The Salamander Crossing Brigades: Citizen Science for Salamanders in Southwest New Hampshire

How about giving me a quick lift? Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) (Image credit: Dave Huth/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

How about giving me a quick lift? Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) (Image credit: Dave Huth/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

Citizen scientists of the Salamander Crossing Brigades in New Hampshire help thousands of salamanders safely across dangerous roads in their migratory journey to the vernal pools. Find out how they contribute to conservation research by tracking and monitoring the salamanders on an annual basis.

Guest post by Brett Amy Thelen

Every spring, as the earth thaws and warm rains drench New England, thousands of amphibians make their way to vernal pools to breed. It’s a magical time. For the salamanders and frogs undertaking their annual migration, it’s also a dangerous one. One study in western and central Massachusetts found that roadkill rates on even relatively quiet roads could lead to extirpation of local spotted salamander populations in as few as 25 years. Another study reported that 50-100% of salamanders attempting to cross a paved rural road in upstate New York didn’t survive the trek. 
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Category: Animals, Citizen science, Environment | Tagged | 1 Comment

NASA and SciStarter enlist citizen scientists for nationwide research that examines soil moisture conditions and water availability

Image Credit: National Resource Conservation Service (Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

National Resource Conservation Service (Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Philadelphia, PA – NASA scientists are on a mission to map global soil moisture, and through SciStarter, they’re teaming up with citizen scientists to gather valuable data from the ground to complement and validate what is seen from space.

Known as the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite mission, the research will help scientists understand links among Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles; reduce uncertainties in predicting climate; and enhance the ability to monitor and predict natural hazards like floods and droughts. SMAP data have additional practical applications for citizens everywhere, including improved weather forecasting and crop yield predictions.
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Divers Attempt to Solve Mystery of Sevengill Shark Sightings on the Pacific Coast

Sevengill Shark "Notorynchus cepedianus" by José María Pérez Nuñez CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Sevengill Shark “Notorynchus cepedianus” by José María Pérez Nuñez CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Diver-citizen scientists help find out why there has been a recent increase in the number of Sevengill Sharks spotted in the San Diego area

The first thing the divers noticed upon reaching the bottom was that there were absolutely no fish—anywhere. The lighting, also being strange, lent everything a deserted, eerie feel. But, says diver Mike Bear, “We continued deeper into this spooky, yellowish-green ‘ghost forest’ with its odd, dearth of fish—failing to make the obvious connection in our minds: where had they all the fish gone and why? The previous week, this same area was overflowing with life. Sometimes the fish sense something you don’t.”

Bear and diving buddy Dave Hershman had just entered the water off Point La Jolla. Swimming eastward, separated by about 12 feet of water, quite suddenly a long dark shadow materialized between them, “moving at a good clip,” says Bear. It took a couple of seconds for him to register that this was a fast-moving shark. “By the time he had pulled slightly ahead of me, I saw the characteristic long tail of the Sevengill pass before my face, and from a couple of feet recognized the species.”

What exactly is the Sevengill shark? Filmmaker, diver and founder of the Sevengill citizen science counting project Barbara Lloyd says, “Well, here’s the boring response to that question—scientifically speaking it’s officially known as the Broadnose Sevengill shark, Notorynchus cepedianus, and it’s the only existing member of the genus Notorynchus in the family Hexanchidae!

This fairly large shark grows to about 11 feet, is speckled with gray or brownish spots, and has only seven gills on each side, which distinguishes it from the Bluntnose Sixgill shark. The Sevengill lives in tropical to temperate waters excepting for the North Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.

With this post coinciding with Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the more important question might be—have there been any attacks, since such a large predator inhabits these shallow near-shore waters? “Only three suspected attacks have been documented in the last fifty years,” says Lloyd, “with the most recent being in New Zealand in 2009.” They do get aggressive when feeding, mating, are provoked, and interestingly enough in aquariums. “Prior to that the Shark Attack File shows that there have only been five since the 17th Century.”

Lloyd and Bear began the Sevengill Shark ID Project in 2010, after hearing numerous reports of local divers encountering them, reports that had not previously surfaced. “I had been diving regularly in the San Diego area since 2000, averaging about 100 dives per year,” says Bear, “mainly in the area of La Jolla Shores, La Jolla Cove, Wreck Alley and Point Loma, as well as being actively involved in the San Diego diving community. I do not recall hearing any diver reports of encounters with Sevengill sharks much before 2007—and then suddenly we began hearing the first reports from local divers,” he notes.

