Anyone can Science, step 2: join the team

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.

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‘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!

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I took it upon myself to clean a stream near my house in Bozeman one day last year.

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.

Plowing Forward: Montana Agriculture in a Changing Climate

Agriculture is consistently Montana’s largest economic sector, but as an arid state we need to prepare for the challenges brought on by changing weather patterns.  Yesterday, agricultural producers, scientists, special interest groups, lawmakers, and the general public came together at the Bozeman Public Library to talk about the future of climate change and what it means for people in the agricultural industry and research sector.  The event was organized by Plowing Forward, a collaborative group to coordinate local Ag. education efforts.

“If you’ve eaten today, then you’re involved in agriculture.”  -Chris Christiaens at the Plowing Forward meeting in Bozeman, MT, Feb 10, 2017

Opening remarks were led by Chris Christiaens, lobbyist and Project Specialist for the Montana Farmers Union, based in Great Falls, MT. Chris gave us some perspective on how Montana farming and ranching has changed over time, especially over the last 10 years,including changes to the growing season, harvest times, water usage, the types of plants which are able to survive here.  He reminded us that the effect of climate on agriculture affects all of us.

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Chris Christiaens, Project Specialist for Montana Farmers Union.

Next, we heard from Montana’s Senator Jon Tester, who runs a farm in northern Montana that has been in his family since 1912.  The Senator spoke to his personal experiences with farming and how his management practices had adapted over the years to deal with changing temperature and water conditions.  Importantly, he spoke about how agriculture is a central industry to the United States in ways that will become even more apparent in the coming years as the negative effects of climate change affect more and more areas.  Food security, a peaceful way of life, and economic vitality (not just in Montana or the United States, but globally), were contingent upon supporting agricultural production under adverse events.  He assured agricultural stakeholders that he continues to support production, research, and education, including the work we do in the laboratory as well as out in the field to promote agriculture.

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Montana Senator Jon Tester

Next, we heard from three professors from Montana State University.  Dr. Cathy Whitlock, a Professor of Earth Sciences, who is also the Director for the MSU Institute on Ecosystems, and a Lead Coordinator for the Montana Climate Assessment.  The Montana Climate Assessment seeks to assemble past and current research on Montana climate in order to assess trends, make predictions about the future, and help both researchers and producers to tailor their efforts based on what is happening at the regional level.  The Assessment is scheduled for release in August, 2017, and will allow for faster dissemination of research information online.

Dr. Whitlock’s introduction to the MCA was continued by  Dr. Bruce Maxwell, a Professor of Agroecology, as well as the Agriculture Sector Lead for the Montana Climate Assessment.  He summarized current research on the present water availability in Montana, as well as what we might see in the future.  He warned that drier summers were likely, and while winters may get wetter, if they continue to get warmer that snow runoff will flow into rivers before the ground has thawed.  This means snow melt will flow out of the region more quickly and not be added to local ground water sources for use here.  To paraphrase Bruce, a longer growing season does you no good if you don’t have any water.

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Dr. Bruce Maxwell, Montana State University

We also heard from my current post-doctoral advisor, Dr. Fabian Menalled, Professor of Weed Ecology Management and Cropland Weed Specialist (Extension).  He presented some of the results from our ongoing project at Fort Ellis on the interactions between climate change (hot and dry conditions), farm management system (conventional or organic), disease status, and weed competition on wheat production.  Increased temperatures and decreased moisture reduced wheat production but increased the amount of cheatgrass (downy brome), a weed which competes with wheat and can reduce wheat growth.  My work on the soil bacterial diversity under these conditions didn’t make it into the final presentation, though.  I have only just begun the data analysis, which will take me several months due to the complexity of our treatments, but here is a teaser: we know very little about soil bacteria, and the effects we are seeing are not exactly what we predicted!

