Citizen science: Go ahead, try this at home

Universities and scientists are looking for online collaborators to help in their work. Here are 10 of the most interesting projects; see if there's one you want to join.

Ever wish you could have a hand in the next big scientific or medical discovery?

Actually, you could. Scientists from around the world are looking for volunteers to help gather info, take online tests or analyze data -- no scientific degree required.

Citizen science is a collaboration between scientists and amateurs. The University of California, Berkeley launched the first online citizen-science project in 1998 with SETI@home, which searches for extraterrestrial intelligence.  

For volunteers, it's a chance to take part in real scientific research. For professionals, it's a way to accomplish tasks that would be too expensive or time consuming to do on their own.

What follows are some of the fascinating -- and available -- projects out there for you to try.

Planet Hunters

How cool would it be to discover a planet? That's possible if you join Planet Hunters, which uses volunteers to cull through data from NASA's Kepler Space Telescope.

Kepler is one of scientists' most powerful tools in the hunt for extrasolar planets, pulling in a treasure trove of data. However, there is far more than scientists can possibly sift through by themselves.

Citizen scientists are needed to examine data that shows how the brightness of a star changes over time. Certain brightness patterns, which might be overlooked by a computer, could signify the discovery of a planet.

Planet Hunters is a collaboration between Yale University and Zooniverse, a citizen-science Web portal.

Arizona State University

Rock Around the World

Arizona State University is looking for volunteers to help catalog the rocks of the world.

University researchers are working to build an online library of rocks that scientists worldwide can use in their research of things here on Earth and of the surfaces of the moon, Mars, Mercury and asteroids.

To amass this library of images and data about rocks, researchers are asking students and other rock-hounds to send them small rocks from where they live. All the rocks received are logged, identified and photographed.

The rocks are baked in an oven for eight hours to remove any moisture and to make sure they're at a constant temperature throughout. They're then analyzed by a spectrometer to determine their mineral makeup, as well as structure and composition.


An online game called Eterna, developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University, is helping scientists figure out how RNA works. 

RNA, or ribonucleic acid, plays a vital role in all living cells, carrying genetic information and acting as a key to protein synthesis. Researchers think a more detailed understanding of RNA will enable them to better understand healthy cells and create better disease treatments.

Players work on 2D puzzles with the four main nucleobases -- adenine, guanine, uracil and cytosine -- found in RNA, and build sophisticated structures, such as knots, polyhedra and lattices.

Every week, players vote on the best designs, which are then synthesized in a laboratory so scientists can examine their biological function and possibly build better research algorithms.

Quake-Catcher Network

The Quake-Catcher Network is a citizen-science project out of Stanford University that uses a network of motion-accelerometer sensors plugged into volunteers' computers to detect earthquakes.

Scientists are hoping the network will provide a few extra seconds warning so people have time to seek safety before an earthquake hits.

The network provides a free sensor to anyone who lives in one of 12 high-risk areas (such as near the San Andreas Fault). Other users pay a $49 fee (teachers of kindergarten through 12th grade get the sensors for $5 each).

"The concept is ultimately to get to the place where we can reliably identify and characterize earthquakes before they've expanded to the surrounding regions," says Jesse Lawrence, project co-founder and an assistant professor of geophysics at Stanford.

Harvard University

Lab in the Wild

Want to help researchers understand what people of different nationalities find appealing in websites? Head on over to a citizen science project called Lab in the Wild.

A team of computer scientists from Harvard launched the online project, which offers up a variety of fast-paced tests to volunteers around the globe to discern how people of different ages, and from different countries and cultures, perceive information and use technology.

Once researchers know how these factors shape users' preferences, the information can be used to build more intuitive interfaces and make websites more effective. It also can be used to reshape workflows so they're more easily digestible and appealing.


Scientists behind ClicktoCure are working toward treating patients not by their cancer type, but by their cancer's genetic makeup.

While trying to figure out how different cancerous cells respond to different treatments, researchers can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data  -- and of cell images. And it's the type of data that computers have trouble analyzing. Humans are simply better at spotting patterns, defects and anomalies.

Citizen scientists go through the images on their phones or computers, finding and counting irregular cells. Five volunteers are assigned to study each image to improve the accuracy of the results.

Sponsored by Cancer Research UK, the website launched last fall and reports that more than 805,000 images have already been analyzed.

University of Cambridge

The Big Risk Test

Do you love to ride the biggest, fastest roller coasters? Or are you too nervous to even get on a Ferris wheel?

The Big Risk Test will tell you what kind of risk taker you are. Why does one person take physical risks but not financial risks? If risks are presented using words, numbers or pictures, does it affect the choices you make?

The online test aims to be the biggest study of risk ever undertaken, according to the University of Cambridge, where it was designed. Researchers are attempting to find out why people have such wildly varying takes on the risks they're willing to make, whether it's betting on a game or picking a cancer treatment.

Participants have to be 18 or older.



The Stardust@home project needs volunteers to help search for solid matter from outside the solar system.

In 1999, NASA launched a robotic space probe, dubbed Stardust, to collect particle samples from the Wild 2 comet, as well as samples of rare interstellar dust that originated in stars light-years away. When Stardust returned to Earth in 2006, scientists expected it to have collected about 45 dust particles, which are only a micron in size. But after searching about a third of the collection, only four were found.

An automated scanning microscope has created nearly a million images of the collection, which all need to be examined. Your job: To use a Web-based virtual microscope to search for these rare dust particles from outer space.


Galaxy Zoo

Astronomers need help to figure out how galaxies formed.

Galaxy Zoo is an online astronomy project begun nearly six years ago that asks volunteers to help classify millions of galaxies according to their shapes.

Scientists need information on how different kinds of galaxies -- elliptical or spiral, for example -- are distributed, giving them a better sense of the accuracy of their current galactic models and theories. The classifications also give astronomers a more detailed map of the known universe.

Volunteers are currently being tasked with analyzing images of nearby areas of the universe from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, as well as the most distant images of the universe yet from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Vision Lab, Harvard University


With TestMyBrain, volunteers can take online tests that give scientists information about how the mind and brain work.

The tests collect data for actual experiments, while also offering testers a chance to learn a little more about themselves, giving personalized feedback and individual scores.

The website, set up by Harvard University researchers, is aimed at making the tests freely available to scientists to boost neurocognitive research and reduce costs. By using volunteers from around the world, the project enables wide-scale behavioral studies that can pull in broadly-representative data from very large sample pools.

And it works: The project has found evidence that a number of perception disorders, such as face blindness, may be more common than previously thought, according to a Harvard spokesperson.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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