Quarantined Scientists Are Turning the Internet Into Their Laboratory
Creative approaches to research allow science to continue during the pandemic
It’s been an incredibly busy few months for infectious disease researchers. For many other scientists, however, the pandemic has ground work to a halt. Many who have been locked out of their labs have mourned the Covid-necessitated euthanasia of lab animals and the indefinite cessation of their research.
But others who have discovered creative ways to turn the internet into their laboratories remain hard at work. Their ingenuity allows research in areas like ecology, climate change, and astronomy — as well as collaboration with other researchers and citizen scientists — to continue despite the pandemic. The internet, it turns out, is a very good place to gather raw scientific data, if you know how to look for it.
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Ecologists, for example, can’t travel for field work during the pandemic, but Kyle Horton’s Aeroecology Lab at Colorado State University is carrying on. Horton studies bird migrations, but instead of banding or tracking individual birds like other researchers in the field, he uses weather surveillance radar data, sourced from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Essentially all of the continental United States has radar coverage that’s used primarily to determine weather patterns. Horton’s lab uses it to track bird migrations.
“The technology was designed to detect moisture or water content in the atmosphere. It turns out that birds — like most organisms — have a lot of water in their bodies,” he tells OneZero. “So, when they take flight, they’re showing up like very, very large rain droplets.”
Using the radar data, Horton studies how environmental factors affect bird migrations in the United States, which has important implications for migratory bird conservation. “If you know when the birds are moving through the airspace, you can effectively try to mitigate some of the threats that these birds face,” he says. Light pollution is one of these threats, and Horton’s lab is involved in creating “lights out” alerts, which tell people when to turn off their lights so they don’t interfere with major nocturnal bird migrations in their area.
Other ecologists have made up for a lack of data by tapping into the pool of citizen scientists who are stuck at home and eager to help. Ecologists at the University of Washington are recruiting bird-watchers to help study how bird activity is changing as more people stay at home. Penguin Watch, a conservation project in which citizen scientists help count penguin adults, chicks, and eggs in satellite images, has seen some of the highest participation during the pandemic since the project began more than two years ago.
Some researchers are relying on remote devices they had set up before the pandemic to continue their work from home. Jan Eitel, an assistant professor at the University of Idaho, studies how boreal forests, one of the largest biomes on earth, are responding to climate change using remote sensing, which is the process of taking measurements without physically touching the thing you’re measuring.
Instead of going into the woods, Eitel monitors the growth of individual trees in Alaska and the Yukon using data loggers, which relay the information to his computer in Idaho. He also uses publicly available imaging and laser mapping data from NASA satellites, which are so sensitive that they can measure how efficiently plants are photosynthesizing.
Boreal forests, a broad belt of mostly coniferous trees reaching across Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Scandinavia, are an important carbon sink, so their health is relevant not only for the plants, animals, and people living there, but also for the temperature of the planet as a whole. It’s important that Eitel’s research continues because it’s still unclear how these forests are responding to climate change. “As soon as you bring living things into play — living things that can change and adapt — it gets very complicated,” Eitel says.
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Citizen scientists have proven to be a useful resource for other climate science projects during the pandemic. The Rainfall Rescue project, for example, which enlists volunteers to digitize handwritten historical rainfall records from across the U.K., reports impressive rates of participation: More than 1 million records were digitized in a three-day period at the end of March; the project was completed on April 10, rescuing more than 5 million records reaching as far back as 1677. Having better historical records of periods of flooding and droughts is crucial to understanding how the climate is changing.
Even some space researchers have managed to continue their work during the pandemic, thanks to the help of volunteers. Nora Eisner, who is currently pursuing an astronomy PhD at the University of Oxford, is enlisting citizen scientists in her Planet Hunters project, a search for planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets. The project uses data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which measures the light from stars. When a planet passes in front of a star — an occurrence known as a transit event — it blocks out a tiny bit of the star’s light. This telltale drop in brightness can indicate the presence of an exoplanet.
While algorithms can detect this dip in brightness, in many cases humans are much more useful. Most algorithms need to “see” at least two transit events for a particular star before they can identify potential planets.
“Humans, on the other hand, have this incredible ability for pattern recognition, so they can find [planets] even if there’s just a single transit,” Eisner says. “We need humans to fill in the gaps where the machines struggle.”
In April, the Planet Hunters team announced it had identified at least one confirmed exoplanet in the preprint server bioRxiv. Eisner says they’re working on validating about 50 more potential planets.
During the pandemic, there’s been a threefold increase in the amount of participation as more people have been staying at home, Eisner says. “We have discussion forums on the project, and it’s just incredible to see how much people are learning and taking away from the project and how much they engage with it.” It’s easy to participate — there’s even a Tinder-like app in which people can swipe right or left to indicate if they’ve seen a transit event.
While these inspiring scientists have been able to continue collecting data during the pandemic, they are likely in the minority of researchers. Many experiments — some of which have been running for more than 30 years — have been put on hold, and it’s uncertain when they will resume. Some scientists estimate that years of work have been completely lost.
Lab shutdowns threaten not just research itself, but scientists’ careers as well. Researchers who are early in their careers need to gather data in order to publish papers and receive grants in the future, without which they may not be able to continue in academia. Graduate students who are unable to gather data may face delayed graduations or be unable to graduate at all if they are not given funding extensions.
The health of the general population could also be affected: With research on cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and tuberculosis halted, we may have to wait longer to learn about risk factors and treatments.
Scientists like Horton, Eitel, and Eisner are smart and creative, but they’re also lucky. For many scientists, it will be months, if not years before they’re able to continue their work.