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Who is Elizabeth Tyson, what is citizen science, and how could it save the world?

This week I had the great pleasure and opportunity to talk with Elizabeth Tyson who is a Program Associate with the Science, Technology and Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. The Wilson Center is a living memorial to, you guessed it, President Woodrow Wilson who was the only President to have earned a PhD. Wilson lamented that most basic research was not reaching the policy audiences that could benefit from research findings, and thus, the mission of the Wilson Center is to generate research that has actionable outcomes and is useful to lawmakers on the Hill and to other civil servants in the federal government. For example, when a congressional committee is debating issues surrounding immigration or federal regulation for synthetic biology products, they call on the Wilson Center to provide non-partisan research advice on current issues within the respective field.

The Science, Technology and Innovation Program aims to maximize the benefits and reduce the risks of technological progress as science advances (think Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Citizen Science, Synthetic Biology). Tyson works mainly in building capacity for citizen science within and across different federal agencies. She does this primarily through hosting strategic workshops and conducting original research on thematic areas (e.g., volunteer management, data quality, metadata, quality standards) that advocate the uptake of the citizen science method by federal agencies. These efforts span over domestic and foreign landscapes. Tyson will be traveling to China in April 2017 as a Professional Fellow with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations to help build citizen science water quality monitoring methods with the Chinese NGO Green Hunan.

Test test test - this picture is about stuff

Elizabeth Tyson demonstrates how to use a resource monitoring application to coffee farmers in Mexico

Elizabeth, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I love maps. My parents were Foreign Service Officers, which means I lived a lot of places while I was growing up. When I moved back to the states in elementary school I had a thick Australian accent and actually believed I was Australian. Unfortunately, if you ask me to try and use an accent today, I’d fail miserably. This brings me to my love of maps and how they portray an understanding of the environment you’re in and the creative ways they can tell you where you are – or make you more lost based on your interpretation of them.

In addition, I’ve always been fascinated by the way we manage our environment and landscapes and how humans interact with the landscape. Natural resource governance is the original example of how humans governed their resources and provides great insights into modern democracy. I like to experience these landscapes intellectually through maps, but also physically by biking, hiking, and rock climbing through them.

Do you have a favorite map?

Elizabeth: No favorite map, but this dead, rich, white guy loved maps too and put all of them online for the public to peruse.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?

Elizabeth: Sharing [my own] writing is my biggest fear but also brings me the greatest pleasure, so thanks Ashley for the opportunity to conquer fears and put a smile on my face!

On that note, would you be willing to be Femina Sci’s first guest blogger and describe what citizen science is and share a few examples?

Elizabeth: Sure! [See response below]

Femina Sci is happy to introduce our first guest blogger (drum roll please)…. ELIZABETH TYSON!

Crowdsourcing and citizen science (CCS) projects are particularly cost-effective when applied to long-term environmental monitoring (LTEM). This is because LTEM is expensive and priorities change, but humans who live in a certain location care for it in ways that scientists do not. The key social value in using a CCS approach is engaging local stakeholders as participants in the scientific discovery process. When they help design the question and collect the data and see the evidence of something that indicates a need for a change in management practices, then they are most likely to advocate for their environment as co-producers of knowledge.

There are many ways to study how the environment will change after an environmental disturbance such as natural disasters. Some examples of CCS methods for measuring change:

  • Fixed-photo locations to compare before and after photos for geomorphological changes (i.e., time lapse photography), such as those posted around Mt.Diablo after the Morgan fire.

  • Pollinator study – have locals download an open-source monitoring application that integrates their daily beehives observations and sends this information to a central server monitored by a global community of pollinator experts.

  • Agriculture – distribute seeds to local farmers of the same strain of plant (strawberries) that are very sensitive to chemical changes in the environment. Have local farmers raise the plant and then send in leaf samples to be analyzed to determine if there are any chemical compositional changes. (Check out the indoor air quality study Air Bezen in Brussels for more information).

For more information on designing projects or networking with citizen science practitioners check out or the citizen science association. For ideas on potential projects check out the federal catalog of citizen science and crowdsourcing projects, SciStarter, or for open source hardware consider following Public Labs or for DIY-bio -- which will likely pave the way for decentralized genome editing -- you could check out Oakland, California’s very own Counter Culture Labs!

Elizabeth Tyson

Elizabeth Tyson has a dual Masters of Science in Human Dimensions

of Natural Resources from Colorado State University and El Colegio

de la Frontera Sur in Chiapas, Mexico. But the degree that informs

how she thinks and questions reality is her B.A. in Religious Studies

from Guilford College in Greensboro, NC. Find more writing by

Tyson at this website.

***Femina Sci would like to note that participation in "citizen" science does not require citizenship - all people of the world are welcome to join in as part of this community effort.***