The project website began as a simple spreadsheet which allowed local divers to log their encounters without photos. From there it developed into the site you see today, which uses photographs and a pattern recognition algorithm to ID individual sharks. The motivation was to answer the scientific question: why was there an apparent increase in encounters between divers and this species from 2007 onward?

Dr. John Hyde a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in San Diego wonders if the answer to that question might just be that it is a combination of more Sevengill sharks congregating in the area, and more divers in the water. “Overall we don’t have a good sense for changes in abundance of Sevengill sharks, but it is likely that they are increasing in number since the 1994 moratorium on nearshore (within three miles) gillnet fisheries in California.” The nearshore gillnet fishery had a significant effect on abundance of many fish species, especially sharks and rays, both as direct mortalities and indirectly by removal of prey items. Hyde adds, “This coupled with increasing numbers of recreational divers, cheaper and better underwater camera systems, and increased awareness of these sharks through social media has led to better documentation of their presence.” Though sevengills are fairly common these days, especially in bay and nearshore regions, there is still a lot of research to be done.

“We want to know why sevengills have been attracted to the La Jolla area over the past five years,” says Bear. “Is it the ocean conditions, changing water temperature, has the location just developed into the ideal nursery or pupping ground, or is it particularly mating-related? There may be an increase in prey, or it could be a combination of a number of these?”

The project has amassed a sizable database of still photographs and video, but they are still in the early stages of data collection and evaluation, and have not published any results yet. Barbara Lloyd has had some success using the pattern recognition algorithm to identify individual sharks.

For all, the most sublime Shark Week sensation would also be the most benign—to be able to dive with these magnificent predators, to be in their presence as they glide majestically by.

Are you a diver who lives in the San Diego area? Help the Sevengill Shark ID project answer their questions! Visit the project page on SciStarter to sign up and learn how to enter your sightings according to the specified protocols.

It’s Shark Week! And that means we’re lining up shark themed citizen science projects that you can participate in. Sign up for our newsletter to know which projects are being featured and watch this space for more blog posts!

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts – the world’s leading climate change think tank. He has worked as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science communication, and now runs a consultancy where he functions in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian‘s work at

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Coop’s Scoop: Shark citizen science, on the next #CitSciChat

shark on Kronos Reef, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge; photo by Wyland

shark on Kronos Reef, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge; photo by Wyland

After the blockbuster movie Jaws, two silly things happened: kids started calling me Hooper (instead of Cooper) and I was afraid even in the deep end of a swimming pool. Logic can battle fear, but not necessarily win. Even though there are hundreds of species of sharks, and about 20 types that ever harm people, a fin in the water elicits screams. People should be cautious and smart when in waters with Great White sharks, just as they should be when hiking in areas with Grizzly bears or Mountain lions. Just as they should be cautious when driving, when choosing foods, and going down stairways. There are hazards everywhere.

But we shouldn’t let fear, or the aesthetics of beauty determine conservation priorities. People tend to be sympathetic to a relatively few “poster species” for conservation even though most species in need of conservation actions are not generally considered cute, cuddly, or obviously useful.  Even though many species of sharks are near extinction, I realize that my own conservation orientation is dampened by fear, despite knowing that people are at far greater risk of death from lightning than sharks. On top of that, sharks are the ones with more reason to be afraid because people kill tens of millions of sharks annually.

For me, only fascination can lessen my fear and spark my conservation concern. As  Irish poet James Stephens put it, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.”

Fortunately, sharks are fascinating. Sharks have a sixth sense, electroreception, through an organ called the ampullae of Lorenzini. They also have what could be called a seventh sense: their lateral line organ acts like an internal barometer so they can sense tiny changes in pressure from passing objects. With eyes on the sides of their heads, sharks have nearly panoramic views, with blind spots only in front of their snout and directly behind their head. Plus, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The dwarf shark is only about 4 inches long, which makes it cute. Some sharks give birth to live offspring, called pups, which, again, seems pretty cute. Other species lay egg cases with the nickname mermaid’s purses: adorable. Some sharks are social, and forms schools and migrate together. Almost 50 species of sharks have photospheres, which are light-emitting organs.

