Acoustic Wildlife Recording promotes Citizen Science!
Here at Backyard Brains, we are all about citizen science, or the idea that the scientific community benefits from the collaboration with members of the general public for collecting and analyzing information about the natural world. Very DIY, very much the “for everyone” in our slogan. In 2017, Backyard Brains partnered with the University of Michigan’s Multidisciplinary Design Project (MDP) to focus neuroscience education on another kind of brain: birds! With the help of BYB, a team of undergraduate engineering students worked to develop a new kind of “Backyard Brain.” The idea was this: Create a low-cost device that could be deployed in backyards that would identify and record birdsongs! This could be used to help track and log bird populations across the country, which is an important index of environmental health. Development of this project continued over the course of our 2017 summer fellowship , and that progress is detailed in Zach’s summer blog posts. BYB and MDP will team up again for the project this year, with a new team and a new, expanded goal. But first, how did such a project come to mind? Naturally, it is the technological next step of a classic, “analog,” cataloging method…
The Audubon Christmas Bird Count
The National Audubon Society‘s annual “Christmas Bird Count” is perhaps the greatest example of democratized citizen science. Since 1900, volunteers have braved harsh, wintry conditions to help count and identify bird populations in their hometowns, as seen in Audubon’s photo above. These volunteers, from all across the country, then send in their findings, thus informing a national bird census.
The data gathered by initiatives like the Christmas Bird Count and Birdsong Identification project is incredibly important. Bird populations are very sensitive to environmental changes, making them a strong indicator of environmental health, stability, and possible effects of climate change. In this way, bird population trends can also be a lens to see our own world through.
This is the kind of citizen science that has inspired us, and others, to come up with devices which could help perform this task. Our work began in this field last year with the development of a “Birdsong Identification” device. The aim was to create a low cost, easily-distributed listening device which could be deployed to identify songbirds, and Zach’s project this summer started to do just that.
Birds, Rain, Wind, and More
The newest iteration of this project doesn’t stop at birdsongs. For 2018, the BYB-MDP partnership is looking to expand the reach of the project to create an acoustic environmental recorder that can also be listening for rainfall, wind, bats, coyotes, and other wildlife! There is a lot of information to be gleaned by turning an ear on our wilderness. Birdsongs are still on the menu, but with a new team (see above) and a new direction, the goal is to create a low-cost device which can be deployed and modified by both students and scientists to focus on whatever environmental indices interest them most!
This past summer, one of our interns worked on (and continues to work on!) a neuroscience project which many sleep-deprived students have literally dreamt of: Learning in your sleep! Joud’s project caught the eye of a few student documentarians from Princeton and they flew out to Ann Arbor to interview her.
Joud’s and the documentarian’s focus was on Targeted Memory Reactivation (TMR), which is, roughly, the study of how the brain strengthens memories. In Joud’s research, she studied the effects of “cuing” and memory reactivation during sleep, coming up with a methodology to study whether or not she could help subjects memorize patterns more efficiently.
This short documentary details Joud’s project and also goes to speak with other experts in the field – Take a look!
We hope you enjoy, we think the students did a great job!
And if you’re interested in reading more about Joud’s project, you can check out her blog-journal in the links below!
Joud: Beginning the TMR Project
Joud: The Importance of Deep Sleep
Joud: Success in Hacking Sleep, Memory
Joud is continuing with her research personally and we’re excited to share updates from her with you in the future!
Last year, Sophia, 8, a young entomologist, was being bullied at school because of her excitement for and interest in bugs and science. Now, just one year later, she has been published as a junior author in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America!
With a craving which couldn’t be curbed to capture, observe, befriend, and release as many insects as possible, Sophia, our intrepid grade-school scientist, continued to pursue the science which interested her, despite the fact that it was singling her out at school.
To encourage Sophia, her mother made a plea online for entomologists and woman scientists to send encouragement and support to Sophia so she could see a future in her passion and not be discouraged by how the other students at school treated her for her excitement.
The effect was immediate. There was an outpouring of encouragement from scientists all around the world. Sophia was suddenly surrounded by supporters who were sharing their own research with her and encouraging her to continue studying and observing her favorite insects. Many even sent Sophia pictures of their own bugs and research and invited her and her mother to come out and visit their labs!
This viral sensation, when revealed at school, markedly changed how the other students viewed Sophia’s excitement for insects.
