Session Report: Citizen Microbiology at Citizen Science 2015

A couple of weeks ago in San Jose was the inaugural meeting of the Citizen Science Association, “Citizen Science 2015“.   I previously posted my thoughts on day one here at microBEnet.

On day 2, Holly Menninger, Jenna Lang, and I organized a session entitled “Citizen Microbiology: Engaging the public in the study of invisible life”.   The format of the session was to have lightning talks by several speakers and then a moderated discussion.   We tried to get speakers with a variety of perspectives on the broad topic of “citizen microbiology”.   Here was the final panel:

Holly Menninger (Wildlife of Our Homes, Belly Button Biodiversity Project)

Jenna Lang (Project MERCCURI)

Bethany Dixon (High school science teacher)

Adam Robbins-Pianka (American Gut)

Sally James (Science reporter and citizen science participant)

Patrik D’Haeseleer (DIY Bio: Counter Culture Labs and Biocurious)

Everyone gave a five-minute lightning talk (more or less) and then we fielded questions… and there were plenty!   Even though it was the last session of the day the audience seemed really engaged and there was a lot of productive discussion.   I’d say the biggest take-home message was that there’s a lot of excitement about citizen microbiology.   Many of the challenges are shared by any kind of citizen science but it seems like the two biggest ones that are at the forefront in citizen microbiology are the problems related to data communication/visualization and biosafety (e.g. culturing unknown microbes in a classroom).

Here’s our abstract from the session:

Increased public interest in both microbiology and citizen science, combined with technological advances in DNA sequencing, has recently led to the rise of many “citizen microbiology” projects including Wild Life of Our Homes, the American Gut Project, and Project MERCURRI. Citizen microbiology faces a number of special challenges for public engagement that set these projects apart from many other successful, ecologically focused projects: microbes cannot be seen with the naked eye, are often feared as the cause of disease, and are typically identified by genetic sequences, not physical characters. On the flipside, citizen microbiology projects are uniquely positioned to help participants engage in meaningful and intensely personal ways with topics that have significant consequences on human health and well-being (i.e., microbiome, overuse of antibacterial agents, sick building syndrome).

The objective of our citizen microbiology symposium is to shine a spotlight on this emerging field and discuss opportunities and challenges both unique to citizen microbiology and shared in common across more traditional citizen science projects. Our session will start with five-minute speed talks presented by stakeholders from all aspects of citizen microbiology (scientists, participants, project managers, teachers) to provide brief project overviews and set the context for discussion: (1) Wild Life of Our Homes and Belly Button Biodiversity (Menninger); (2) American Gut Project (Robbins-Pianka); (3) Project MERCURRI (Lang); (4) Microbes in the Classroom (Dixon); (5) DIYbio and the citizen microbiology connection (D’haeseleer); (6) Participant perspective on citizen microbiology (James).  Speakers will then transition to a moderated panel discussion (led by Coil) to discuss cross-cutting topics like data visualization, data return and sharing, managing participant expectations, biosafety, and participant privacy.

A big thanks to all the participants and especially to the great speakers!


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David Coil

David Coil is a Project Scientist in the lab of Jonathan Eisen at UC Davis. David works at the intersection between research, education, and outreach in the areas of the microbiology of the built environment, microbial ecology, and bacterial genomics. Twitter