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Science by the People

Darlene Cavalier has boosted some of the biggest citizen science projects in the nation — and wants everyone to join in.

By Jennifer Walter
Jan 31, 2022 8:30 PMFeb 4, 2022 4:57 PM
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Illustration by Terri Field


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She didn’t want to be a scientist when she grew up. As a kid, Darlene Cavalier was more interested in cheerleading and dancing than in learning how to crunch numbers and snag awards at science fairs. “I was a good student,” she explains. But science just wasn’t her thing.

That might seem like an unexpected start for someone like Cavalier, who’s since made her mark on the lives of countless scientists and their work. Today, she’s the founder and director of SciStarter, a national organization that connects citizen scientists with established researchers working on large-scale, data-driven projects. She’s also the founder of Science Cheerleader, an organization for current and former professional cheerleaders pursuing careers in science.

At the heart of Cavalier’s work is a common thread: a mission to connect scientists and the public. Over the years, she has worked with Discover on a variety of projects to advance that mission, including a new collaboration to support ScienceNearMe.org, a web and mobile platform connecting families and the general public with opportunities to explore and engage in science from anywhere. She knows firsthand the joy and wonder that can go into learning about discoveries that impact everyday life — only she takes things a step further to help everyday people participate in hose discoveries. We caught up with Cavalier to learn more about the expanding field of citizen science, why it matters, and how you can get involved.

Q: Tell me about your background and how you got interested in science.

After I graduated college in 1991, I started working by just taking the first job that I could. It was very close to where my parents live and I was working in a mailroom, sending packages to different leads that editors at Discover had put together for an awards program. Basically, the editors would look through a bunch of different types of magazines, circle interesting innovations, and ship all those magazines down to where I worked.

It was my job to hunt down the people working on those innovations and mail them applications. All of this matters because when the scientists would fill out the applications and mail them back, there was a sentence in there: Tell us how your innovation benefits society, in basically two sentences or less.

That was fascinating to me. I had to take those answers and enter them into a database, which meant I was reading every single one of these entries. Occasionally I had to call the scientists if they’d forgotten to fill something out. I remember thinking, “I don’t know that I’ve ever talked to a scientist before this, but they are incredible.” I would tell my family stories about them, too.

Q: What about citizen science? How did your interest spark there?

My family was very blue collar. I was the first one to go to college, with the exception of my mom who went for two years to get her nursing degree. But they’re really smart people, and they can fix anything.

I started thinking, there’s gotta be a way for people who don’t have formal science degrees but find an interest later in life — or just don’t have an opportunity to go to college — to play a role in science. Plus, they’re funding basic research through their tax dollars and putting people in office who are deciding on issues that they could have a say in.

At that point in my career, I was getting a little tired. Discover had hired me in-house to run their awards show, and I was commuting between Philadelphia and New York. I was talking with the then-editor in chief, who encouraged me to consider going back to school to explore this innate interest I had in science. So when I went back to school, I pursued a master’s in liberal arts from the University of Pennsylvania. That’s actually where I learned about citizen science, which goes by a lot of different names.

Q: I’ve also heard citizen science called by a number of different terms, like DIY science, for example. Are these terms for the same thing, or are they a bit different?

The terminology is a huge hot-button issue … and there’s real debate going on about how to describe these things. With DIY science, you may or may not ever share your data with anybody in your community. Some do! But it may not be actionable data. It could be for the sake of exploring. And sometimes, more often than not, that community does do amazing things with low-cost tools that they build on their own.

Then there’s community science; it’s a very distinct field. These are usually environmental justice communities who act upon data at the local level to create social change. There’s also participatory research, and a lot of different names in general. Public science is another that’s being used. The field is emerging and as it continues to grow, the terms we use are becoming better defined.

Q: I feel like citizen science is way more visible than it was, say, 10 or 15 years ago. How would you say attitudes have shifted in the professional scientific community when it comes to people without science degrees participating in the work?

I think it used to be harder to try to persuade professional scientists that data or efforts among the lay public could actually be useful. There were a lot of questions from the science community about data quality, and these are valid questions for sure. There was also maybe a feeling of “they can’t possibly do what it took me so long to study,” and just a sense of uneasiness overall. I’ve seen that change pretty dramatically, although it’s still there to a certain extent.

Part of the reason why we’ve seen that change is because … there have been a number of projects that posed questions that just couldn’t have been answered without help from the public. That could be due to a few people who happen to be strategically located in an area where the scientists could just not get to. They could just happen to see dragonfly swarms when nobody else was able to catch them, for example. Or it could be because there are millions of people sifting through tons of data that is just impossible for professionals to sift through.

Citizen scientists are accelerating research and ending up in peer-reviewed journals. More is being done too, to use proper tags and taxonomies. So as papers are published, the phrase citizen science is being used. Now it’s easier to look up and have evidence that certain papers use data from citizen scientists; we didn’t even have that language before. Now it’s a field of practice, which is the other thing that helps to legitimize it.

Q: So, here’s the big question: Why is citizen science important?

Well, it’s important for different reasons to different people, and even at different points along the course of one single person’s lifetime. We all belong to different communities, and at times we all play different roles. Some years I’m a parent of young kids, so I have time to do certain things and everything’s around my kids’ interests. In my stage of life now, I’m starting to take care of my own parents, so the ways that I bond with them, the amount of time that I have, those things are taking priority. So we really want to try to create something where there’s always an on-ramp to citizen science, even if it’s different opportunities for the same person who just changes identities over time.

