Monthly Archives: June 2016

CAN I VOLUNTEER FOR PEOPLE-POWERED RESEARCH IN SCIENCE? 

 

Visiting a research lab is much easier than volunteering! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Volunteering for research is easy with Zooniverse!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

For those people who feel that simply visiting a research lab is not enough to satisfy their wish to actually do some science work (see:  “Can I Volunteer in Science?  Can I Visit a Research Lab?  How Do I Do That?” ), there are opportunities to work on research in what is termed citizen science, people-powered research, or crowd-sourced research.  This article describes this science activity for the public, discusses its difference from traditional lab-based investigations, and summarizes its value for science and society.

What is people-powered scientific research? 

This consists of many non-scientists using their personal computer (PC) and individual abilities to work on specific research tasks under the supervision of professional research scientists.  A multitude of volunteer workers is needed because huge amounts of data are generated by some modern Big Science projects; those data must be processed before further analysis by the scientists, but no-one is able to hire some hundreds or thousands of research techs to do that work.  Without this input by very many helpers, the same tasks would take an individual scientist years or decades to complete.

This participation in research by groups of volunteer collaborators does not involve previous experience, swirling millions of test tubes, synthesizing exotic new organic chemicals, use of special research instruments, or wearing a white lab coat!  Rather, it involves donation of time and directed effort by individual participants at their convenience.  Typical activities involve use of a PC for specified research tasks in data processing, interactive discussions with other participants and supervising scientists, and, subsequent use of the processed data by the directing researchers.  The people-powered results and their derived conclusions are published as regular research reports in science journals.

What is Zooniverse? 

Zooniverse is the largest and most popular PC platform for people-based scientific research (see: https://www.zooniverse.org/about ).  Many thousands of people around the world already have worked on wide-ranging research projects with Zooniverse.  Some new projects are added each year, and the number of volunteer workers continues to grow.

Zooniverse is organized and run by the Citizen Science Alliance (see:  http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/structure.html ).  Its objective is to create online citizen science projects to involve the public in academic research (see: http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/philosophy.html ).  A listing of all their current research projects is available both at: http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/projects.html , and at: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects? .

Zooniverse makes notable efforts in both scientific research and science education (see:  https://www.zooniverse.org/about/education ).  It has a number of good associated activities for the public: several discussion boards for conversations and discussions (e.g., Zooniverse Blog, Zooniverse Talk (i.e., covering all aspects of Zooniverse, and a good place to ask questions), Zooteach (i.e., lessons and resources for teachers of science, mathematics, humanities, and arts), Galaxy Zoo (i.e., research in astronomy by class groups of students), and, several others).   A gratis newsletter, Daily Zooniverse, about its activities is available at:  https:// dailyzooniverse.org/ .  Zooniverse involves people around the world, and some programs are made in collaboration with external science or educational institutions, such as the Adler Planetarium in Chicago (see:  http://www.adlerplanetarium.org/citizen-science/ ).

How can I join to work on scientific research with Zooniverse? 

Research with Zooniverse can involve youngsters or oldsters, and includes projects for all 3 main branches of science (biomedicine, chemistry, and physics).  Registration and sign-in boxes are located on home pages of Zooniverse and the Citizen Science Alliance (see earlier listings!). After you choose from the many available projects, you can begin right away!

What does people-powered research do for science and society? 

Several distinctive outcomes can result from citizen-based research. These collaborative efforts provide: (1) a practical means for data processing where it is necessary to utilize some huge number of research workers, (2) an excellent way to introduce more adults and young students to research and science, and (3) an effective approach to counter the utterly false depiction by Hollywood and TV of scientists as weird creatures from some other planet, and of scientific research as only an entertaining amusement.  All of these outcomes make Zooniverse and other people-based research activities very valuable for both science and society!

How does people-powered research differ from lab-based research? 

It is important for everyone to recognize that doing research work in a university or industrial laboratory is extremely different from participating as a research volunteer in a citizen science project.  Employment to work in a science lab often involves hands-on data production, use scientific instruments, and Q&A sessions about the results obtained; individual skill, judgment, productivity, and previous experience by the research worker all are prominent.  Working in a citizen science project involves handling recorded data (e.g., videos, images, historical records), interactive quality control, and further digital processing, all done with a PC while being supervised by scientists; individual dedication for time spent and adherence to research protocols are prominent.

Both types of participation in research provide valuable contributions to science.  Both involve real research, provide many opportunities to learn about science, and make it evident how research investigations are designed and conducted.  In my personal opinion, the volunteers working on people-powered research are analogous to part-time research technicians employed in a science lab; that is, design of the project, ongoing critical evaluation of its progress, using the results obtained to derive conclusions, and writing reports for publication all are provided by the scientist(s) directing the project, and do not directly involve any lab technician or volunteer worker.