Here is the video of Dr. Menalled’s presentation (just under 9 minutes):

Lastly, we heard from a local producer who spoke to his experience with ranching on a farm that had been run continuously for well over 100 years.  His talk reflected the prevailing sentiment of the presentations: that farm practices had changed over the last few decades and people in agriculture were already responding to climate change, even if previously they wouldn’t put a name to it.  The presentations concluded with a question and answer session with the entire panel, as well as a reminder that we all have the right and the obligation to be invested in our food system.  Whether we grow produce or raise livestock for ourselves or others, whether we research these biological interactions, whether we set the policy that affects an entire industry, or whether we are just a consumer, we owe it to ourselves to get involved and make sure our voice is heard.  To that end, I wrote a letter to my legislators (pictured below), and in the next few weeks I’ll be writing posts about how I participate in science (and agriculture) on the local and national level.

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Make your voice heard.

Anyone can Science, step 1: get your education on

Co-written by Dr. Irene Grimberg, Affiliate Associate Research Professor at Montana State University.


Science may seem like an exclusive club, what with the complicated technical jargon, quirky inside jokes that only seem funny to science people, daunting entrance and exit exams, and years of study and self-improvement.  And it doesn’t help that many scientists would rather hole up in their lab than give a public presentation or figure that “social media thing” out.  But we scientists get coffee stains on our lab coats and use spell-check just like everyone else.  And as with ice cream, science comes in a tremendous variety of flavors and sizes of commitment.  So, let’s talk about some ways that you can involved today!

Education

Getting acquainted with the vast field of science seems daunting, but it’s actually easy and fun.  There are hundreds of museums out there that are eagerly waiting to broaden your perspective on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and will let you give it a try with hands-on activities.  Wikipedia has conveniently made some lists on science museums in the US and around the world.  In fact, there are organizations like the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Science-Technology Centers that can help to get you connected to the museum that catches your eye.  Many US National Parks also have strong science education programs and information in the visitor centers or around the park (at least, as of January 19th, 2017 they did).

All colleges and universities host daily talks (seminars) on current research and they are open to the public, they just aren’t advertised widely in local media.  If you search online for your local university and “seminar”, you can find public presentations for nearly every department or subject, not just the STEM ones.  Some presentations are available as webinars and can be found online to watch remotely in real-time so that you can ask questions, or can be replayed later at your leisure.  There are many outreach STEM programs sponsored by non-profit organizations, sometimes in collaboration with universities.  For example, Farm Days or Field Days are public presentations at university research facilities on issues related to local and national agriculture, food production, and food safety.  In fact, most university farms and greenhouses are open to the public and offer free tours and other events on a regular basis.  There are also “ask an expert” shows on local public radio and TV in which viewers can call in and ask questions to university researchers.  Or you can simply email your questions and get connected to someone in a relevant field.  Even NASA has a program in which you can ask questions to an astrophysicist!

Other educational options include science festivals, robotic competitions and shows, Science Olympiads, The National Chemistry Week, and programs that specifically aim to recruit girls to science, such as Expanding Your Horizons and Girls for a Change.  As an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, I participated in a service-learning course in spring of 2008 in which we designed a public presentation at the ECHO Center in Burlington, VT.  The purpose of the all-day workshop was to educate kids and adults on wolf ecology and potential reintroduction into New England.  Our Wolfwise presentation was incredibly fun to host, and it was a huge hit: we were invited to come back and present again the next weekend!

 

If leaving the house isn’t your thing, there are an overwhelming amount of resources available online.  An increasing number of scientific and research journals are available free of charge online, known as open access.  Over 26 million journal articles are available through PubMed, a database for medically-relevant research studies which is curated by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).  Science News hosts a huge variety of STEM articles compiled from the most prestigious science journals, as well.  And any subject under the sun (or inside the sun) has an educational video out there somewhere.  There are science shows on TV, a dedicated cable channel, and documentaries including several outstanding educational series with high-definition video footage from around the globe (Plant Earth, Life, and The Blue Planet).  There are podcasts, such as Science, Star Talk Radio, and many others that allow you to listen to recorded audio shows on your own time.  You can find interactive websites to learn a variety of things, both academic and practical.  Or teach yourself computer coding in C++, Java, Ruby, Python, or Perl.

