Young women taking images of a turtle hatchling

Ever wanted to volunteer for a scientific expedition? Here’s how.

From missing spacecraft to eerie auroras, volunteer scientists are making some amazing discoveries.

People document a sea turtle hatchling heading for the ocean in Costa Rica. Volunteer scientists collect important data that help professional researchers understand the world.
Photograph by Georg Berg, Alamy

Tashi Hackett paddles his kayak on the Snake River, south of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and pauses near the shore. All around him is the majestic beauty of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, a haven for wildlife watchers, hikers, and campers, located within the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. But Hackett isn’t here for the view; he’s here to help protect the river.

Hackett is one of many volunteers working with Adventure Scientists, a Bozeman, Montana-based nonprofit that harnesses the skills of experienced outdoor recreationists—from mountain climbers to kayakers—to help scientists collect much-needed data on projects ranging from surveying coral reefs to collecting vegetation samples.

Organizations like Adventure Scientists play an important role in research. Professional scientists are constrained by funding, time, and location, which can limit their ability to conduct their work. Laypeople can fill in the gaps, while helping people engage with science.

Survey the Snake River

The Snake River originates in a watershed known as the Snake River headwaters in northwestern Wyoming. From there, it continues west 1,078 miles through Idaho and into Washington State, where it joins the Columbia River. Sections of the headwaters and the Snake are part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, a federal designation that preserves sections and entire lengths of 226 rivers across the United States.

Like other nationally designated waterways, the Snake has important ecological characteristics. In southern Idaho, it feeds the Snake River Aquifer, one of the country’s most productive sources of groundwater. The headwaters alone are one of the few remaining intact riparian ecosystems (areas where land and water meet, such as flood plains) in the contiguous U.S.

Yet Wild and Scenic Rivers are historically under surveyed, and the water quality of nearly 40 percent of them is categorized as either unknown or unassessed, says Adventure Scientists founder and executive director Gregg Treinish, who was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2013.

Adventure Scientists is partnering with a variety of agencies, including the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management, on a five-year endeavor to enlist volunteers like Hackett to gather data on the Snake River. Participants for all projects receive training before going out into the field. Currently, there are 99 teams with more than 500 people on a waitlist.

“By doing this comprehensive effort and by doing it with a ‘citizen science’ model, we’re able to provide the managers with a resource that they desperately need to properly manage these waterways,” he says.

(Parisians want to recover a legendary river, now buried under concrete.)

In the field

Now in its 10th year, Adventure Scientists has enlisted volunteers to collect data for projects around the globe. One project amassed the largest known microplastics data set ever recorded, illustrating the global reach of microplastics pollution. Another gathered scat samples from around the world to help Harvard Medical School researchers study antibiotic resistance.

The current timber tracking project creates libraries of chemical and genetic data about trees in the U.S. to help combat timber poaching around the world. Recently, DNA evidence from that project helped convict two men charged with selling maple trees illegally harvested from Washington’s Olympic National Forest.

“All of our projects are filtered through this lens of ‘is there a tangible pathway to impact?’” explains Treinish.

(Here’s how volunteers are helping scientists during the pandemic.)

On a recent day, Hackett’s schedule begins before 8 a.m. and goes late into the afternoon, with 10 sampling sites on his agenda. By 9 a.m. Hackett is surveying another section of the Snake in Grand Teton National Park. A bald eagle soars overhead as a group of rafters descend on the Deadmans Bar boat ramp nearby. Hackett passes the boaters to a spot about a hundred feet upstream.

There, he wades out into the shallow water, calibrates a probe, and begins to collect measurements. He records information like pH and dissolved oxygen on an app, while also assessing the habitat, including trees, shrubs, and grasses on the bank and at the water’s edge. He adds notes about canopy cover, erosion, and the popularity of the site among commercial outfitters, before taking photos.

Although Hackett is a research scientist by profession, volunteering on the Snake River on his own time, anyone can volunteer. Teams go into the field in pairs for safety. Sometimes the weather is perfect; other times it’s far from ideal. One trip had Hackett wading through a bog and thick brush during a snowstorm.

Another time, in late fall, he donned a dry suit and life jacket to attempt sampling. But ice made it difficult to reach the river and the freezing temperature prevented his equipment from operating correctly. Despite the occasional weather challenges, the lifelong whitewater enthusiast says he enjoys the opportunity to give back.

“It’s been an incredible opportunity to help establish a baseline, more or less, for data that’s going to be used for a long time, to know what the health of the river shed of the place that I love is,” Hackett says. “That feels very impactful and hopefully will be of benefit.”

(Rivers and lakes are the most degraded ecosystems in the world. Can we save them?)

Making an impact

The data Hackett and other volunteers gather is analyzed by scientists and used to advance knowledge. One of the organization’s most heralded projects in 2011 involved twin brother mountain climbing guides Damian and Willie Benegas. Together, they ascended 22,300 feet on Mount Everest to collect samples of the highest-known plant life on Earth.

These plants had fungi living within their roots, resulting in a symbiotic relationship known to allow plants to thrive in harsh conditions. The samples helped researchers develop new methods to grow more climate resilient crops. Damian Benegas says the experience helped fulfill “our childhood dream of trying to understand our surroundings.”

(One way to get kids interested in science? Let them volunteer.)

The Benegas brothers have participated in other scientific endeavors, including a study to see if altitude influences gene expression. That project was modeled after a famous NASA study analyzing how time in space affected twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly.

More than 1.5 million volunteers have participated in NASA’s citizen science projects, which range from analyzing air quality and soundscapes to recording sightings of fireballs and asteroids in the sky.

Sometimes volunteers make extraordinary discoveries. In 2020, volunteers on the Aurorasaurus team, led by Elizabeth MacDonald, a space scientist who works for NASA’s Greenbelt, Maryland-based Goddard Space Flight Center, compiled observations of a purple ribbon of light in the sky. Some scientists believe this light may be a new kind of aurora. Later dubbed STEVE (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement), the rare phenomenon is still being studied.

Not every volunteer scientist is working on a formally organized project. Scott Tilley, an amateur astronomer in British Columbia, located a missing spacecraft in 2018. One night, while looking for the Zuma satellite, he detected a signal he hadn’t cataloged before. It didn’t have the right characteristics to be Zuma.

Upon closer inspection, he realized it was NASA spacecraft 26113, which he soon learned belonged to a mission called IMAGE. The spacecraft launched in 2000, but NASA lost contact with it in 2005. Tilley even found a mission failure report. But the spacecraft he found had a strong, healthy radio signal.

Tilley’s wife encouraged him to reach out to the scientists involved with the project, so he sent an email before going to bed. He says he “woke up the next morning to an inbox that had just exploded… My phone had gone nuts. All these people from NASA were trying to reach out to me and find more information,” he says.

After confirming Tilley’s discovery, a team was able to collect data from the spacecraft before they lost contact again. Thirteen years after NASA lost contact with the satellite, Tilley says his discovery “allowed them to kind of close the book on that mission.”

Kristen Pope is a freelance writer covering science, conservation, wildlife, and climate change.

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