Delayed Gratification, Citizen Science and Why You Might Not Have Received an Email about Your Sample Yet

But, If You Are So Willing, You’ll Receive Emails and Updates for the Next 10 Years. Also, Did I Tell You about the Cats?

I do not have any particular predilection for delayed gratification. I can’t watch YouTube videos because I don’t like not being able to control the pace and see where I am going. I don’t like departmental seminars because almost inevitably one can read the paper faster (and get to the good parts) than one can listen to the talk. Actually, this is too meek of a statement. I actually hate departmental seminars. My wife is patient. My wife can sit by a riverbank and wait for animals to, maybe, appear at dusk. I look for a snorkel. I look for tracks. I look for something to chase (and as a result my wife sees more interesting animals than me wherever we go). But there is one context in which I wait, in actually doing science.

Science is an exercise in extremely delayed gratification. A couple can conceive and give birth to a baby in less time than it takes to conceive of and complete a small scientific study, even a really small scientific study.

For scientists, this means there is great value in carefully conceiving a study. It is easy to talk about “quick projects,” but the truth is there are no quick projects. The only thing quick in science is, if one is lucky, coming up with ideas. This is why I so deeply enjoy the idea phase of science; even if it is wrong, a beautiful sweeping idea provides instant gratification.

For generations, the slowness of science has been its frustrating bellwether. Those who succeeded in science ultimately figured out a way to deal with the slowness of repeating experiments, analyzing data, interpreting data, and waiting for the scientific community to, through peer-review, evaluate whether it believes what has been found to be closer to the truth than what was known before. In other words, the boring parts of science separated those who might be scientists, from those who just had ideas. I’ve never been terribly good about the boring parts of science, the slow wait, the stubborn flowering of truth, but I persevere by always having multiple projects going on so that at any moment one project is reaching fruition even if others are laboring through the difficult in-between months or years. If you have a personality like mine, in other words, you deal with the slowness of science by having ways of pretending science is not slow.

But for citizen science, science done with the public, the very slowness of science presents a problem. The public is, on average, like me, anxious, ready to see what happened, ready to see the results. And the public does not, on average, have the advantage of being engaged in multiple slow projects. In some cases, this desire for instant gratification can be rewarded when data collection itself produces some concrete return. For example, if one participates in the Breeding Bird Survey, one hears the birds. If one does the 4th of July Butterfly Count, one sees the butterflies. These projects though, in and of themselves, are not science. They are monitoring; this monitoring is important, necessary, integral to our understanding of the world and ultimately a cornerstone of future science, but it is not science. It is in doing this not-science that one can get the mistaken impression that science is quick.

The truth though is that when you, say, collect data on where a bird occurs, it takes, typically, years for a scientist to use those data to understand something new about birds in general. Perhaps even decades. The truth is you have been tricked in the same way I trick myself by having multiple projects, tricked in the most pleasant way.

In our lab, part of the science we do involves the public; it is citizen science, like the bird survey, like the butterfly survey, but different. Our differences are multiple, but one of them is that like real science our science is slow, turtle slow, tortoise slow, erosion of rock slow, real science slow.

Unlike many other citizen science projects, most of our work with the public is not monitoring (our School of Ants project, to which I will return, notwithstanding). It does not necessarily have much in the way of instant gratification. For example, in one of our projects, belly buttons were swabbed and once sent in those swabs must wait to be studied in our lab. In another, swabs of homes received similar treatment. Elsewhere we walk through the technical steps required to process these samples. These technical steps take from six months to a year, depending on how many people we have in the lab, depending on what works and what does not, depending on how much I am teaching, depending on whether or not I’m giving a lot of talks, depending on all of the things that each step in science always depends on.

But it is not just the technical steps that take time. The real beast is understanding what the results mean.

If you want to study a simple problem, a toy problem, an idealized problem that is perfectly elegant, you can frame a couple of simple hypotheses and test them. Testing those hypotheses won’t go quick, but interpreting a perfectly elegant experiment can be straightforward, especially if it was designed well. I encourage graduate students to design at least some of the chapters of their theses to be these sorts of projects, projects that they won’t squander years and years trying to understand. Toy projects are important. BUT, and here is the big BUT, most of the questions we most want the answers to, most of the questions that are best approached by working with the public, are not toy questions. They are big girl (or boy) questions. They are questions for which a simple little experiment is not, on its own, going to solve everything.

Take your belly hole, also known as the belly button or, as the doctors like to say, “not so grand canyon” (Actually, I made that up. Doctors don’t say “not so grand canyon,” they say umbilicus. At some point someone needs to write about doctors and whimsy but now isn’t the time). We now have data back from the belly button samples of 538 brave souls who sampled their own belly buttons for science. Our next step is to tell people about what was living in their belly buttons and, we are about to, but we have a problem.

