What motivated you to volunteer as a NASA citizen scientist? How did you learn about NASA citizen science? Have you had to be creative to secure adequate computer or internet access?
My primary motivation to volunteer as a NASA citizen scientist has probably been my long-standing passion for science more generally and the desire to contribute in some small way to scientific progress. Like many others around the world, this passion started fairly early in my life with a fascination for the natural world and the night sky, one that was nurtured by my lovely grandfather and persisted through my teenage years.
Again, like many others, I also grew up with a strong sense of awe and respect for NASA and its achievements, either through watching films like “Apollo 13” or reading about the history of the space program in scientific magazines. Despite the fact that my career took me in a somewhat different direction and I did not become a scientist myself, my keen interest in the workings of the universe, astronomy, and astrophysics and my belief in science as the way forward for humanity has never waned. The emergence of citizen science proved to be the perfect opportunity for me to reengage and actively contribute to scientific fields close to my heart and, even more amazingly, have these contributions, small as they may be, acknowledged.
Working on Disk Detective… brought me so much closer to a field that I had always been fascinated by but had so little insight into.
What are your favorite NASA citizen science projects to work on, and why?
Even though in previous years I’ve contributed to a number of different citizen science projects, the one I have spent most of my time with by far – almost two years – has been the Disk Detective project on Zooniverse. There are probably a few reasons behind this. To start with, of course, I found the goal of the project in itself to be extremely interesting, namely the investigation into the matter accretion process that leads to planet formation around stars and finding actual stars where this process can be observed in motion. The project itself was very well set up on Zooniverse, and working with the data at a basic level was very intuitive and easy.
As I got more seriously engaged with the project, I got the amazing opportunity to train further and work as an advanced user, gaining access to a wealth of astronomical data, learning the basics of star classification, distance calculations, and a hundred other things I never imagined I would really ever learn or have a practical use for. It was genuinely hard to believe this was possible for me as someone with no formal scientific training in the field. The fact that the work we did actually contributed to a peer-reviewed scientific publication and all of the citizen scientists involved were acknowledged as named coauthors absolutely blew my mind and was beyond my wildest expectations when I’d started.
All of the reasons I listed above really lead to the final and probably main reason why this was my favourite project to work on – namely the fantastic team behind it, both the lead scientists as well as the citizen scientists, a group of the most friendly, helpful, down-to-earth, hardworking, and dedicated people you can imagine. Even though I’ve not worked with them in a fair while, I will always continue to think of them as friends and have only words of praise for them.
What do you do when you’re not doing science with NASA? Tell us about your job and your hobbies.
When I am not doing anything “sciencey,” I work in IT as a site reliability engineer for a lovely company called Altmetric that tracks and collates online attention to scientific publications – so even when at work, I try to be not too far from science if I can help it.
My other exploits include flying around in ships in the virtual Milky Way galaxy in Elite: Dangerous, an online multiplayer space simulation game; trying to improve the lives of felines by being a cat fosterer for the local Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; and keeping in touch with the physical world by doing a spot of gardening every now and then. I never forget to look up at the night sky as often as I get a chance to, and I have a hefty bookshelf of mainly science and sci-fi books that keeps on growing and that I try to keep up with as much as I can.
What have you discovered or learned as a NASA citizen scientist?
Oh boy, well, that is a long list indeed. Working on Disk Detective taught me a lot about the basics of astronomical observation and astrophysics – coordinate systems, magnitudes in different electromagnetic bands, proper motions, and distance estimation – as well as the basics of stellar classification – spectral types, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, variability types, etc. a wealth of astronomical knowledge that brought me so much closer to a field that I had always been fascinated by but had so little insight into. It also gave me precious insight into how a citizen science project and team operates, and it taught me a fair bit about how to work together with people from all over the globe with different skill sets in order to achieve a common goal.
You don’t need to be an expert, a scientist, or even have any specific knowledge of a certain field to start contributing to it in a meaningful way if you are genuinely interested and open to putting in the hard work to learn the necessary basics and get things done.
Which peer-reviewed research publications have you contributed to through your citizen science work? What was your role in the research and writing process?
It was an absolute privilege to be able to work on and be recognized as a named coauthor in the paper “A New M Dwarf Debris Disk Candidate in a Young Moving Group Discovered with Disk Detective,” published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Along with the other cited members of the Disk Detective team, I was responsible for gathering, validating, and compiling the astronomical observational data that was used to narrow down potential candidates and ultimately confirm the M dwarf debris disk presented in the paper as a target for further research. As members of the advanced user group, we were also in the loop on the writing process for the paper submission, offering feedback at the different stages of submission as needed.
What have you learned about the process of science from your time on NASA citizen science projects?
I think the main lesson I came out with from my time with the Disk Detective citizen science project is that science is hard, very often unglamorous work, but one that is in the end hugely satisfying and can bring bright people from a variety of backgrounds together in ways you would never imagine. I also very importantly learned that you don’t need to be an expert, a scientist, or even have any specific knowledge of a certain field to start contributing to it in a meaningful way if you are genuinely interested and open to putting in the hard work to learn the necessary basics and get things done.
What advice would you give to others who might want to volunteer with NASA citizen science?
“Go for it” is the best advice I can give you. It’s an experience you will not regret. If you are passionate about the project, start putting in the hard work and show your willingness to learn and contribute, and opportunities you never thought were possible will open to you as they did for us in the Disk Detective project and for many others working in NASA citizen science projects. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to engage in progressing our scientific understanding of the world firsthand. There are few other things you could do with your time that are as meaningful, as important, and as rewarding.
Who have you met during your NASA citizen science work who inspires you?
Can’t say I’ve met any of these people through NASA citizen science work, but I am a great admirer of Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan for their tremendous work in physics and astrophysics and communicating these to the average person, as well as Oliver Sacks and Robert Sapolsky for achieving much of the same for the fields of neuroscience and evolutionary biology.