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.
Since we opened our doors in 2010 with the $100 dollar spike, we’ve been working hard to create continue developing affordable, open source neuroscience experiments and educational materials. Seven years later, we’re excited to announce that we have exceeded $3,000,000 in sales! That is more money than the total of all of our grants prior to this month! Curious where that money comes from? Well, you’re in luck, we keep open books! If you haven’t seen it before, check out our finances page. It is exciting to see the growth!
Sales by Month/Year in USD
Here are some of our stats at the time of posting…
We’ve sold 11873 SpikerBoxes
We’ve sold to 85 different countries
Our biggest customers live in California, Michigan, New York, Washington, and Florida
This milestone is important to us, not just because it helps us keep a roof over our head, but because we see every sale as an investment. Every kit sold is a shared stake in our vision to bring neuroscience education to as many people as possible. Not every student will grow up to become a neuroscientist, but we believe it is extremely important that students are introduced to the basics of neuroscience at an early age. At its essence, neuroscience is an exploration of how our bodies function and who we are, and it is a field that is full of more mysteries than answers.
Strong sales and our recent grant prove that people are excited for neuroscience education. Like the grant funding, our sales are reinvested right back into research and development. We’ve got big plans with the next few years, and we’re excited to announce them as soon as we can! So be sure to follow us on social media and subscribe to our newsletter.
On January 1st, we received a New Year’s gift from another continent: Neuroscience tools and experiments made by a group of high school students selected from the 20 best rated schools of Iran. They were written lab reports, submitted for an interdisciplinary neuroscience competition that utilized our open source experiments with cockroaches as a resource for the kids to make their own research and inventions.We here summarize and celebrate their efforts, you can also download the original reports yourself. This is a result of our 3 year friendship with Mohsen Omrani, an Iranian neuroscientist, doing research in nearby Ontario, Canada. He acts as a community liason between the Iran Science communities and the wide network of scientists around the world (Every Iranian Neuroscientist we know seems to be a colleague of Mohsen).
Of note is that in Iran, students choose to follow a biology route or a mathematical root when they are in the 9th grade. There was an emphasis for each team to have students with both biology background and mathematics background so they learn to be able to communicate with each other. So what then did the students investigate?
To begin, a question we often are asked is: “Why Cockroaches?” Indeed this was also asked by members of the Allameh Helli 4 High-school: they submitted the hypothesis that the cockroach is the perfect “explorer” companion for a researcher, because of their access and survival in complicated and uncertain environments. In other words, they declare that roaches could become better tools than robots for scientists to reach unknown places. The main influences for this conclusion was the article “Line following terrestrial insect biobots” by Tahmid Latif and Alper Bozkurt .
The most remarkable thing about this competition is not that the students built their own tools for the experiments using open source resources, like schematics, code and design… but they made their own custom modifications to design different experiments from the ones we had made.
One excellent example of this is the Robo Roach version (a remote controlled cockroach) of Alireza Farzad, Behzad Haghgoo, Amir Reza Haji Anzehaei, Aria Hassanpour, Mohammad Reza Osouli of Allame Helli one High School.
They used an IR System to send a signal to a IR receiver circuit that’s connected to the cockroach antenna AND their cerci. We have only begun cercal stimulation, the Iranian students beat us to it! In words of the students:
“Cerci is a very sensitive organ which receives smallest movements of the air and warns the cockroach to run. We thought that cerci may have a low adaptation rate because it is directly related to its life being. By stimulating the cerci we make an illusion of danger and we make the cockroach run forward”.
Their results to this new experiment was that “ 3V potential difference is the best combination for cerci electric stimulation” and that the cockroach doesn’t adapt to the stimulation of the cerci, unlike the antennas that show strong adaptation properties.
Danial Zohourian and Amir Masoud Azadfar, from a different high school, focused on cerci stimulation only, coming up with a very useful table of results on how fast the cockroach goes (steps/ per second) according to voltage.
Steps per Second
10 steps in 7 seconds
9 steps in 3 seconds
12 steps in 4 seconds
13 steps in 3 seconds
10 steps in 5 seconds
13 steps in 4 seconds
Interestingly, they had a different outcome than the students from Allame Helli one High School: they concluded that best stimulation is at 2 volts, not 3, and that cercal stimulation does adapt.
So what is the correct answer? Only that new experiments are necessary to understand why there are different results, and what improvements are important to obtain a more accurate conclusion. But as we have learned, the best experiments come from disputes between scientists that motivate each other to improve their work.
Regarding on this emphasis on possible errors to improve experiments, the writing of students Tarannom Taghavi and Nastaran Fatemi, from Kherad high school caught our attention. They tried to tackle the main problem of the Roboroach: the behvioral adaptation to the stimuli that controls the cockroach: “ If we can produce the signals in it’s ganglion and send it to the cockroach, there won’t be adaptation anymore. As we are creating the signals and sending it to its decision making center, we might be able to take control of cockroach’s decision making process.” They did this by recording roaches signal with a spikerbox and trying to send it back to the ganglia.
Interpretation of the electric signal obtained from the cockroach.
Although it wasn’t successful, coming up with this hypothesis to solve the main problem of RoboRoaches was impressively creative. And, as we noted, we really liked the focus of their paper in the mistakes that were made and how to make corrections for a future experiment: they were the only students that made emphasis on the importance of iteration, of making a lot of failed experiments that are patiently and constantly improved, before making any discovery. Thus our informal “Golden Cockroach” award goes to Tarannom Taghavi and Nastaran Fatemi.
Finally, we want to give a special mention to the only group that designed a new interface: a special cockroach treadmill to estimate the adherence of these insects legs:
Keep on inventing, Keep on discovering, our fellow young colleagues across the globe.
You can download the original writings here and see the competition video below