Concluding remarks! 

People-powered research is a terrific way for serious individuals to learn more about science, research, and scientists.  Zooniverse and other programs make this opportunity readily available, and you can easily try it out!

 

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CAN I VOLUNTEER IN SCIENCE?  CAN I VISIT A RESEARCH LAB?  HOW DO I DO THAT? 

 

Visiting a research lab is much easier than volunteering! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Visiting a research lab is much easier than volunteering! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Let us say that you have some interest and curiosity for science, and want to actually do a little research work in a laboratory, just to see what this is like.  You are wondering, how can I do that?  One of the best opportunities for students in high school or college is to join a research project run by your science teachers.  For others, since you have no training or previous experience, there is almost no way you can work in a lab for pay; thus, your question becomes, can I work in a lab as a volunteer?  This article will explain why your quest for a volunteer position is generally very difficult, and discusses alternatives which are much more doable.

What work could a volunteer do in a research lab? 

Scientific research is a practical activity and is very specialized.  Since you have no training or previous experience, you cannot do much in a lab.  Research demands that operations be done accurately and completely in a specified manner; even learning how to clean research glassware according to the lab protocol is quite different from washing the dishes at home.  In addition, I am guessing that cleaning lab glassware probably is not what you are looking to do as a volunteer.

To aid your understanding about volunteering, let’s look at the analogy of building houses.  Assume you have curiosity and interest in that, so you are seeking to be a volunteer at orker for a local construction company.  The foreman will ask you what construction work you have done before; your honest reply will be “none”.  After you state that you do know how to hammer nails into wooden planks, the foreman then will ask you questions about details: what kind and what size nails are used for the frame or for panels, have you ever used a power nail driver, and, do you also know how to install doors and windows?  After your negative answers, it is obvious that you cannot do anything in construction until you have received much instruction.  Doing research in a science lab is very similar, and cannot be done without specialized training and experience!

One exception to the above is researching in the field, where serious volunteers might be used where a large group of workers is needed (e.g., for research projects involving agriculture, archeology, botany, environmental chemistry, microbiology, mineralogy, zoology, etc.).  Volunteer activity can be done during your vacation time or even during the entire Summer.

Are there any alternatives?  What could I do instead of being a volunteer? 

I suspect that what you really are looking for is to spend a few hours or days as a visitor observing lab staff running experiments, analyzing data, operating research instruments, meeting with the lab director, observing participants in journal clubs, etc.  This brief watching activity should satisfy most general curiosity about science labs.  If you are trying to decide whether you want to become a research tech or a graduate student in science, briefly watching will tell you much about what goes on in a research lab, and will help you decide what to do next.

Visiting a research lab requires that you find a professor in a university or a group research leader in industry, and gain their approval.  First and foremost, you will need to explain exactly what you are after and why.  Secondly, leave the question of time up to your host or hostess; one or 2 half days in a single week should be quite sufficient.   From my own background, I believe many professional researchers would be pleased to provide this opportunity to serious visitors!

How can I find out what possibilities are available? 

It is up to you to make personal inquiries to find where you might be a visitor!  Don’t hesitate to ask your science teachers, parents, and friends for help in deciding who to approach about visiting.  First, find out what local industries, universities, and hospitals have active research projects.  Then, see if you know anyone working there, and talk to them about what might be available; if you don’t know anyone, make an appointment to see a departmental chair or the director of an industrial  research group to ask what could be available for you.  When you find someone suitable, make an appointment to explain to them what you are after and why; you must prepare carefully for this interaction (i.e., know everything about their research work, reveal your own interests and future hopes, etc.).  Even by itself, talking to any professional scientist almost always is an eye-opening experience for most people!

Are there any organized programs that could give me a taste of research work? 

Quite a few universities and colleges offer “Science Exhibition Day” for the public. There, all can learn about their active research projects, see many exhibits about research, attend lecture presentations and demonstrations, and, meet science workers.  Attending one or 2 of these should greatly help you find a suitable scientist to contact about visiting their lab.  In addition, various Science Fairs take place every year; these illustrate how beginners can do good research, and might be useful in your search for which lab to visit.

The major question almost everyone will ask you is why you want to volunteer or visit a research lab instead of going to graduate school?  In my view, most people who strongly need to get a sample of real research should consider enrolling in a community college or graduate school for an associate’s or master’s degree program in science.  There, you will get a good background, learn some hands-on skills with using research instruments, and conduct research in an actual project.  Probably you should expect to use 1-2 years for that degree; if this is not good for you, then simply withdraw.

New kinds of opportunities to actually work in research projects! 

Some research projects seeking crowd-funding give donors new opportunities to participate in various aspects of these investigations.  Check out the experiences of participants for crowd-funding described at internet websites; just ask your browser for “crowd funding for science”.

