Want to help advance the world of science? Don't have an advanced degree or any formal training? Hated Organic Chemistry? That's ok – you can be a Citizen Scientist!
A wise set of researchers are currently harnessing the enthusiasm, skills, and people hours available through interested individuals. They seek to match technology with your desire and interests, giving you a variety of opportunities to contribute actively to scientific discoveries from your laptop or iPhone, regardless of your educational background. Here is a look at some of the great projects you can be involved in, beginning today!
Map the Surface of Mars or find Genghis Khan's Tomb
With HiWish , users scour images of Mars uploaded in visible, infrared, or topographically coded form and help pick new targets research targets for detailed imaging.
HiWish makes use of the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with HiRISE recently used by University of Arizona researchers that posed the possibility of salt water on Mars. Images can be filtered according to the user's preference, whether it be location or scientific themes like volcanic processes or polar geology. Only 1% of the surface of Mars has been photographed by the Mar Reconnaissance Orbiter, so there will be plenty more images for the public to sift through. The HiWish interface is all within browser as well, so register and run through a couple images during It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Big Bang Theory commercial breaks.
A terrestrial analogue of HiWish also exists, funded by the National Geographic Society. This project, Field Expedition: Mongolia, uses satellite images of Mongolia to allow individuals to participate in a non-invasive search for Genghis Khan's tomb, led by Dr. Albert Lin. This has been a goal of many archaeologists over the years, as Genghis Khan asked that his tomb be left unmarked.
After trying both HiWish and Field Expedition: Mongolia, we found that the latter has an interface that is a little more beginner-friendly, while HiWish provides more images and flexibility, but both provide a unique opportunity to aid important research from the safety and convenience of your couch.
Initial viewing sites in your area can be found on the WildLab website, but the project really shines through use of the mobile tracking ability of the WildLab Bird app, available for free in the iTunes store. This application provides images and names of hundreds of birds, along with their accompanying calls and recent sightings, allowing the citizen scientist to locate and count birds observed, and quickly report their findings to the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell.
Improve Protein and RNA Folding Algorithms
EteRNA and Foldit are available if you are more interesting in doing life science research, and both use the visual acuity of the user and the human brain to improve algorithms of existing folding software. Foldit gives the user a protein for which the structure is already known, sets up a puzzle interface, and observes how the user would arrive at the final structure, with points being awarded for efficiency. EteRNA employs a similar method, but applies it to the burgeoning world of RNA folding. Researchers hope to find a background set of rules that govern RNA folding, and some of the more impressive RNA structures developed computationally by EteRNA users have been synthesized in lab to see if the folding of their real-life counterparts match the computational ones.
Distributed Computing Projects
Also, if you don't have a ton of spare time and would still like to advance scientific research, several distributed computing programs exist, with Folding@home and SETI@home being at the forefront. Both allow individuals to donate computer processor resources passively, to create some of the largest computing clusters in the world, and thus aid researchers in answering resource intensive questions. The goal of Folding@home is to solve problems regarding protein folding and how proteins can be perturbed once folded. SETI@home looks for alien life forms by observing changes in radio signals and determining if these "spikes" in signal are substantial enough to stand out from signal noise. All of the available distributed computing projects are great opportunities to contribute, and are worthwhile for everyone who leaves their computer on overnight (or PS3 in the case of Folding@home).
I would argue that io9s readers probably love science more than most scientists do (trust me, I am one), and your enthusiasm is a spectacular asset. With most of these endeavors, you don't even have to leave your house, giving you something to do while filled with self-loathing, instead of forcing yourself to watch the Star Wars prequels on Blu-ray next month, after you've already tired of pondering how the heck midichlorians fit into it at all.
Images courtesy of the AP, WildLab Bird, HiWish, National Geographic, Foldit, and SETI@home.