Just be sure that you are getting your information from a credible source.  Many online bloggers or websites sound great, but they often have no formal training in what they peddle, or are heavily sponsored by companies to promote an unsubstantiated lifestyle or discredit scientific work.  A good rule of thumb is to look for qualifications, citations, and motivations.  Does this person or organization have formal education or training?  Do they cite their sources for information?  And what is their reason for doing this?  Here are my qualifications, you’ve seen how much I enjoy citing sources, and since I am (and have always been thus far) federally-funded through different grants, I consider it part of my job to share my work and my experiences free of charge.

Featured Image Source.

Conference Proceedings

Scientific conferences are a great place to get your name out there, discuss research with colleagues, and meet other researchers with whom you might one day collaborate.  It can be difficult to get noticed as a graduate student or post-doctoral researcher, especially if it’s your first time at a certain conference, if your poster time conflicts with more interesting events, or if you find yourself way at the back of a 1,000 poster hall.  You need to be ready to introduce yourself and get your point across, and to do it in a memorable and concise way.  There may be hundreds or even thousands of people in attendance, so you need to make a fast impression.

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Too much info on your card? A black background is slimming.

Though a bit outdated these days, I find business cards really handy.  Not only can you quickly hand out all your information, but you can write notes on the back about what you discussed with someone so you can follow up with them later.  It’s easy to leave a bag of them at your poster for people to take, too.

Not only is your poster or presentation’s content important, its visual appeal will help draw in people who are “browsing”.  Make sure your font is large enough to read from 5-8 ft away, and that you have some color, but not enough to make text illegible.  Bolding or bulleting take-home messages can also be really helpful.  Make sure you can describe your poster in a variety of ways: in under 60 seconds to the person with a mild passing interest, and in-depth with the person that is curious about your methods or your other projects.

The most important thing to prepare, though, is yourself.  You are representing yourself, your institution, and your science.  Cleanliness, organization, and confidence make a huge difference when meeting new people, and will make you more approachable.  Make eye contact, try to avoid filler words, and smile!  I have watched posters get overwhelmingly passed by because the presenter was on their phone, or looked bored or annoyed.  Making eye contact and saying hello to someone as they walk by is often enough to get them to slow down and ask you about your work.

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If nothing else, a brightly colored shirt will attract attention to you and your poster.

When asking questions at other presentations, be sure to be polite; being demanding or rude is guaranteed to be met with disapproval from the rest of the audience.  And go ahead and introduce yourself to other researchers, just be sure to keep it brief and don’t interrupt another meeting.

One more thing to consider at a conference is your behavior outside of your presentation.  You are at a gathering of intellectuals who may one day be your boss, your colleague, your grant reviewer, or otherwise influential in your career.  They may remember that they saw you talking loudly to a friend during a presentation, or that you got too drunk at the opening session.  Conferences are often used as an excuse to take a concurrent vacation, especially for those in academia who generally can’t take a week off during the semester.  But you should remember why you are there and act professionally, especially as a graduate student or post-doc, because you never know who’ll remember you in the future.

I Accepted a New Position in Soil Microbiology and Agroeconomy!

As my current post-doctoral position winds down in the Yeoman Lab in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences, I am pleased to announce that I have accepted a post-doctoral position in the Menalled Lab in the Land Resources and Environmental Sciences Department! Dr. Menalled’s work focuses on agricultural weed ecology and management, particularly with respect to plant-plant interactions, changing climate (water and temperature changes), and now plant-microbe interactions!

I’ll primarily be working on a new two-year project that recently got funded through the USDA, entitled “Assessing the vulnerability and resiliency of integrated crop-livestock organic systems in water-limited environments under current and predicted climate scenarios”, but I’ll also be working collaboratively on several other similar projects in the lab.

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A little pre-job job training: I’m helping to make structures to keep rain out (rain-out shelters) of plots to simulate drier climate conditions.  Photo: Tim Seipel

My new responsibilities will include comparing agronomic performance and weed-crop-pathogen interactions between organic-tilled and organic-grazed systems, evaluating the impact of management and biophysical variables on soil microbial communities, and collaborating in modeling the long-term consequences of these interactions under current and predicted climate scenarios.  It’ll mean a lot more field work, and a lot of new skills to learn!  In fact, to help me study for my new job working with agricultural plants, my mentee and her friend made me flash cards:

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My mentee made my study cards so I could learn to identify common crop and weed species.

