We could be living through the 6th mass extinction, but there’s encouraging news: the preservation of insect biodiversity begins in our backyards. And it doesn’t need all of us to be Jane Goodalls. All we need is a cheap ERG bioamplifier, a smartphone, some patience, and as little (or as much!) scientific training as we can stomach!
This idea is the basis of the new, peer-reviewed Open Citizen Science research that recently got out in the Resarch Idas and Outcomes (RIO) journal in a collab with Wikimedia Fellowship. The paper’s two-pronged approach first takes the scientific expertise possessed by the few, kicks it off the ivory tower and diffuses among community members, teaching them how to capture insect electroretinograms (ERGs) across their local species using our open-source ERG SpikerBox, which doesn’t exist yet as its prototyping is part of this project. A mobile app is also being developed to help with data collection.
These newly empowered citizen scientists will then collect data on insect populations, catalog it and turn it into open, universally accessible knowledge that’s going to be curated on Wikimedia. It’s our motto extended: neuroscience for everyone, by everyone!
But what’s the link between the electrical activity of insect eyes and preservation of their biodiversity?
By studying insect ERGs and other parameters, we can learn about the health of their environment, impacts of global climate change and local pollution. “ERG signals can be used as a readout for insect health as well as a physiological fingerprint of the insect,” explains Étienne Serbe-Kamp, the paper’s first author and our very own Senior Scientist.
He harbors much hope for the project. “Thanks to Backyard Brains, I was given the opportunity to get exposed to Citizen Science in all its facets and possibilities. Prototyping ERGo! was a wonderful process and I think we learned a lot from this first phase and hope that it will turn into a broader scale Citizen Science movement,” he tells us. The project’s short-term importance is for these newly blossomed citizen scientists to understand the scientific rationale and method. In the long run, we’d all get the world’s biggest ERG library for many insects worldwide.
Openness and democratization is one side of the project. The other is inclusion! The goal is to help not only raise awareness but also increase participation on the local level, among communities that are traditionally underrepresented in science yet are among the first to directly feel the impact of environmental catastrophe. To test the feasibility of non-scientists doing ERG experiments, the team worked with students of the Pasadena Unified School District High School.
While working on the pilot, the paper’s co-author Dan Pollak, a PhD student from Caltech and our Senior Fellow, felt a particularly acute aspect of what inclusion means and just how much it’s needed in a community. Right next to Caltech, there’s the PCC (Pasadena City College), a community college with a host of highly dedicated and talented educators and students. Caltech has it all: a stellar international reputation complemented with generous amounts of grant money every year.
And yet, many locals look at the PCC as their own, an institution that is more accessible and that uplifts them. “My main goal with this project was to give some students from public high schools an excuse to stand out in their applications to college and beyond by doing one simple thing: putting the word Caltech on their resume. I see this initiative and this publication as a trial run for more more community building, more substantial initiatives, and hopefully more impact in my community,” Dan tells us.
In a way, he made it his mission to address academic exclusion, operating at the point where neuroscience meets the humanities and begins to tackle societal justice, rendering itself political. As any other huge and complex aim, it begins with baby steps that often only require redistribution of existing resources, as well as someone to connect a few dots and make it happen. For example, the Pasadena high school participants didn’t have laptops they needed to do experiments. But someone, somewhere had them, and someone else was able and willing to pay for them. Dan turned a couple of stones and found cheap, unused laptops on the Caltech Marketplace, and it turned out that Caltech’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach was happy to pay for them. And so the students got their laptops, along with Backyard Brains kits customized for each of their projects!
He also highlights the role of two more people who were crucial to the efforts: Dr. Zeynep Turan, who helped with media and documentation, as well as Jahel Guardado, graduate student at NYU and a Pasadena local whose perspective as a woman of color in STEM was and will remain invaluable for the participants.
Bottom line, “There’s a bug on your phone” just got a whole new meaning! And thanks to this bug, citizen scientists, nature enthusiasts or merely engaged members of any local community around the globe can help conserve biodiversity, of which bugs and insects in general are a vital aspect.