In her words, “The kids in my school, whenever they find a bug they come and tell me and say “Sophia, Sophia, we found a bug!” After I was famous, sometimes people in my town would come up and say,“Hi, you’re Sophia the Bug Girl!” and it makes me feel good.” This is a prime example of the importance of science education and awareness, and an example of the mission at the heart of our company.
Sophia and her bug friends
I suspect that in Sophia’s case, like many others, it wasn’t out of cruelty that other students teased her, but out of a lack of understanding. But once Sophia’s story went viral, Sophia’s interest in bugs was validated. Far from some weird hobby, it became clear that her passion for entomology was actually a very celebrated and important pursuit.
Sophia’s story inspires us because our neuroscience kits and experiments are made with the hope that they reach the hands of young, passionate scientists like her, who, with a thirst for knowledge, are able to perform science experiments and make meaningful discoveries. And, like Sophia, our work stems from an appreciation of insects, and thus we know what it’s like to be called “bug people!” We’re often first recognized by the cockroach emblazoned on our T-Shirts, and we see this distinction as recognition and validation of our work! We have a lot to learn about ourselves from insects, evidenced in our own research and in the research of many others!
Our favorite insect, you might have guessed, is the cockroach. We like them because they are hardy, large, easy to care for, and are often given a bad rep in popular media. We’ve done what we can to flip the script, to prove that cockroaches, like any more socially acceptable insect, are not inherently dirty or gross; rather, they are beautiful bugs that offer us an opportunity to learn about and teach neuroscience!
This one was kind enough to pose for me on my T-Shirt for a quick glamour shot! (Not shown, 30 attempts with motion blur as the cockroach skittered around…)
Often, students react with cries of “gross!” when we show them the cockroaches, but before long they begin to realize just how cool and interesting these bugs are. We take care of our cockroaches and encourage others to do the same, returning them to their colonies after performing experiments so they can continue to romp around their egg-carton mazes and chow cockroach kibble in peace.
We’re not sure how Sophia feels about cockroaches, but in her published paper she proclaims, “My favorite bugs are snails, slugs, and caterpillars, but my favorite one of all is grasshoppers. Last year in the fall I had a best bug friend and his name was Hoppers.”
In fact, you may recall one of our own student research fellows was also recently published for a paper she wrote on grasshoppers! Dieu My, our fellow, created an experiment to learn about the grasshopper’s nervous system.
In the experiment, an iPad is used to create a dot which appears to come rushing at the grasshopper from some distance away, simulating a looming or approaching object. When the grasshopper sees the dot fast approaching, it sends “flight” signals to its legs which, in nature, would cause it to quickly jump away.
An illustration from Dieu My’s publication detailing the grasshopper’s DCMD
With this prep, Dieu My was able to record from this part of the Grasshopper’s nervous system, called the Descending Contralateral Motion Detector (DCMD), to better understand how fast and how effective this reflex is. Then, after the experiment, the grasshoppers are released back into the wild!
Dieu My and her Grasshopper
Just as we were excited about Dieu My’s first publication, we are also excited about Sophia’s first publication! The paper Sophia contributed to was written in response to the viral effect of Sophia’s story. Morgan D. Jackson of University of Guelph, Ontario, authored the article with Sophia’s help. The focus was on the importance of scientific communication and the effect that social media can have on bringing positive awareness to the field. Tracking the story from initial tweet to viral impact, the paper seeks to identify just what made Sophia’s story and appeal so compelling. It concludes that Sophia’s story afforded many scientists a chance to “spread their influence and enthusiasm across the globe and into the homes of hundreds of people who may have felt similarly alone or ostracized.”
We hope that this young scientist keeps on pursuing whatever interests her, no matter what other people think. If she continues to be interested in bugs, great! But if she decides to become a computer scientist, an engineer, a chemist, a biologist, or whatever else might catch her interest as she grows and learns more about other fields, we hope that she is successful and has no lack of encouragement or support.
This young love for science is what inspires us to continue to create tools and experiments for young people to begin similarly pursuing their interests. If you are a young scientist, the parent of a young scientist, or know a young scientist, we’d love to hear from you! Interested specifically in neuroscience or not, our field is one which is made strong by community and support systems. Scientists succeed together, feel free to send us your story at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do what we can to encourage and support you!
We first heard about this story via an article on Science Alert and found a great photographic write-up of the saga on Today. And finally, here is Sophia’s published paper.