Great news: you can participate in science without going through a decade of higher education (sorry grad students, but thanks for your service!). There are two ways to do this: either you can volunteer to collect samples for a project, or you can volunteer to be the sample for a project. You can volunteer through the National Institutes of Health, third-party match sites that help recruit volunteers for large projects, independent research centers (that are usually under contract to run a study), and most universities and colleges have volunteer-recruiting websites.
Get out there and collect
There is a myriad of environmental science studies that rely on volunteers to collect samples, which may take place in very specific areas, or globally. Some are simple wildlife surveys, often through conservation societies like the Audubon Society, which use volunteers’ bird sightings to estimate populations. Humanitarian volunteer agencies may recruit volunteers for global research studies, as well. Some projects require more technical sampling, or require participants to travel to distant or difficult to reach places, and thus rely on outdoors-people with the gear and ability to safely retrieve water, soil, plants, animal hair or feces, you name it! There are some excellent examples of global projects which can be found through Adventure Scientists. AS recruits and trains volunteers for more difficult environmental sampling, and I am currently participating in their Gallatin Microplastics Initiative (year 1 and 2) along with my sampling team: Lee and Izzy.
‘Host’ your own research
Volunteering to be the sample also allows you to participate on a sliding scale of involvement. For example, observational studies only collect information on what is already happening. These might be sociology (human behavior) studies which only require you to fill out surveys (often online) on your personal history or normal routines. You can also donate biological samples (hair, breathe, blood, urine, feces, skin scrapings, etc.) which are minimally invasive but don’t necessarily require any experimental treatments that you have to participate in. A study that I analyzed data for asked participants to use a breathalyzer and submit a fecal sample in a jar. That’s all, and they were financially compensated for their time. The study was trying to correlate microorganisms in the gut with how much hydrogen or methane was in the breath, and whether a breathalyzer test could be used as a rough measure of how many methanogenic archaea lived in your gut. Often, research centers which are focused on medical treatment for a specific disease will collect specific biological samples.
Studies which require actual treatments or testing are clinical medical studies that rely on human volunteers upon whom to test products. At a certain point in drug or vaccine testing, animal or computer models can no longer serve as a proxy and you need to test things in humans. Thanks to HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) and other safety regulations, both at the federal and institutional level, there is a lot of transparency in these studies. You are told exactly what you will be required to do, what data will be collected and who will have access to it, and any possible health concerns that may arise from this study. Any release of tissue “ownership” will require you to sign consent.
I have participated in antibacterial product testing, a diet study investigating dairy fats during which I could only eat the prescribed diet for two solid months (boy, did I miss chocolate and Thai food!), and a study on chronic back pain (I was in the control group). For the back pain study, I had an EEG net put on my head to measure brainwaves and motion capture balls(examples below) attached all over my body to track my muscle movements as I performed simple tasks that required me to use my lower back muscles. I even had a functional MRI brain scan to measure how muscle pain might change brain function, unfortunately, I was not able to get a photocopy of my brain scan for posterity. The more invasive, time consuming, or risky a study may be, the higher the compensation (some vaccine studies compensate several thousand dollars).
Pay it forward
You can participate in science in other ways, too. Try getting involved with science education! There are workshops, summer programs, or school events which encourage kids to learn about science and consider a career in it. Even if you aren’t a scientist yourself and can’t be a presenter, many programs still need people to chaperone, coordinate or market the event, and cater. Many science museums and educational centers have programs, as do many colleges. You can also find opportunities through local government to help clean natural sites or educate the public.
While you are out there collecting water samples from Arctic ice, counting wolves, or surveying land for public use, you are also perfectly situated to help with a little environmental restoration. The Global Microplastics Initiative looks for plastic in water sources from some very remote locations, and this study wouldn’t have been conducted if plastic in the environment wasn’t a concern. So while you are out there, try to leave the area a little cleaner than how you found it. You can volunteer for clean-up events to target specific locations that need help, but you don’t even need to organize for this one, just go out and start picking up trash!
Finally, most agricultural research studies rely on farmers, ranchers, growers, and producers as a source of project resources (like seeds, land, or cows) and project motivation. After all, federally and state-funded agricultural science exist to help local and national agriculture. You can participate in science by identifying problems that need to be solved and providing objectives for our studies, or by allowing research projects to use your land, animals, or facilities.
So far, you’ve educated yourself on science, and now you can go out and participate. Stay tuned in the next for weeks for Anyone can Science, Step 3: be supportive.