There are over 1,000 species of elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, and rays) and 24% of are on IUCN red list, meaning they are threatened by extinction. One major challenge to shark conservation is the fear factor that limits public concern. Their biology challenges to their conservation too: they have naturally low population densities and their large home ranges often span the coasts of multiple countries. Another challenge is that, for almost half the species, there is not enough information to assess their extinction risk. The data gap on so many species across the world has been a call to citizen science. Now there are projects that draw on recreational divers, dive guides, photographers, beach goers, and more.

whale shark 2014 by Nicholas Lindell Reynolds

whale shark 2014 by Nicholas Lindell Reynolds

For example, divers and guides monitor shark numbers in Sharkscount. Divers photograph whale sharks in Philippines as part of the Large Marine Vertebrates Project. From photos of whale sharks, researchers can use pattern recognition software (originally developed by NASA) to identify individuals based on their unique spots and stripes. Whale shark photos aggregated in Wild Book for Whale Sharks allow researchers to estimate their abundance. Recreational divers help Redmap in Western Australia to map the abundance and distribution of sharks.

Other citizen scientists stroll the beaches and search for mermaid’s purses. The locations where these egg cases wash up on shore can help identify potential nurseries and assess shark abundance and distribution. For example, in the UK and Italy, citizen scientists find egg cases of Smallspotted Catsharks and Nursehounds.

egg case of a lesser spotted dogfish by Tom Oates 2009

egg case of a lesser spotted dogfish by Tom Oates 2009

Irrespective of whether you feel a connection with sharks based on fear or fascination, we need to recognize that they are part of healthy ocean ecosystems.

If you like sharks or if you suffer from galeophobia (an excessive fear of sharks), join us for the next #CitSciChat, a Twitter discussion about citizen science. This week, which is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, we’ll talk about citizen science with sharks. What people do, why they do it, and why this means YOU!

The #CitSciChat will be Wednesday 8 July 2pm EDT, 7pm BST, 8pm SAST, which corresponds to Thursday 9 July 6am NZST.

Sharks live around the world and so do our guest panelists:

Rebecca Jarvis (@Rebecca_Jarvis) a graduate student in New Zealand.

Katie Gledhill (@KatGledhill) with the South African Shark Conservancy and Earthwatch shark project.

David Shiffman (@WhySharks Matter) a graduate student at University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy

Jake Leveson (@SCBMarine & @jacoblevenson), a marine biologist at the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and  Education Officer with the Marine section of the Society of Conservation Biology.

Jason Osborne (@paleoexplorer), President and Cofounder of Paleo Quest (@paleoquest), and Cofounder of SharkFinder citizen science (@shark_citsci)

Catalina Pimiento (@pimientoc), a PhD candidate in the U of Florida (defending this Friday!). Her research investigates the ecology of sharks in deep time. Next month she begins a post doc fellowship at the Paläontologisches Institut und Museum in Zurich, Switzerland.

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Did you know ‘storm spotters’ in your community keep you safe during severe weather?

Hurricane shown on a weather radar (Photo: NOAA)

Hurricane shown on a weather radar (Photo: NOAA)

Civic minded citizen scientists in your community help meteorologists and the National Weather Service stay abreast of inclement weather with on-the-ground data.

Earlier this week, the Midwest and Northeast were slammed with tornados and thunderstorms that grounded planes and held up trains. Thousands of people along the Northeast corridor lost power as a result.

During such hazardous weather, we rely on the knowledge, skill and expertise of meteorologists and designated emergency personnel to keep us safe and in the know. They in turn rely on data supplied by not just satellites and doppler radars but also – a network of citizen scientists.

But wait. With all our sophisticated technology, what could a few volunteers possibly contribute?
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Citizen Science of the Deep Blue Sea

For centuries, the lives of sailors were full of risks from shipwreck by storms, currents, and navigation of poorly charted waters. To cope with the risk, sailors believed in numerous omens that brought bad luck, like sharks and bananas or failing to set sail on a Sunday (or setting sail on a Thursday, Friday, first Monday in April, or second Monday in August). Sailors believed in jinxes from cutting hair, trimming nails, or shaving beards, stirring tea with a knife or fork, and 13 was uttered as 12+1. Sailors had good luck superstitions too, like being followed by dolphins or seeing an albatross.

Chatham Albatross by Dan Mantle

Chatham Albatross by Dan Mantle

They may have felt helpless and at the whim of the high seas, but sailors did possess the capacity to reduce their risks, not through superstitions, but through science.

With the help of Matthew Maury, the observations, records, and data collected by sailors during their journeys were aggregated to produce navigation maps of trade wind, thermal charts, and prevailing currents. The root of their risk was a lack of scientific understanding of the oceans. Citizen science and crowdsourcing approaches made Maury the father of Oceanography and made travel by Navy and commercial mariners saver, faster, and more efficient.