Another modern possibility arises if you are really good with computers and software.  That expertise provides an opportunity for employment with piecework, since those skills could be useful for some research scientists with large labs.  By finding such work, you also will get to observe a lot about the daily research activities in that lab.

Final comment! 

Give it a try and good luck to all!

 

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A DYNAMIC BENEFACTOR, YURI MILNER, IS A VERY STRONG MOVER AND SHAKER IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH! 

 

Quotes from Yuri Milner in 2016 (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Quotes from Yuri Milner in 2016!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Yuri Milner can be called “The Breakthrough Man”!  He is a very active individual dividing his time into 80% for business and finances, and 20% for science projects.  Most recently Milner donated $100 million to sponsor a dramatic large new research project aiming to take close-up images and data from planets circling another star (see “Can Research Travel Out to the Stars?  Yuri Milner says “Yes, Let’s Go!”).  Today’s  article presents Milner’s personal background, gives his many activities in the Breakthrough Group, and, discusses the important role Yuri Milner and other billionaire philanthropists have for making a big difference in modern science.

Some background about Yuri Milner!  [1]

Yuri Milner was born in Russia and now is 54 years old.  After early schooling in Russia, he went on to study theoretical physics at Moscow State University  and graduated in 1985; after working as a doctoral candidate in particle physics, he decided that he was “disappointed in myself as a physicist” [1].  In 1990, he enrolled in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and graduated with a MBA degree.  Returning to Russia, he was active in banking, international investing, and internet businesses; he founded Digital Sky Technologies (DST) in 2005.  Successful early investments in internet companies led to his immense personal fortune.

Today, Yuri Milner is the CEO of DST Global, an international company headquartered in Russia. This entrepreneur is married, has 2 children, and resides both in Russia and California.  He has received dozens of awards and is widely recognized for his several major philanthropic contributions to science [1].  Milner’s personality features being very determined, dynamic, and focused.  He always is a leader, but also works well with others.  He delights in innovation and is not afraid to follow his ideas or to take chances. As an enthusiastic patron of science, he still utilizes his previous training in physics.

To see Yuri Milner in action as “The Breakthrough Man”, you can watch 2 internet videos.  The first is an interview session conducted by a hostile questioner, which Milner handles nicely (see:  “This Billionaire Wants to Build Spaceships to Look for Earth-like Planets” ).  A longer video shows Milner recently announcing the latest Breakthrough project (see:  “LIVE: Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner to announce space exploration Starshot” ).  Thirdly, an excellent new interview lets Milner explain his interests in space science, but this is published only in written form (see:  “Shooting for the Stars” ).

Activities of the Breakthrough Group! 

In 2012, Yuri Milner joined with several other billionaires to found the Breakthrough Prizes for significant accomplishments in science and research.  These award several million dollars to each winner, thereby exceeding the Nobel Prizes; some of their features are designed to fill several well-known policy gaps in operation of the Nobel Prize.  The annual awards ceremony for the Breakthrough Prizes includes a large gala celebration of science with full internet coverage for public viewing (see recent short video: “2016 Breakthrough Prize highlights” ).

Several other projects supported by Milner’s large philanthropies are parts of the Breakthrough Initiatives (see: “Breakthrough Initiatives” ).  Breakthrough Listen is an intense research study looking much more widely for signal emissions indicating the existence of intelligent life on planets of other stars (see: “The hunt for extraterrestrial life just got a groundbreaking $100 million investment” ).  Breakthrough Message is a competition aimed to identify a good digital depiction of Earth and humanity that is suitable for reception elsewhere in the universe (see: “Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking announce $100 million Breakthrough Initiative to Dramatically Accelerate Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe” ).   Breakthrough Junior Challenge is an annual public competition for young researchers (see:  “Breakthrough Junior Challenge” ).  The latest Breakthrough Initiative is Breakthrough Starshot, a dramatic attempt to propel ultraminiature space probes out to our nearest star, Alpha Centauri, to see if its planets show signs of life (see: “Can research travel out to the stars?  Yuri Milner says “Yes, let’s go!” ); he is working on this with the cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, engineers, and other scientists.

Without the notable financial sponsorship by Milner and his philanthropic colleagues, none of these initiatives and activities for scientific research would be possible in today’s world.

How is the Major Philanthropy by Yuri Milner and Other Billionaires Especially Significant for Science and Research? 