In addition to my new skills, I’ll be integrating my background in microbial ecology and bioinformatics, in order to study agricultural ecosystems more holistically and measure plant-microbe interactions.  In the same way that humans eat probiotics to promote a healthy gut microbiome, plants foster good relationships with specific soil microorganisms. The most exciting part is that I will act as an interdisciplinary bridge between the agroecology of the Menalled lab and the microbial ecology of the Yeoman lab, which will allow for more effective collaborations!

 

 

Improving a child’s life is as easy as wearing a paper turkey-hat.

Encouraging girls to go into STEM fields is really important; studies show that female STEM high-school teachers and even online mentors increase the probability of female students following a STEM education.  Moreover, any child benefits academically and psychologically from having positive role models in their life, especially when they were role models that they interacted with as opposed to celebrity role models.  And the benefits don’t just extend to children, adults benefit from positive role models, too.  Certainly I have benefited from strong female role models in my life, from high school art teachers, to undergraduate lecturers, to family (happy birthday, Mom!).

This past fall I started putting my money where my mouth was- I started mentoring an elementary school-aged girl in Bozeman, MT through the Thrive Child Advancement Project (CAP).  So far, we have mostly been making art projects and talking about archaeology.  But we have been talking about trying to learn the Java programming language together!

There are lots of opportunities to mentor kids, either through CAP programs, Big Brother/Big Sister, Girls and Boy Scouts, etc., just a quick internet search brings up dozens of local options.  For less of a time commitment, you can also volunteer for community workshops, like the Girls for a Change summit in Bozeman or the Girls-n-Science in Billings.

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Citizen Science- volunteering for the microplastics study

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Sampling in September, when the stream wasn’t frozen and we could see the trail. Credit: Lee Warren

Yesterday was the winter sampling time point for a large research project I’m volunteering for: Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is managing sample collection for the ASC Gallatin Microplastics Initiative in the Gallatin Valley watershed. The project samples various streams and lakes, both where they converge with the Gallatin River and at their headwaters.  The project is part of a much larger project looking at microplastics in water around the world, the ASC Worldwide Microplastics Initiative.  ASC recruits volunteers who have the outdoors-man skills (like hiking, tracking, or boating) and enthusiasm to get to hard to reach places to collect samples, then trains them in how to collect water samples and metadata (like weather, temperature, what we’re wearing during collection), coordinates sample collection times, and makes sure to safely send the samples back to a laboratory in Maine.

 

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A lovely view of the Spanish Peaks.

Lee and I sample Deer Creek, just north of Big Sky, Montana.  To do this, we hike 13 miles round trip to Moon Lake, with a 3,288 foot elevation gain up to around 9,000 ft above sea level. This time, the trail was covered in 1-2 feet of undisturbed snow, luckily we had snowshoes that kept us from sinking into all but the most soft of snowdrifts. On the way up it was snowing heavily, though visibility was fine, and on the way down it was raining. In many areas of the trail, drifts meant that the trail was at a 45 degree angle, and we had to break our own trail for nearly all of it. Despite the arduous trek, the views were beautiful, it was wonderful to be out of the office, and it was fun helping a large coordinated study.  You can get involved in studies like this through organizations like ASC, or through research universities- volunteers are always needed for all different types of studies.

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Moon Lake…so where do we start digging?

Not in my backyard!

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Today I spent a few hours picking trash out of some steams bordering my housing development. It’s very windy on the plains of Montana, and wind storms contribute to pollution by spreading trash. These steams are home to ducks, fish, musk rats, snakes, and frogs, and they link to larger water systems which run through local farms and provide water to cattle. Since the water table isn’t very deep here, any pollution can have far reaching effects. In just two and a half hours, I managed to pull all this out using only a ski pole, proving that one person can make a difference. As an environmental scientist, it’s important to me to give back. Next time you’re looking for something to do, why not try some green up?