Halloween Tricks With a Science Twist from “Citizen Sci” — a New PLOS Blog

A guest post by Lily Bui

Citizen science is a growing field in which the public can participate in and contribute to scientific discovery. Its definition is expanding as quickly as the number of research fields it advances and the variety of tools used to facilitate its booming popularity, now spanning thousands of projects.

Beginning the week of Nov 26th,  a new PLOS Blog will launch, aptly titled, “Citizen Sci.” Each week thereafter, contributors from SciStarter (an online citizen science community), in addition to Dr. Caren Cooper, Research Associate in the Bird Population Studies and Citizen Science programs at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and Ashley Kelly, a graduate level researcher studying genres of science communication and production of scientific knowledge at North Carolina State University, will present readers of Citizen Sci with the projects, people, and perspectives fueling new frontiers for citizen science.

Photo by Miala via Flickr

But first, just in time for Halloween, here are seven spooky citizen science projects to whet your appetite.

This post is by Lily Bui, Senior contributor at SciStarter and a future member of the PLOS Citizen-Sci blog team.

Most of us live in fear of what we don’t know. In science, however, the Unknown is exactly what keeps us hooked. Even the most revered physicist of all time (I’m talking about Einstein, of course) had a little trouble explaining the universe at times, calling what we now know as entanglement in quantum mechanics “spooky action at a distance.” The Unknown can be spooky, indeed, but with citizen scientists in hot pursuit of knowledge and data, we can collectively un-entangle scientific mysteries that come our way this Halloween.

This holiday brings out the dark, the macabre, and the sometimes inexplicable. We put on costumes to temporarily assume roles that we usually don’t play in our normal lives. Here are some Halloween-themed citizen science “costumes,” or roles, that you can don this October.

1. Extraterrestrial Tracker
Astronomy and Space
SETI Live, Zooniverse, NASA

Photo credit: NASA

Are we alone? With an ever-expanding, vast universe beyond our tiny blue planet, SETI thinks not. SETI Live is a citizen science project (part of Zooniverse) that invites you to help scan astral objects for radio waves and signals that might be transmitted by extraterrestrial life. The Allen Telescope Array (a name that looks conveniently like “Alien Telescope Array” from afar) scans the skies and sends data back to the SETI Live website, where citizen scientists are able to help sift through information and classify stars with exoplanets.

Or, if you’d rather Be A Martian this Halloween, you can do that, too! On this highly interactive site, you can create Martian profiles to become “citizens” of the planet. (We like to think of it as citizen scientist-ship.) You can count craters, ask questions about Mars in the forum, and tag photos taken by the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the Curiosity’s predecessors, with descriptions of what you see. No matter where you land on this site, your experience is destined to be out of this world.

2. ZomBee Watcher
Nature and Animals
San Francisco State University Dept. of Biology, SFSU Ctr. for Computer for Life Sciencies, Natural History Museum of LA County

Photo credit: USGS.gov

The ZomBee apocalypse is upon us! Run—or buzz your way—to Zombee Watch! Researchers suspect that the parasitic fly Apocephalus borealis is responsible for infecting large populations of honeybees. The fly lays eggs inside the body of honeybees, which then serve as incubators. As the eggs grow, they suck up nutrients from their bee hosts. The hosts become disoriented as their bodies change from within, often leading them astray from their natural habitats. Eventually, newborn fly larvae crawl out of the honeybee’s body and grow into adult flies, beginning the cycle all over again. Citizen scientists can contribute to ZomBee Watch by helping collect sick-looking or dead bee specimens to observe whether parasitic pupae emerge. See what the buzz is about.

3. Vital Signs
Nature, Animals, and Plants
Vital Signs Maine

Photo credit: Vital Signs Maine

When distinguishing the un-dead from the living, it’s important to look for the right Vital Signs. This citizen science project brings scientists and novices together to investigate invasive species in Maine. Are certain ecosystems at risk of being overrun by invasive plants and/or animals? Participants can help scientists observe both invasive and native species by taking photographs, then entering data into the online application. The site provides helpful how-to guides for those just starting out and offers a huge database of observations made by other citizen scientists.

4. Secret Agent (Sci)Spy
Nature, Animals, and Plants
Science Channel (Discovery)

Photo credit: Discovery

Our mobile technology today is analogous to the gadgets of Hollywood’s most sophisticated spies. Use your spy cameras (or phone cameras) to spy on nature and contribute to science. Created by Science Channel (Discovery), SciSpy enlists agents to document the natural world of their backyards, parks, cities, and towns. Report back to base by sharing photos and observations and contribute to research initiatives that rely especially on amateur participation. This project is sure to leave you both shaken and stirred.

5. Paleontologist
Paleontological Research Institution, Cornell Dept. of Education

Photo credit: FossilFinders.org

Dig deep into the past with Fossil Finders and uncover hidden clues about human history. Participants will help paleontologists from the Paleontological Research Institution identify and measure fossils in rock samples from central New York, enter their data into an online database, and compare their data with the data of other schools. Local participants can sign up for trips to important sites, whereas online participants can engage in virtual tours. Fossil Finders’ learn-by-doing approach to science unearths a sea of knowledge for those who contribute.


6. Tastemaker
Biology, Genetics
Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Photo credit: DMNS

If you find yourself hording sweets this Halloween, perhaps this next project is just your flavor. The Denver Museum of Nature & Science, supported by the Science Education Partnership from the National Center for Research Resources and National Institutes of Health, has spearheaded a project called the Genetics of Taste: A Flavor for Health. The study aims to increase public understanding of genetic research, while also making strides to better understand the genetic ancestry of the gene Tas2r38, which dictates the ability to taste bitter, and its affect on the health of modern day humans. Don’t mind lending your taste buds to science (after consuming all that Halloween candy)? The opportunities are so tangible, you can almost, well, taste it.

7. Ghost Hunter
Smart Phone Apps
New England Center for Advancement of Paranormal Science

Earlier this year, Professor Fabian Bustamente of Northwestern University developed an experimental augmented reality Android phone app that allowed users to participate in citizen science while simultaneously playing a game. Participants “zapped” ghosts that showed up on a map of their surrounding area by taking photographs, which were then stitched together into panoramic shots. Commentators believe that augmented reality apps like these could pave the way for future mobile app-based citizen science.

Photo credit: USGS.gov

While Hallow’s Eve has you captivated by the curios, be sure to stay curious too! With these citizen science projects, it’s all treat, no tricks.

Lily Bui received dual B.A. degrees in International Studies and Spanish Language and Culture from the University of California Irvine. She served in AmeriCorps; and performed across the U.S. as a musician. Lily works at WGBH-TV in and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Cambridge, MA. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns (mostly to entertain herself).


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