The Pittsburgh Water Microbiome Project

This is a quick post to introduce a project I have been developing over the past year and a half, called the Pittsburgh Water Microbiome (PWM) Project. I am aware of some other similar citizen science projects out there, so the goal of this post is to receive some feedback and advice, and open this idea up to potential collaboration and expansion.

In the PWM project, middle-school students from a Pittsburgh Public Schools enrichment program take water samples from throughout Pittsburgh. Originally, students were only sampling drinking water from their kitchen taps, but moving forward I hope to have students sample water from throughout Pittsburgh (e.g., our ‘Three Rivers’). Following sample collection, sample microbial ecology is analyzed by 16S rRNA sequencing by undergraduate students in my laboratory. This experience is not typical for engineering undergraduates, so it helps to train these students in biology but also requires a significant amount of instruction. Microbial ecology results are then shared with the middle-school students and integrated into a larger part of their curriculum on the ‘unseen world’. Our project is also highlighted in an interactive kiosk at our local science museum (The Carnegie Science Center) exhibit entitled H2Oh! Why Our Rivers Matter. On the kiosk, visitors can click through to explore the microbial ecology of samples from different locations, with some general information about the different microbes found at those locations.

A few lessons I have learned so far:

  1. You must be willing to adapt.

Our original sampling kit design failed and it took undergraduate students much longer to learn DNA extraction and PCR preparation than I had budgeted. Similar to any research project, outreach and citizen-science projects must be extremely flexible in initial iterations and include room for failure.

  1. Communicating science well to the general public is challenging.

Communicating the broader project goals and nuances of microbial ecology have so far proven to be a challenge for me, and I would appreciate any advice others out there have about communicating on these topics. The fine line so far has been communicating about the importance of water quality and microbiology without being alarmist or scaring the general public. Additionally, many ideas that I take for granted (e.g. iron oxidizers, heterotrophs) are difficult to explain in short sound bites.

  1. The public loves the opportunity to get involved.

I have yet to receive any negative feedback about this project, and many educators love the idea of students getting hands-on science experience. When I first had the idea for this project, I imagined it would be much harder to break through to the general public than it has been, and I would bet that holds true for other science-outreach projects as well.

Thanks for the quick read – I wanted to put this project out there for awareness, comment, and feedback by the broader community. I would appreciate any thoughts or feedback by those out there with similar projects or experiences.

BibbyKJ ‘at’           @EnvEOmics

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Kyle Bibby

Kyle Bibby is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.