Our problem is we don’t yet understand what is going on in terms of the microbes in belly buttons. We can, right now, tell people what is living in their belly buttons, give them a list of tens or often hundreds of kinds of microbes, but without some sense of the broader pattern, this doesn’t provide precisely what we would like to provide, which is a sense of how individual samples relate to the bigger story we are revealing. What, really, do the microbes in your belly hole say about you? We are trying to figure it out. We are engaging, literally, ten busy scientists in just this question right now and we are closer, but not quite there yet. This might seem silly and, in some ways, it is, but it is not in as much as it now seems very clear that the species on your skin affect your health and well-being and something (we just don’t know what yet) affects which species live on your skin.

Belly buttons though are easy compared to the new project we are up against. We have worked with many of you to sample four sites in each of fourteen hundred houses around the US. And, after a little over a year, we know which species are present on the first set of those samples, one thousand inner door frames and one thousand outer door frames. This first step took Holly Menninger, Megan Thoemmes, Jessica Henley, Jon Leff and a crew of other folks hundreds of hours each, many of them on weekends and late at night. But we now know.

And what we know is the precise list of kinds of bacteria, archaea and fungal microbes on those two sites in those thousand or so houses. The sum total of kinds of microbes in these houses is over 100,000. Yes, over one hundred thousand. There are more than five times as many kinds of microbes in these houses than there are birds and mammals in the world. This is exciting, super exciting, and we could now tell those thousand participants which species they are living with, but the interesting thing is to figure out what determines which species they are living with and whether those species affect health and well-being. That is what we will do.

Here’s a recent map showing the number of fungal species collected on inner door frames in homes across the US:AlphaDivMap.Indoor.Fungi

Each dot represents a home. The reddest dots are the most diverse doorframes, with as many as thousands of species. The bluest dots are least diverse. Where we might have expected to see a clear and obvious pattern (for example, more species toward the tropics), we find much more complexity. Our goal is to understand this complexity and some of that understanding might come quick, but much of it, because we know so little to start with, will be slow.

Now we have to get remotely sensed data from satellites so that we know about the conditions outside each house. Then we have to get census data so that we know about the human environment around each house. Then we have to figure out which of the many indoor variables folks reported from their own houses is most relevant to the microbes. Then we have to consider other variables. Then we have to figure out how to analyze the data.

A normal biodiversity study might have tens of species in it, or hundreds or if it is considering the entire globe, thousands. We know of no other studies that have had to deal with tens of thousands of species. And so we can’t analyze the data on our own. Our next step is to enlist the statisticians. We have brought in a range of statisticians to help with our analysis, including Brian Reich, Krishna Pacifici and Eric Laber at NCSU. We have also brought in a postdoc who has experience thinking about distributions of small organisms. But then there is another problem, while we know something about the microbes we are finding, the fungi we are finding, they are a total mystery. And so we need a fungal biologist and hence Rachel Adams has begun to collaborate with us. And there will be more challenges as we begin to try to see and these are normal, the realities of the next steps required when dealing with real, big questions. I don’t worry about them, I have other projects that are at different stages, other projects that are finishing.

Take our project on ants in backyards, School of Ants. With School of Ants, there is slightly more instant gratification. Kids (or adults) get to find and sample ants. An ant in the hand is not science, but it is cool. We can also turn an ant in a hand (or preferably a vial) into data relatively quickly, within a few months, and participants get to see their data on an online map (since part of what we are looking for is new information about the distribution of ants–monitoring, not science). Through time we have also begun to do science on these ants. It hasn’t been quick, but it has come. The science has allowed us to better understand the distribution of ants in North America and how it is changing. As a result, we have been able to provide back to participants a variety of concrete products related to what we have discovered, thanks to their sampling, about ants in North America. We have produced an eBook on the most common ants of North America based on data from the project, an eBook on the most common ants of New York City,  and a manuscript based on the analysis of what makes certain species common in cities and others rare. In addition, we are still doing science with the data from these samples, lots of it. No fewer than two postdocs and two graduate students are working on these data and, it is my guess, we will have people working on these data for at least another decade.

Our approach is not instant gratification – it is long-term science. As a result, if you participate in one of our projects, you might not hear about your sample in the first year on which we work on it. It might take considerably longer. If you want a quick answer to what lives in your house, you’ll probably be able to pay for it at some point. But what we are giving you is not a quick answer, what we are giving you and aiming to provide in all of our projects is something closer to the truth than anyone could have known yesterday. How long will this take to fully realize, how long will it take us to fully understand what we area seeing now? My guess is another ten years.

But rest assured, if you are as anxious as me, we are always starting other projects. We are working on a new one about cats (details revealed soon), and armpits, and then of course, there are the mites. Soon, with each of these, you will be able to get involved, in one way or another and then, once you have, science will grind forward, slowly, because very little that is worth knowing can be revealed with immediacy, because science is slow. Because what we would all like to understand about ourselves is worth waiting for.

If that is frustrating, I apologize. It might help to know, it is also frustrating to me, like listening to a talk, when I could read the paper, but that is precisely the point, there is no paper yet, no place to read what we are trying to understand, something out there in the darkness, something we want to understand with you, something we are struggling, slowly, to lay hold of, big truths about small species, truths that I promise that I want, just as badly as you, to know.

Header photo credit: Bristol Bus Station Clocks, Rob Brewer | Wikimedia Commons

By | 2016-11-22T13:47:08+00:00 March 16th, 2014|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

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