Most of us must let go of childhood ambitions to become a firefighter or astronaut. But if “scientist” was on your grade-school wish list, that’s easier now than ever.
So claims Sharman Russell in her new book, “Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World,” which the John Burroughs Association just awarded its top prize for distinguished nature writing.
The award puts Russell in a distinguished line of nature writers, including Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Barry Lopez and John McPhee. And it was announced while she was making a mark on another literary totem pole – serving this semester as the University of Montana’s Bill Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer in the Environmental Studies Department.
“I worked with Bill from 1978 to 1981 – he was my writing teacher for fiction,” Russell said. “But I always gravitated toward writing about science and nature. Now, I’m working with students who are taking on really important topics like climate change and the future of agriculture, and they want to get better at explaining it. I believe in the act of writing. It’s a natural, creative thing to do and I’m glad people are doing it in the service of science.”
Montana Natural History Center communications director Allison De Jong said in addition to showcasing some beautiful writing about Russell’s home landscape of New Mexico, the book makes an appealing pitch for getting involved with research on the volunteer level.
“She shows how anyone, anywhere, can be a citizen scientist,” De Jong said. “All you need is curiosity and a little time and commitment and a desire to know the world a little better, whether you’re a 9-year-old or a 90-year-old.”
After graduating from the University of Montana, Russell moved to southern New Mexico and took a professorship at Western New Mexico University. She also taught creative nonfiction writing at Antioch University in Los Angeles.
She was contemplating the way scientists and non-scientists interact when she became aware of the growing number of research projects that depend on amateur data-gathering. In Missoula alone, that includes people who record movement of elk on Mount Jumbo all winter and appearance of flower buds on fruit trees along the Clark Fork River every spring. Classrooms of children sift buckets of New Jersey dirt for evidence of fossil mastodon meals while senior citizens log daily weather reports.
Russell decided to try her own hand at a specific citizen-science project. She said it really got rolling after she emailed an entomologist for suggestions of what to study.
“He plunged me into the world of tiger beetles,” Russell said. “But more importantly, he told me how if you take an obscure insect and study it for more than a week, you will know more about that insect than anybody else on the planet.”
That’s not a reflection of Russell’s, or anybody’s, powers of observation so much as a glimpse of the sheer volume of unanswered questions awaiting someone with the time to seek answers. Roughly 400,000 species of beetles populate the world. British evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane once quipped that one of the few things we can be sure about the Creator was he had an “inordinate fondness for beetles.”
Spending two seasons concentrating on tiger beetles had unexpected benefits, Russell said. Not only did she learn a lot about all the beetle’s life stages from egg to adult, but she found her own relationship to the natural world evolving.
“It was a great way for me to get outside more, even in my own backyard,” she said. “And I tend to move quickly through the landscape as a walker or a runner. This made me slow down.”
It also exposed her to the multitude of different citizen-science projects seeking citizens. In addition to the well-known efforts like the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, there are astronomy programs recruiting volunteers to identify galaxies in photos of star clusters, and biophysicists seeking help recording the way protein molecules fold into energy-efficient shapes.
“Scientists have learned that crowd sourcing their research is like having 10,000 grad students who get out and do stuff,” Russell said. “We don’t have as many ornithologists and lepidopterists working as we used to. There aren’t that many paying jobs for them any more. But we’ve got 200,000 people volunteering with the Cornell (University) Laboratory of Ornithology. That lets scientists do landscape-large projects.”
As complicated as those tasks sound, the sheer size of the citizen-science army makes the process work. For example, at least 30 galaxy-spotting volunteers inspect each sky photo and submit their results. The huge redundancy in the system helps newcomers learn the ropes while weeding out mistakes.
“There’s almost 1 million people cataloging galaxies,” Russell said. “You can go online and be cataloging galaxies in 10 minutes. Darwin did the same thing with volunteers mailing in observations by penny post. Now we’re using the power of tens of thousands of people making real science.”
And it’s not a one-way deal, where novices feed raw material to eggheads in white lab coats who produce esoteric publications.
“Citizen scientists bring things to the table that scientists can’t do, like make demands for public policy or add an emotional context to a discovery,” she said. “They can raise political concerns or illustrate connections to the social world on a spiritual or emotional level that scientists don’t like to talk about. It lets you be the things you didn’t have a chance to do. It’s a way to transform yourself and relive old dreams.”