But on a broader level: The world needs citizen scientists to accelerate important research, advance discoveries and broaden the range of perspectives, values and observations that help shape science. Citizen science also provides public access to data, research agendas, tools and other resources that are largely funded by citizens’ tax dollars, to help create a better-informed society.

Q: SciStarter is primarily a website where citizen scientists can find a variety of projects to work on. But how do you reach communities offline to help them get involved with citizen science?

In addition to authoring or co-authoring two books on citizen science, one for academia and policy-makers [The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science] and the other written for the general public [The Field Guide to Citizen Science], we work closely with the other organization I founded: Science Cheerleaders. For example, we were PIs [principal investigators] in a project that compared growth rates of microbes on Earth and on the ISS [International Space Station]. More than 4,000 fans helped collect microbes at games after we shot microbe collection kits from a T-shirt bazooka into the stands at a Philadelphia 76ers game! Forty-eight samples were flown on the ISS and some participants were cited in the related papers.

Another initiative: We did a pilot program with libraries, and the facilitators who already reach in-person communities are our key. A facilitator might be the librarian, for example; she has direct contact with everybody coming into the library and usually particular groups that use the library, like the 55 and older community, who might meet up there already. There are actual, physical kits that people can check out, with everything they need to get involved in a project.

And I really want to stress that our initiatives are a team effort. We do everything in partnership with people and organizations that also believe in the power of the people.

Q: Did the pandemic change citizen science in any ways you’ve observed?

We saw more flexibility from project scientists who were desperate for people to get involved in their project and could no longer go somewhere, like to a national park for example. We also saw more of a willingness for the scientists to communicate online. There had been years where we were saying, come on, join us online and talk about your project to these communities. It was like pulling teeth for some of them. So that was really nice because it allowed us to do some evaluation and measure what we could do better.

Some of the feedback was that scientists had not been able to connect directly with volunteers before. We forget about that part. When you have a citizen science project where you’re asking people to collect data, it’s because you can’t get it yourself. Usually somebody somewhere else helps out, but you never really know who they are.

We did face-to-face Zoom conversations, listened to questions directly from the volunteers — that was just all stuff we loved. We love watching and building community.

Q: You recently launched a new initiative called Science Near Me. What can you tell us about it?

Science Near Me is an extension of SciStarter and it unites traditionally separate offerings from museums, science festivals, citizen science, policy forums, after-school programs, maker programs, astronomy clubs and more.

While there are many resources for people to learn about science, we wanted to create a place for people from all backgrounds and interests to easily find ways to interact. ScienceNearMe.org makes it easier for people to connect with the right opportunity across a spectrum of STEM topics and venues, and helps accelerate research on science engagement and learning in the process.

We have tools like the Opportunity Finder, which lets people search a network of partner organizations’ databases to identify programs, events and projects by location, age levels, topic, type of engagement and more. Now, in one place, you can find an event at a local museum, an astronomy talk at a local pub or a science policy forum open to the public online. Check it out!

Q: How can someone interested in a citizen science project get involved? What resources do they need?

Typically, no prior experience is needed, just a commitment to make and share observations following the project’s protocols. Some projects seek people with specialized skills, instruments, access to specific locations, or who fit particular demographics. Some projects offer online or in-person training so volunteers can learn how to use sensors, follow protocols, analyze data and even find resources to act upon the data to shape policies.

And if you aren’t quite ready to commit or want to learn more about citizen science first, SciStarter and Arizona State University developed the Foundations of Citizen Science self-guided module, which includes participation in two fun and simple projects. That’s at SciStarter.org/training. And some good projects for beginners, where they can also track all their contributions to projects, can be found at SciStarter.org/affiliates.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

5 Ways You Can Become a Citizen Scientist

Citizen science gives curious people the opportunity to become extra sets of hands, eyes and ears in real scientific research. Bringing many people together to document endangered species, monitor water quality or watch the stars makes it possible to do science on larger scales and tackle bigger research questions.

Here are just five of the hundreds of citizen science projects that you can participate in. (They can all be found at SciStarter.org.)

Nature’s Notebook

Volunteers in this project “take the pulse of the planet” by documenting changes in plants, animals and insects to help scientists understand how ecosystems are being affected by climate change. You can join a regional campaign like Mayfly Watch or Pesky Plant Trackers, or choose from over 1,400 species to watch in North America. Then, log your observations on the Nature’s Notebook mobile app.

Crowd the Tap

Volunteers test the water and pipes in their homes so researchers can map the pipe infrastructure in the United States and identify contaminated water supplies. All you need is a penny and a magnet (to determine whether pipes are made of steel, copper, plastic or lead, which is not always obvious visually). You can also share observations about your tap water like color, smell and taste. If you live near a participating library or school, you can check out a kit to test your water chemistry.

GLOBE Observer 

The NASA-sponsored GLOBE project seeks to understand our changing environment and climate through crowd-sourced observations. The project is app-based, and users can upload observations about clouds, mosquito habitat, trees or land cover to give researchers a global picture of how our planet is changing over time.

The Happiness Project 

Help psychology researchers understand the relationship between happiness and decision-making — by playing games. All you need to participate is the project’s smartphone app to access games that subtly investigate how players approach risky decisions, while periodically asking them to rate their happiness level. Game and happiness scores become data that researchers use to figure out how expectations contribute to happiness.

Exoplanet Watch

Experiment time on big telescopes like Hubble is precious, so NASA needs backyard astronomers to help researchers narrow down when and where to turn their sights to find planets outside of our solar system. Every day, the project posts new exoplanet targets for volunteers to keep an eye on. If you don’t have a telescope, you can still aid the search by analyzing data from others’ observations. — Brianna Barbu

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