Darlene Cavalier has increased some of the country’s largest citizen science initiatives, and she wants everyone to participate.
When she grew up, she didn’t want to be a scientist. Darlene Cavalier preferred cheering and dancing over learning how to crunch numbers and win honors at science fairs when she was a youngster. She says, “I was an excellent student.” Science, on the other hand, was not her strong suit.
That may seem like an unusual start for someone like Cavalier, who has now impacted the lives and work of numerous scientists. She is now the creator and head of SciStarter, a national organization that brings together citizen scientists and professional scholars to collaborate on large-scale, data-driven initiatives. She’s also the creator of Scientific Cheerleader, a group for current and past professional cheerleaders who want to pursue science professions.
Cavalier’s work is united by an unifying goal: to bring scientists and the general people together. She’s collaborated with Discover on a number of initiatives over the years to further that objective, including a new partnership to promote ScienceNearMe.org, an online and mobile platform that connects families and the general public with opportunities to learn and participate in science from anywhere. She has direct experience with the excitement and amazement that may accompany learning about discoveries that have an influence on daily life; however, she goes one step further by assisting ordinary people in participating in such discoveries. Cavalier joined us to discuss the growing subject of citizen science, why it matters, and how you can become involved.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself and how you became interested in science.
After graduating from college in 1991, I began working by accepting the first job that came my way. It was near my parents’ house, and I was working in a mailroom, mailing presents to various leads assembled by Discover editors for an awards ceremony. Basically, the editors would go through a variety of journals, highlight intriguing inventions, and mail all of them down to where I worked.
It was my responsibility to track out the folks who were working on such advances and send them applications. All of this is significant because one of the statements on the forms that the scientists had to fill out and submit back was: “Tell us how your discovery helps society in two words or less.”
That piqued my interest. I had to take those responses and put them into a database, which meant I had to read each and every one of them. I had to phone the scientists on occasion if they’d neglected to fill out a form. “I don’t believe I’ve ever spoken to a scientist before, but they are fantastic,” I recalled thinking. I’d tell my family tales about them as well.
Q: What do you think about citizen science? What piqued your curiosity there?
My family was a working-class household. With the exception of my mother, who went to college for two years to receive her nursing degree, I was the first in my family to attend college. They are, nonetheless, very intelligent individuals who are capable of resolving any problem.
I began to believe that there must be a way for individuals who don’t have formal scientific degrees but develop an interest later in life — or who just don’t have the financial means to attend college — to participate in science. Furthermore, they are sponsoring fundamental research with their tax money and electing officials who make decisions on subjects in which they may have a voice.
I was becoming a bit fatigued at that stage in my career. I was travelling between Philadelphia and New York for Discover, where I had been recruited in-house to organize their awards event. I was speaking with the editor in chief at the time, who urged me to consider returning to school to pursue my intrinsic passion in science. So I returned to school and earned a master’s degree in liberal arts from the University of Pennsylvania. That’s when I first heard about citizen science, which goes by a variety of names.
Q: I’ve seen citizen science referred to in a variety of ways, such as DIY science. Are these words interchangeable, or are they somewhat different?
The nomenclature is a major source of contention… There’s a lot of disagreement regarding how to characterize these phenomena. You have the option of sharing your data with everyone in your community while doing DIY science. Some of them do! However, it’s possible that the information isn’t useful. It’s possible that it’s for the purpose of discovery. And, more often than not, that group performs incredible things using low-cost tools they create themselves.
Then there’s community science, which is a whole other discipline. These are generally environmental justice communities that use data to effect social change on a local level. There’s also participatory research, as well as a slew of other terms. Another approach is to employ public science. The discipline is still developing, and as it does, the phrases we use are becoming more defined.
Q: Citizen science seems to be much more apparent now than it was, say, 10 or 15 years ago. When it comes to persons without science degrees engaging in research, how do you think views have changed in the scientific community?
I believe it used to be more difficult to convince expert scientists that data or efforts from the general population may be beneficial. The scientific community has a lot of issues regarding data quality, and these are all reasonable concerns. There was also a sense of “they can’t possible accomplish what took me so long to study,” as well as a general sensation of unease. That has changed substantially in my experience, but it still exists to some level.
Part of the rationale for this shift is because… a number of initiatives have asked issues that could not have been solved without the input of the general population. This might be owing to a few individuals who are strategically situated in an area where the scientists are unable to reach. For example, they could notice dragonfly swarms when no one else has been able to capture them. It might also be because there are millions of individuals combing through massive amounts of data that experts can’t possibly sort through.
