Citizen Science Saturday: Blog 3 – Zooniverse – Citizen science without all the internet searching

I’m a scientist but I didn’t know what “citizen science” really was until writing this blog. I can’t figure out whether that makes me a bad scientist, a bad citizen or both. So, in order to redeem myself, I typed in to Google (other search engines are available…) “Citizen Science activities” and the top search finding was “Zooniverse” and I realised pretty quickly that I had struck gold with this website. From exploring the marine life in the fjords of Sweden to understanding the dancing movements of the Northern Lights, this website is a hub for lots of different international citizen science activities, and it also meant that I didn’t have to scroll endlessly through the internet to find an interesting project to get involved in; I am now (unofficially) the laziest citizen scientist. 

Figure 1- Monkey Health Explorer (or cute monkey) logo.

After a bit of (free) registration admin work, the Zooniverse citizen science world was my oyster and while scrolling through, one of the top four featured projects instantly caught my eye: the Monkey Health Explorer. Excitedly clicking on this project, which may or may not have something to do with the cute monkey photo (figure 1), you are introduced to the team and how they want our help! In short, the team have taken blood samples from rhesus macaque monkeys on the island of Cayo Santiago in Puerto Rico, and they would like us citizens to identify white blood cells (WBCs) in these samples with the aim to understand the health of these monkeys and how it affects their behaviour.  

Now, I’m no immunologist but I do remember learning about WBCs at school, particularly a great PacMan (Gen Z, google it) analogy to describe how our body defends itself from pesky bio-invaders by hungrily gulping them up. However, I had completely forgotten the different types of WBCs, and other than seeing the occasional cartoonish immune cell online, I had no idea what they looked like down a microscope! Thankfully there is a Beginner’s Guide where you can find a great YouTube video that walks you through the five different types of WBCs to look out for and outlines: what they look like, how common they are in the body, a side-by-side comparison to red blood cells (RBCs), plus excellent use of analogies (huge fan of) to help imprint these images in my mind.  

Figure 2 – An example of a practice image, showing mainly RBCs, and the task menu to determine whether the image is fit for WBC analysis.

Note, this YouTube clip is readily available in the “Field Guide” tab during your analysis, plus a printable guide, therefore holding your/my hand every step of the way.  

Figure 3 – How to mark WBCs (top) and the image drop down menu to assist identification (bottom).

This guide also allows you to develop and practice your new immune-cell-detection skills before you begin your analysis. Throwing up a set of four microscope images, you first must assess whether the quality of the image is good enough for identifying cells, i.e. is the cell distribution too sparse or too full, is the image blurry, etc (Figure 2). Once you’ve found a suitable image, you can then begin your analysis by clicking directly on what you think is an immune cell, which will activate an image drop down menu of the five types of WBCs. Here, you must state the type of WBC you believe it to be, which is checked before you can move on to the next image (Figure 3). 

Once you feel confident, you can then begin your analysis, sifting through as many (or as few) images as you like. I came across quite a few images that weren’t suitable for analysis or were just full of red blood cells, but don’t be disheartened, there will be plenty of images to get your Sherlock on! Most images I came across that had WBCs were mostly neutrophils – the most common (40-60%) immune cell in humans. Personally, you couldn’t spend an afternoon doing this activity as it would get pretty monotonous, however this citizen science project is very much “lunchbreak approved” and is enjoyable in short, bite-size chunks.

What’s also pretty handy is the “Talk” page where you can discuss the project with the researchers themselves! I also noticed that there was a discussion about creating your own collections, which allows you to pin some or all of the images you analyse. What’s the point of that, you may ask? Well for prospective undergraduates it could be a great tool for highlighting your volunteering efforts! Reading the discussion between a researcher and a college student, these collections have been used to track the number of hours of participation and show evidence of activity to help support University applications (Figure 4).    

Figure 4 – How your citizen science efforts could be quantified and used for university applications!

Once you have mastered WBCs and logged your activity, you can then move on to platelets and RBC analysis but I decided to explore Zooniverse further, and as a pandemic-induced bird watcher, I checked out NestCams! The birds I’d be spying on were greylag geese and northern bald ibis – not the garden birds that have been keeping me sane during lockdown but I was looking forward to learning about these monogamous creatures. This project takes place at the Konrad Lorenz Research Center, located in Austria, where the research team equips breeding facilities with video cameras to study breeding behaviours and how it affects the reproductive success of these avian species (Figure 5). Essentially this project is Big Brother for birds.   

Figure 5 – Big Brother for birds set up. Left: A researcher works at a nest box. [Credits: KLF archive]; Middle: Close-up view of the camera model. [Credits: KLF archive]; Right: A northern bald ibis preens its chicks. [Credits: Verena Pühringer-Sturmayr].

Similar to Monkey Health Explorer, this project is very much a lunchtime/if-you’ve-got-a-spare-5 kind of activity, and involves watching 10-second video clips of, mostly, the back end of a goose. Note, only graylag geese monitoring was available for analysis at the time The behaviours you are asked to monitor during your analysis are sitting, standing, both or other, and on the exciting off chance the bird is moving, you’ll be prompted to state whether they are rolling eggs, or leaving or entering the nest. I mostly saw a lot of sitting geese, which can make this analysis pretty tedious, however there is that feeling of “what if I miss an egg roll!” that keeps you going (Figure 6). Again, you can watch as many videos as you like and overall it was a very simple process.  

Figure 6 – Nest side view of a greylag goose sitting and continuing to sit for the full 10 seconds. 

By taking part in both the Monkey Health Explorer and NestCam projects, I was only scratching the surface of what Zooniverse is capable of. But both projects were very insightful and I did get that warm fuzzy feeling that I’d helped contribute to important research and learning. It’s evident that Zooniverse is trying to create a space that allows you to explore a plethora of interesting research subjects, knowing full well that if you start getting a bit bored of one project, you can easily find another project that takes your fancy. 

In a nutshell, Zooniverse is a fun, free and engaging platform. It may make you feel like you’re only dipping your toe in to the science world, but in reality, your contribution makes a huge difference to the science community’s understanding of the natural world.