Today recreational fishers, commercial fishers, divers, beachcombers, surfers, sailors, and local community members concerned about marine resources are citizen scientists monitoring oceans and marine life. Whether turtles, sharks, dolphins, whales, invasive fish and  seaweed, scallops, coral, seabirds, or pollution, citizen scientists across the world provide the large scale and long term data on different stressors to help research, management, and policy. Even without getting wet, participants in the Zooniverse help marine sciences with identifying species on sea floor in Sea Floor Explorer, identifying plankton species from microscopic images in Plankton Portal, and estimating changes in kelp forests from satellite images in Floating Forests.

baby sea turtle by Wildlifeppl

baby sea turtle by Wildlifeppl

Citizen scientists help with research, management plans, and provide evidence for marine policy, which requires years of data over wide geographic areas, as reviewed in recent policy paper by Hyder et al. (@kieranhyder). “Large scale at low cost” is citizen science’s middle name.

Join the next #CitSciChat, a Twitter chat for discussion of citizen science, which will have the theme of oceans and marine life. Wednesday June 24 at 7pm GMT, which is 2pm ET at the hashtag #CitSciChat.  Our guest panelists sail in Maury’s wake by supporting citizen science that helps makes us safer. In this case, safety resides in ocean conservation, to which our future is intertwined.

I’m the moderator (@CoopSciScoop) and you can follow our guest panelists (details below), who are joining us from the California, Western Australia, Hawaii, and the United Kingdom.

J Nichols (@WallaceJNichols) of California Academy of Sciences, Grupo Tortuguero (an international sea turtle conservation network), and LiVBLUE!, a global campaign based on the neuroconservation findings of the cognitive and emotional benefits of blue space. Nichols is author of Blue Mind.

Catalina López-Sagástegui (@@Catlosa_), program coordinator for the Upper Gulf of California Program at UC MEXUS, where she coordinates government officials, NGOs, local communities, and fishermen on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border to design effective conservation and fisheries management.

Richard Kirby (@planktonpundit) of the Secchi Disk Study to map the spatial distribution and temporal trends in phytoplankton in the oceans. Phytoplankton are too small to see with the naked eye, but when present, they turn the water a green hue and their density affects the clarity of the water. Volunteers measure water clarity with Secchi Disks as proxy for phytoplankton density.

Michael Burgess (@RedmapMarine) of REDMap (Range Extension Database & Mapping Project), which the eBird of the marine world, to report sightings of any marine animal, anywhere, anytime (though they focus on the distribution of uncommon species).

Matt Cough of Welsh Sea Watch (@WelshSeaWatcher) where bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoise, Risso’s dolphins, common dolphins, minke whales, fin whales, and killer whales are monitored by volunteers on land and with boat-based surveys.

Mike Bear (@Rapturedeep) of Ocean Sanctuaries, sponsor of the Yukon Marine Life Survey, which does not involve diving near Yukon, Alaska. It involves divers taking photos of invertebrates around the artificial reef created in 2000 by the purchase, cleaning, and intentional sinking of the Canadian warship Yukon. This artificial reef attracts marine life, tourists, and citizen scientists to San Diego. It was surveyed in 2004 and now 2015 is a follow-up survey year.

diver in kelp forest by Ed Bierman

diver in kelp forest by Ed Bierman


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Celebrate the Summer Solstice with Citizen Science!

AlastairG / Creative Commons

AlastairG / Creative Commons

Our editors have selected some sizzling citizen science projects in celebration of Summer Solstice on June 21. Several are also appropriate for kids of all ages (keep those minds sharp over the summer break!).

And…our friends at Mental Floss featured“15 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Summer Solstice,” including this fact:

“The Earth is at its furthest from the sun during the Summer Solstice.The warmth ofsummer comes exclusively from the tilt of the Earth’s axis, and not from how close it is to the sun at any given time.”

Check out the SciStarter blog for updates on your favorite projects and find new projects in our Project Finder!

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Dragonfly Watch – Find Those Fast and Furious Insects

A tandem pair of Common Green Darners (Anax junius) laying eggs. © Dennis Paulson.

A tandem pair of Common Green Darners (Anax junius) laying eggs. © Dennis Paulson.

Find out more about Dragonfly Monitoring and other great citizen science projects on SciStarter!

“I’m an aquatic entomologist, and dragonflies and damselflies are the most colorful and noticeable insects in the habitats in which I work,” says Dr. Celeste A. Searles Mazzacano, a staff scientist and Aquatic Conservation Director at the Xerces Society. In her role as the project coordinator for the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership, she continues to add acclaim to these fast and furious little critters, “The nymphs are amazing predators with extremely cool adaptations for feeding—hinge-toothed lower lips that shoot out faster than the eye can see—and respiration rectal gills that double as a jet-propulsion chamber!”