Citizen scientists are speeding up research, which is then published in peer-reviewed publications. There is also more work being done to employ suitable tags and taxonomy. As a result, the term “citizen science” is being utilized in studies. It’s now much simpler to search up and have proof that specific articles include data from citizen scientists; before, we didn’t even have that phrase. It’s now a field of practice, which is another factor that contributes to its legitimacy.
Q: So, what’s the big deal about citizen science?
It’s significant to various individuals for different reasons, and even at different times within a single person’s lifespan. We are all members of various communities, and we all play different roles at times. I’m a parent of small children some years, so I have time to accomplish some activities, and everything revolves around my children’s interests. Because I’m beginning to take care of my own parents at this point in my life, the methods that I connect with them, as well as the amount of time that I have, are taking precedence. So we’re really hoping to build something where there’s always an on-ramp to citizen science, even if it’s new possibilities for the same individual who just changes identities over time.
On a larger scale, citizen scientists are needed to speed up essential research, develop discoveries, and expand the breadth of viewpoints, values, and observations that help define science. Citizen science also helps to build a better-informed society by providing public access to data, research agendas, tools, and other resources that are mostly sponsored by people’ tax money.
Q: SciStarter is essentially a website where citizen scientists may locate a wide range of projects to participate in. But how can you reach out to communities offline to encourage them to participate in citizen science?
We collaborate closely with the other organization I founded, Science Cheerleaders, in addition to authoring or co-authoring two books on citizen science, one for academia and policymakers [The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science] and the other for the general public [The Field Guide to Citizen Science]. For example, we were the PIs (principal investigators) on a research that examined microbial growth rates on Earth and on the International Space Station (ISS). After we launched microbe collecting kits into the stands with a T-shirt bazooka during a Philadelphia 76ers game, almost 4,000 spectators helped gather microorganisms at the game! On the International Space Station, 48 samples were flown, and several participants were acknowledged in linked studies.
Another project: We ran a test program with libraries, and the facilitators who already know how to reach out to people in person are crucial. A librarian, for example, is a facilitator since she has direct interaction with everyone who comes into the library, as well as with certain groups that utilize the library, such as the 55+ community, who may already meet there. People may check out physical kits that include everything they need to become engaged in a project.
And I want to emphasize that our activities are a collaborative effort. Everything we do is in collaboration with individuals and organizations that believe in the power of the people.
Q: Have you seen any changes in citizen science as a result of the pandemic?
Experiment scientists who were keen for people to join engaged in their project but couldn’t travel anywhere, such as a national park, showed greater flexibility. We also saw a greater readiness among the scientists to interact over the internet. For years, we’d been encouraging people to join us online and chat about their projects with these groups. For some of them, it was like pulling teeth. So it was incredibly helpful because it enabled us to assess our performance and see where we might improve.
Scientists have previously been unable to contact directly with participants, according to some responses. That is something we overlook. When you ask others to gather data for a citizen science project, it’s because you can’t acquire it yourself. Usually, someone from someplace else assists, but you never know who it is.
We had face-to-face Zoom chats and listened to queries directly from the volunteers, which were all things we enjoyed doing. We like observing and forming friendships.
Q: You have established a new program called Science Near Me. Can you tell me more about it? What do you have to say about it?
Scientific Near Me is a SciStarter extension that brings together previously disparate services from museums, science festivals, citizen science, policy forums, after-school programs, maker programs, astronomy clubs, and other organizations.
While there are several sites for learning about science, we wanted to establish a space where individuals of diverse backgrounds and interests could easily connect. ScienceNearMe.org makes it easy for individuals to find the perfect opportunity across a wide range of STEM subjects and places, while also accelerating scientific engagement and learning research.
We offer tools like the Opportunity Finder, which allows users to search databases from a network of partner organizations to find programs, events, and projects based on their region, age level, subject, kind of participation, and more. You can now locate an event at a nearby museum, an astronomy discussion at a neighborhood bar, or a public scientific policy forum all in one spot. Take a look!
Q: How may someone who is interested in participating in a citizen science initiative do so? What resources will they require?
No previous experience is usually required; all that is required is a willingness to make and share observations in accordance with the project’s rules. Some initiatives are looking for individuals with certain talents, instruments, or access to specific areas, as well as people who meet specified demographics. Volunteers may learn how to utilize sensors, follow procedures, evaluate data, and even discover resources to act on the data to alter policy via certain projects’ online or in-person training.