family, with only the mall as a destination, why not explore the wonder of science online? We’ve rounded up a number of citizen science projects to check out online, so while you’re browsing and waiting for the turkey to digest, you can also help get some research projects moving along nicely for the new year.

Aurorasaurus Aurorasaurus is a sweet app and website that help plan aurora sightings in the northern and southern hemispheres. In addition to signing up for notifications for your own viewing pleasure, you can help scientists refine the algorithms that make the predictions here on Earth.

Based on the OVATION prime model drawn from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center data, the viewing map

$1,000 genome is here (at last)

Last week, San Diego life sciences equipment developer, Illumina, announced the arrival of the $1,000 genome. According to their stats, running an entire human genome through one of their fast process HiSeqX 10 sequencing machines could spit out the US$1,000 result in a day. Although commercial companies already offer personal partial genome analysis for a lower price, the Illumina revelation places widespread, population-based whole-genome profiling in the realm of possibility rather than science fiction.

DNA. Image by United States Department of Energy (Public Domain)

Why is this exciting?

Well, when the first human genome was fully sequenced, it took approximately 10 years to accomplish and cost well over $3 billion. Although the price has been dropping over the last decade, it’s never really broken through $3,000 until recently, even with advances in chip-based sequencing technology. The industry, meaning the research community, has been looking forward to a $1,000-per-genome price tag for a long time now, as this is where large-scale DNA sequencing for entire populations becomes feasible.

Can’t we already do this?

Yes, personal

A smartphone-based mobile lab?

Engineers at Cornell University presented work on smartphone-based medicine at CLEO: 2013 last month, the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics. Their creation is an external device that connects to a smartphone and can be used to diagnose Kaposi’s sarcoma and a slew of other serious conditions. Based on the press release, the smartphone itself isn’t doing any sensing. Instead, it acts as a lightweight and (relatively) low-cost computer that analyzes the input from the external device and displays the results to the user.

SkinTumors-PA100992The emphasis on detecting Kaposi’s sarcoma is interesting, since the condition typically doesn’t manifest until HIV has progressed to AIDS. In places where Kaposi’s sarcoma is much more widespread and where other methods of detection are less available, this tool could be extremely valuable as a way of securing a definitive diagnosis: not everyone with AIDS develops Kaposi’s sarcoma, but Kaposi’s sarcoma is an extremely reliable indicator of AIDS.

The researchers are also promoting this setup for other conditions: syphilis and MRSA are both possible targets, and MRSA in particular seems like a big deal, since

The uBiome controversy

uBiome is a cool project serving a widely recognized need: the mapping of the human microbiome. We’ve posted about uBiome on Twitter and Facebook, and have generally been pretty jazzed about the enterprise. Our enthusiasm took a major hit, however, when Melissa Bates and other bloggers began to voice serious concerns about the ethical oversight of the project, or rather the apparent lack thereof.

Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. Photo © Miki Yoshihito 2008, CC BY 3.0)

Melissa started things off by listing seven major criticisms, ranging from what she saw as exaggerated benefits all the way to insufficient protections for children. uBiome co-founder Jessica Richman responded in the comments here and here.

Most of the criticism focuses on a fairly technical aspect of research—the institutional review board or IRB. Gregory Gadow posting at Physioprof does a great job of explaining it, but in essence the IRB is a panel of experts tasked with making sure that a study involving human subjects doesn’t violate anyone’s

Muses: DIY spectroscopy

The Public Lab is, I think, a generally stellar example of how to go about citizen science: they identify genuine, pressing scientific needs that are underserved by existing institutions, develop effective and practical ways of addressing them, and then deftly articulate both to the public. Those steps are difficult enough to get right individually, let alone all at once—and repeatedly. Their ingenuity, insight and deep understanding of practical citizen science makes them not just role models, but inspirations. And that makes them an excellent subject for our first “Muses” post—a category for people and projects we find inspiring.

A whole lot of science fan culture tends to focus on heavy machinery: think the Large Hadron Collider or the Curiosity rover. These things are important for physicists and astronomers (and fans like me), but if you’re in a wetland, a factory, residential area, or salmon farm and you encounter an unknown substance, particle collision is not going to tell you what’s in your water. For that, you need spectrometry. And for that, it turns out, you do not need a PhD.