The Migratory Dragonfly Partnership (MDP) is a collaborative partnership that was set up between experts, nongovernmental programs, academic institutions, and federal agencies from the United States, Mexico, and Canada, in which citizen scientists play an integral role. There are many questions currently surrounding dragonfly migration that MDP is trying to answer. For example, says Dr. Mazzacano, “What is the southern extent of migration, what is the relationship between resident and migratory members of the same species at the same site, and do all individuals that migrate south from a single place, go to the same destination in the south, or do individuals drop out and overwinter at different latitudes?” The primary goal of the project is to answer some of these questions and to provide information needed to create cross-border conservation programs to protect and sustain this amazing migratory phenomenon.

The Project has enjoyed an extremely positive response from the citizen science community. “Because the adults are so lovely, I consider dragonflies to be the poster children of aquatic invertebrates. They are much easier to see and care about than the equally important but less obvious mussels, stoneflies, and mayflies,” adds Mazzacano. Many people are fascinated by dragonflies but don’t really know anything about them, and consequently want to learn more, and find good places to observe them. “Interestingly, many birders are also getting into dragonflying.”

There are five dragonfly species that are the most regular annual migrants in North America. The Migratory Dragonfly Partnership collects data on them in two ways, via two different but connected citizen science projects. For the Migration Monitoring project, citizen scientists report dragonflies heading south in the late summer and fall (these may be in the tens of thousands, thousands, or a steady trickle of individuals—it varies); and the Pond Watch project, where the local life history and the relationship between resident and migrant dragonflies of the same species in the same habitat is investigated. Here citizen scientists are asked to report on the presence or absence, abundance, and behaviors of migratory species at their Pond Watch site on a regular basis throughout the year.

The project has only been running for three years, which means that MDP is just now beginning to accumulate enough data to publish findings. “One of the first products was a comprehensive review paper by steering committee member and [retired Rutgers University] odonate expert Dr. Mike May ,” says Mazzacano. “And we have a paper in the works about the results of the stable hydrogen isotope studies done on wings of migrating dragonflies to determine how far they traveled from the site where they developed and emerged as adults.” That paper should be out later this year.

Green Darner on the finger of a course participant. Courtesy Xerces Society.

Green Darner on the finger of a course participant. Courtesy Xerces Society.

With current emphasis on the unique ability of citizen science projects to meet Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) by providing opportunities for inquiry, MDP is now partnering with Dr. Karen Oberhauser at the University of Minnesota, who is working on dragonfly-based curriculum for school children. “And more immediately, we are beginning to work now with local organizations that focus on environmental opportunities for Hispanic youth in the Portland Oregon area to offer dragonfly-based environmental education in Spanish,” notes Mazzacano.

As with many hobbies, after all the inquiry has been satisfied, it comes down to enjoyment and recreation. The most exciting thing about the project for Mazzacano is that it gets more people outdoors interacting with insects in a positive way, and  connects those people to their local ponds and wetlands. “Freshwater is the most threatened resource we have, and when people learn about and start to love the creatures in local waters that they might not even have known existed prior to this, they will become more engaged in trying to protect those resources,” says Mazzacano with enthusiasm. And of course it has also been exciting for her, thanks to the data collected by citizen scientists, to be able to answer some of the many questions that exist about dragonfly migration. “I think this connection to freshwater is a benefit that will go on long after individual citizen scientists learn about, and help with MDP projects.”

Would you like to become a citizen scientist in this project? Connect to the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership here, register your local pond, pack a picnic hamper and head out to monitor the timing, duration, and direction of travel of migrating dragonflies. Note any additional behaviors, such as observed migratory flight, feeding or mating, and you are encouraged to take photos or record video coverage.

When gathered across a wide geographic range and throughout a span of years, these data will provide answers to questions about which species are regular migrants; the frequency and timing of migration in different species; sources, routes, and destinations of migrants; and the health of their environment.

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Celebrate World Oceans Day with Citizen Science

Photo: USFWS

On June 8th, people across the world will celebrate World Oceans Day, a day set aside to honor and protect our oceans.

To help you participate in World Oceans Day, we’ve put together a list of 7 ocean-based citizen science projects that need your help.

We are partnering with The TerraMar Project to share SciStarter’s “ocean and water” projects with their global community to transform the way we think about the ocean and the high seas.

