This may be the decade of citizen science. The Internet and cheap, off-the-shelf products have made it possible for scientists to farm out repetitive and simple tasks to interested amateurs and young trainees. Look at the success of Zooniverse, a Web site launched to help a Ph.D. student to classify the shapes of galaxies -- but that now also runs projects to match up whale calls, detect solar storms, map the moon's surface, and help model climate using old records from the U.K. Royal Navy, among other scientific challenges.
"It can be a little bit hard to sell yourself, a Ph.D.-educated person, as a team player because a lot of times you're doing work on your own in the lab. But that's not going to be a problem for me because I spent a significant amount of time managing people." -- James McKone
Researchers who seek the amateurs' help with analyzing massive datasets aren't just pulling a Tom Sawyer and letting their friends whitewash a fence; these problems are too big for a single scientist toiling in a lab. Scientists need the public -- or a piece of it -- to get the work done.
An example of this new way of working is the Solar Hydrogen Activity Research Kit (SHArK) project. Developed by Bruce Parkinson, professor of chemistry and energy resources at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, the project uses inexpensive technology (and students, undergraduate and younger) to test combinations of metal oxides for the ability to split water and produce hydrogen for the storage of solar energy. There are millions of potential combinations, so screening them individually would take years.
As an outreach and education project, SHArK is appealing. But in research-intensive programs, outreach of any kind can be seen as a time sink. "If you become an assistant professor, you've got a lot of pressure to do your own stuff and just do that completely," Parkinson admits. The same is true for postdocs and graduate students, whom most advisers expect to keep their noses pressed firmly against the research grindstone. Is participating in a project like this a good career move?
Combining research and teaching
When he first started thinking about how to get the work done around 2007, Parkinson faced a choice. "[I] could start a company where I could get engineers to make robots to do this, or I could get lots of people to do this and call it a distributed research project." SHArK work is more sophisticated than the work of matching galaxies, and some lab equipment is required: the original SHArK kit consisted of an inkjet printer, a LEGO Mindstorms kit, and a laser pointer, rigged to act as a scanning station. But with the help of teachers and mentors, high school students can handle it. SHArK has worked with students as young as elementary school age. After a pilot project funded by the Dreyfus Corporation, the project received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Today there are more than 40 SHArK sites at undergraduate institutions worldwide.
Jennifer Schuttlefield joined Parkinson's University of Wyoming lab as a postdoc in 2008, shortly after Parkinson moved there from Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, and took on the role of SHArK administrator. "I was trying to decide between a chemical education postdoc and a research postdoc. I had not found any other opportunities to combine them both," she says. "I thought it was kind of rare to find the opportunity to do both chemical education research and lab research."
Around the same time, the project moved under the funding umbrella of California Institute of Technology (Caltech) chemist Harry Gray's "Powering the Planet" center. SHArK became one of the center's main outreach projects. Gray "really supported our efforts to expand," Schuttlefield says, and she spent 2 years signing up schools that wanted to participate.
Now an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, Schuttlefield says that sticking with the project after her postdoc was the obvious thing to do. "The project has an energy of its own. It motivates people, it excites people, and that in turn excites you." She's still the project coordinator, and Oshkosh has been "extremely supportive" of her role. SHArK is a good match for Oshkosh, which values public engagement and runs several science outreach programs, such as summer camps and programs for Girl Scouts.
Swimming with SHArKs
Schuttlefield is an atmospheric scientist, so some of the science behind SHArK was new to her. "My knowledge just expanded by learning more about photoelectrochemistry," she says. But new science probably isn't the most important thing that the scholars involved in SHArK learn. Some participants say their time on SHArK has helped them prove they can communicate, manage, mentor younger students, and work as a team -- the "soft" skills needed in a lot of professional work that conventional wisdom says academic scientists don't possess.
James McKone, a fourth-year graduate student at Caltech who has worked with SHArK all 4 years, hasn't yet tested the job market, but he's betting that what he's learned through SHArK will work to his advantage. "I certainly intend to include in my CV that I helped to head up a very successful outreach program," he says. "It can be a little bit hard to sell yourself, a Ph.D.-educated person, as a team player because a lot of times you're doing work on your own in the lab. But that's not going to be a problem for me because I spent a significant amount of time managing people."
John Rowley, a postdoc in Parkinson’s lab, says that he enjoys having a "diverse subset of problems" to work on, including SHArK. He, too, values the extra skills SHArK taught him. "I can communicate with people,” he says. “I wasn't just in the lab all the time.”
"Will the big boys not think I'm serious because I played with children?" Rowley asks. "There is still hardcore science involved in this project. The kids are willy-nilly mixing stuff together, but then you have to take that material and optimize it, characterize it, and do all the things chemists do." It helps that he likes teaching and is "leaning toward" a job at an undergraduate institution, where he expects to have to balance teaching and research.
Justin Sambur has different ambitions. He received his Ph.D. with Parkinson in 2011 at Colorado State University (he split his time between there and the University of Wyoming after Parkinson changed schools) and is now a postdoc at Cornell University, in the laboratory of Associate Professor Peng Chen. Sambur, an NSF American Competitiveness in Chemistry fellow, was involved in SHArK during his last 2 years in Colorado, and he's continuing to participate at Cornell. "Part of my NSF fellowship focuses on outreach work, and I am interested in promoting the SHArK projects to high school students and bridging the gap between colleges and high schools involved with SHArK, with the overall goal of getting SHArK students involved in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] careers," Sambur writes in an e-mail to Science Careers.
But Sambur is aiming for a position at a research university, and he admits it's difficult to keep up with the outreach work while preparing for a research career. "I need to get results, and fast," he writes. "If you want to do outreach, and do it right, it requires a lot of time."
Jillian Dempsey, who was a graduate student at Caltech, loved working with the SHArK kits and high school students. "I had a really unique opportunity in graduate school where I was given the flexibility to spend my time as I wished and dedicate a lot of time to [SHArK], and I don't think most graduate students are given that luxury," she says. "Most graduate advisers, I imagine, would prefer that you're in lab, doing research for your lab's research program." She credits her SHArK work with teaching her how to work with students from different backgrounds. She put her SHArK outreach and management experience on her CV when applying for positions.
How did it affect her career? "There were maybe a couple of people at various schools I interviewed at that were familiar with the project. It wasn't something we spent a lot of time discussing," Dempsey says. After finishing her Ph.D., she took a postdoc at the University of Washington, Seattle, under Daniel Gamelin. Soon, she'll start a new post as an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Obviously, SHArK didn't hurt.
Rachel Kaufman is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.