CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Amy Robinson pulls no punches. When asked about her knowledge of neurons when she joined Sebastian Seung’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology less than 2 years ago, she doesn’t miss a beat. "I knew jack shit!" But a few days ago, this college dropout became a co-author on a Nature paper that brings us a step closer to understanding how the eye’s neurons are wired to detect motion. "Yeah, how about that?" she says with an enormous grin.
Robinson, 28, is creative director of EyeWire, the citizen science game that made the Nature paper possible by harnessing thousands of volunteers to map the neural circuits across microscope images of a mouse’s retina. Her job title is a sign of the times. On 1 May Robinson was at the White House in Washington, D.C., speaking at the Office of Science and Technology Policy's first workshop on citizen science.
To do things different, you have to think differently. You have to push norms.
Building and maintaining an army of citizen scientists requires more than good management skills, Robinson says. It also takes creativity. For the EyeWire project, that means doing everything from helping to ensure that a neuroscience game is engaging enough to generate a steady stream of data for the lab, to engaging the public herself on stage.
Science Careers sat down with Robinson to discuss crowdsourced neuroscience, TED, and how to get a job by giving unsolicited advice. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What is it like being a creative director in a neuroscience lab?
A.R.: I love bringing design thinking into a scientific lab. I have to build our community, lead brainstorms, help the team prioritize and design new features, and do social media and blogging; I also bring in non-neuroscientists such as designers, hackers, and science writers. Also, initiating and developing partnerships is a huge part of my job. Collaborations so far have ranged from TED and the National Academies to Visual.ly, a design site where we finished a "Scale of the Brain" infographic competition last month. I also travel a lot, sharing EyeWire. According to TripIt, I've traveled 40,000 miles so far in 2014.
Q: What are the hard parts of the job?
A.R.: It's challenging juggling so many different projects with people across many time zones. Our game studio is in London, our TED/National Academies/Oculus project was led from the West Coast. Also, EyeWire's team is small: We're equivalent to five full-time people. Many team members are part time, and we work with numerous undergraduates. So together we're about 20 in total. It can get stressful. Things break. Our community is wonderful but demanding: We live at the lab some nights and weekends. But it's all worth it to see EyeWire grow.
Q: How big is the EyeWire community?
A.R.: We have about 120,000 players now.
Q: And when you say they’re demanding, what do you mean?
We got a five-page manifesto from our top players after we ran a competition in a way they did not like. And if we did not know our community, we would have responded differently. But we do know them. We got on a Google Hangout and talked it out and addressed each of their concerns. It's this human interaction between researchers and the general public that most science lacks, but that crowdsourced science can offer. I personally can't wait to see how it unfolds.
Q: How do you and your team manage the stress?
A.R.: We keep it fresh. We made a "Harlem Shake" video and did a Secret Santa gift exchange—with our players! We make memes and prowl the Web for geeky comics. The lab is full of posters and pirate flags and blow up aliens, and if things get too out of control you can always take a break in the Oculus, or run over to the media lab for a coffee to talk about the latest developments in biomechanics or computer vision. The lab as a whole is a cohesive and awesome team. And Seung is one of the most delightfully interesting people I've ever met.
Q: How did you get this job in the first place?
A.R.: I found out about EyeWire on Twitter via Carl Zimmer in March 2012. I immediately wrote to Seung, whom I met at my first TED conference.
Q: What was your job at the time?
A.R.: I was actually the creative director of a small health care company in the southeast, Sterling Health.
Q: And before that?
A.R.: I was working in mitigation banking—environmental engineering work.
Q: Is that what you studied originally? What is your degree in?
A.R.: Well ... I was an electrical engineering undergrad at Auburn University in Alabama. I was studying wireless electronics. In my junior year, I did an internship at an engineering company. It was just so different from what I hoped it would be. There was no excitement of new ideas and building new things. It was just me sitting in a cubicle doing boring tasks for someone else. I had a crisis. Suddenly I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I decided to take a break from college.
Q: So you worked for an environmental engineering firm.
A.R.: Right. For almost 3 years.
Q: So what started out as a year off turned into an entirely different career path?
A.R.: Yeah. Telling my parents that I wasn’t going back to school was a very hard conversation.
Q: And then you ended up attending TED. Isn’t that expensive?
A.R.: I maxed out my bank account! But it changed my life. I was an early TEDx organizer and built TEDxHuntsville, the first TEDx event in Alabama—where I am from. That evolved into my starting to attend TED, which inspired me to start the TEDx Music Project, which got me thinking about how to design systems that bring people together around ideas they are passionate about to build things. I love to build.
Q: And that’s how you met Seung.
A.R.: Right. I’m fascinated by the brain. So we exchanged e-mails. And when I learned about EyeWire, I sent him a bullet-pointed list of things he should consider doing to get people involved, including making animations and doing strategic outreach.
Q: So you got this job by offering unsolicited advice?
A.R.: Yep. I had no intention of working with the lab at that point. That snowballed into my going to California 2 months later, pro bono, to host some brainstorm sessions for Seung's board of advisors. Then he started recruiting me to join. It did not take much convincing.
Q: What does it take to succeed in crowdsourced science?
A.R.: To do things different, you have to think differently. You have to push norms. I'm not a neuroscientist, so luckily I don't even know what those norms are. I'm not afraid to ask naive questions. ... I think this is true of all scientific fields. Crowdsourcing has the potential to recapture and propagate wonder for this amazing world in which we live. Participants learn, they contribute, they participate in something bigger than themselves, they help big universities do what an institution alone could never do—it's uniting and empowering. It's also damn hard!
Top Image: Amy Robinson. Courtesy of Amy Robinson