Check out the SciStarter blog for updates on your favorite projects and find new projects in our Project Finder!


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Coop’s Scoop: Do-It-Yourself, Together

learning to sequence DNA at Counter Culture Labs

Learning to sequence DNA at Counter Culture Labs

Could a DIYbio lab be an alternative YMCA? A DIYbio Lab is a community space to exercise your mind instead of your body. Instead of learning to swim, opportunities for physical fitness, and socializing via team sports at the YMCA, at a DIYbio lab one can be part of a community where people help each other learn to grow sour dough, make environmental sensors, or create art with glow-in-the-dark bioluminescent bacteria.

Those are some of the many activities at Counter Culture Labs, a DIYbio lab in Oakland, California. Counter Culture Labs are open for members of the public wishing to explore, innovate, and discover biotech.

There is an older tradition of community technology labs among engineers and computer programmers, particularly as fertile ground for entrepreneurs. For example, in the 1970s, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak tinkered in the basement to build commercial circuit boards. Such places became known as hackerspaces and hackerlabs. Yet, tinkering in biotech requires lab equipment like autoclaves, PCR machines, fancy microscopes, reagents, and ventilation hoods. Hence biolabs to support the many types of citizen scientists – hobbyists, entrepreneurs, inventors – are growing in several cities, such as BioCurious in Silicon Valley and GenSpace in New York City.

The activities of biotech and genetic engineering trigger alarm bells for many. Technophobia, or biotechnophobia, is a sentiment older than Frankenstein. Carl Sagan noted decades ago that we put ourselves at risk because, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” Counter Culture Labs, like other DIYbio labs, help confront fears, and diminish the resulting risks, by providing space where people can learn molecular biology, how to sequence and engineer the components of genes, and the basics of synthetic biology.

Patrik D’haeseleer of Counter Culture Labs expresses his perspective like this: “I’m sure that the first humans to discover fire were feared and reviled by their neighbors. And I’m sure those fire makers were concerned that their invention might ‘fall in the wrong hands’…. When it comes to synthetic biology and DIYbio, I feel we’re standing alongside those early fire makers, discussing whether only the village elders should be allowed to handle fire, or whether we should teach everyone how to deal with it safely.” Biology is a technology that can benefit humanity, if we understand it, and a powerful way to foster collective understanding of it is in a community space.

Sampling soil on Earth Day with Counter Culture Labs

Sampling soil on Earth Day with Counter Culture Labs

For past two years, Counter Culture Labs has held over 300 free classes, workshops, and meet-ups. Because of Counter Culture Labs, Bay Area residents can better link local action to global initiatives. For example, the United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. Counter Culture Labs helps people to sample soils for heavy metals in places where they are a potential concern, such as gardens, playgrounds, and yards.

Counter Culture Labs forms partnerships with other groups, such as to teach DNA barcoding with Nerds for Nature. Or, for example, to explore the use of fungi for soil remediation through Bay Area Applied Mycology. At The Counter Culture Lab’s Fermentation Station, people teach each other how to make kombucha, beers, and vinegars.

Counter Culture Labs supports a diverse community. According to D’haeseleer, they have “6 year olds dragging along their parental unit, to retirees eager to explore something new. Homeless youth barely scraping by, to the occasional venture capitalist coming to feel out the winds of change. People who know zero about biology and just want to learn, to postdocs, professors and professional research scientists who are looking for a creative outlet.”

Through workshops and meet-ups of Counter Culture Labs, people discuss books, make sensors to monitor air pollution, and learn to understand microbiology, molecular biology, and genetic engineering. Counter Culture Labs is used for innovation that could lead to start-up companies, such as the Vegan Cheese Project, in which people are researching how to create vegan cheese from engineering baker’s yeast.

You can help Counter Culture Labs by donating to their fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, where they are trying to raise $30,000 in the next week.

Until recently, I didn’t find Do-It-Yourself to be a welcoming phrase. It was an excuse to not lend a hand. “Please pass the salt.” Do-It-Yourself. “Can you show me how to sew this button?” Do-It-Yourself. “Could you lend a hand to lifting this couch?” Do-It-Yourself.

To the contrary, when it comes to biotech, Do-It-Yourself is actually a friendly invitation to Do-It-Together. Everybody has something to learn and something to teach. DITbio welcomes the public with access to the process of scientific discovery and innovation.

Isolating DNA from spit at Counter Culture Labs

Isolating DNA from spit at Maker Faire

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