The answer is that this philanthropy avoids the many restrictions and mistakes made by the standard system for supporting scientific research (see: “All About Today’s Hyper-Competition for Research Grants” , and, “Could Science and Research Now be Dying?” ).  The end results of such philanthropy are that: (1) some important projects which would never get funded by research grants or by industries now will get conducted, (2) the door is opened for more freedom, creativity, and new ideas in science (i.e., they will be much less disfavored as subjects for research studies (e.g., basic science) or restricted by bureaucratic and commercial involvements (e.g., low-profit pharmaceuticals), and, (3) the usual detructive fighting for research grant awards or patents is bypassed.  A significant secondary result is that the general public will become much more familiar with the importance of science for their daily life, instead of being totally estranged from research and scientists.

Several other billionaires besides Yuri Milner have made giant donations to push new efforts and new directions in scientific research.  I already have highlighted the wonderful philanthropy supporting innovative research projects and new research sites by James E. Stowers (see:  “A Jackpot for Scientific Research is Created by James E. and Virginia Stowers!  Part I.” ), and, by Paul G. Allen (see:  “A Dramatic Individualist, Paul G. Allen, is a Major Benefactor of Scientific Research!” ).  It is interesting to note that all these individuals share certain characteristics (e.g., personal fascination with research, willingness to take chances instead of only seeking some guaranteed results, seeing their own life as an extensive exploration, enthusiasm for innovation and new ideas, working with organized teams of scientists and engineers, and, never taking ‘no’ for an answer!).  I have no doubt that all 3 clearly understand exactly what is right and wrong in modern scientific research.

Concluding remarks! 

Yuri Milner and other major philanthropists are making revolutionary new scientific research studies possible.  He and other large philanthropists see the beauty and value of research, and should be applauded by all people!

 

[1]  Wikipedia, 2016.  (Biography of) Yuri Milner.  Available on the internet at:  https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuri_Milner .

 

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CAN RESEARCH TRAVEL OUT TO THE STARS?  YURI MILNER SAYS “YES, LET’S GO!”   

 

The Breakthrough Starshot is a fantastic research project! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
The Breakthrough Starshot is a most fantastic research project! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

One of the 3 largest general problems in modern science is “money” (see:  “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” ).  Some individual philanthropists with billions of dollars recently are greatly advancing science and benefiting society via substantial donations to start new research institutes, research support programs, science initiatives, and science megaprizes.  By providing the very large funding needed for projects in big science, they enable doing what others only can dream about; some of their new ideas are daring and creative explorations, while others try to leap over the normal slow pace of scientific research.

This article looks at a very new and dramatic space project, the Breakthrough Starshot, just announced as an intensive attempt to develop and test new mechanisms for interstellar travel (see 2 short videos at: http://www.space.com/32546-interstellar-spaceflight-stephen-hawking-project-starshot.html ).  Its ultimate goal is to investigate whether life exists on planets outside our solar system.  This novel exploratory project is part of the Breakthrough Initiatives [1] featuring new ideas for scientific research.

Background on the 3 directors of Breakthrough Starshot! [1-5]

Yuri Milner is a financial investor, internet entrepreneur, physicist, and science philanthropist, who has homes both in Russia and California.  He acquired his very large fortune by working and investing in international internet ventures, and is one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prizes  (see:  “New Multimillion Megaprizes for Science, Part II” ).  His generous sponsorship is the basis for the Breakthrough Starshot project.

Stephen Hawking is a world-renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who is a  Professor and Director of Research at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.  He provides expert insight into the many challenges faced by the Breakthrough Starshot research project.

Mark Zuckerberg is well-known as the founder and CEO of the social media website, Facebook.  He is one of the several major donors supporting the Breakthrough Prizes.

What exactly is the goal of the Breakthrough Starshot research project?  [1-5]

This new research effort was developed by a small working group of individuals experienced with new technology, innovative designs for research, and creative ideas for advancing space science.  Its ultimate purpose is to learn if some sort of life exists on planets circling nearby stars; Hawking and other scientists postulate that many of the hundreds of newly discovered exoplanets must harbor some forms of life.

This project specifically aims to investigate whether new technologies can propel extremely small spacecraft to nearby stars using power transmitted by very high energy laser arrays on Earth.  Initially, he minute light-weight space probes will look at unknown planets circling the star closest to our own Sun, Alpha Centauri.  As part of the engineering and testing, subsidiary probes will be launched to study planets and their moons within our solar system.

How will this challenging project be conducted?  [1-5]

A host of gigantic technological and engineering problems must be solved in order to accomplish the goals of Breakthrough Starshot.  Alpha Centauri is 4.37 light years (i.e., 41 trillion kilometers) away from Earth.  Launching the novel spacecraft is expected to be ready about 30 years from now; during this time, 3 phases of work will be conducted: (1) all aspects of design and engineering, (2) construction and testing of prototypes for the system of laser arrays and the minute spacecraft, and (3) final assembly and launching of fleets of these mass-produced space probes (e.g., hundreds or thousands).  Each spacecraft will be the size of a large postage stamp, weigh about one gram, and carry no fuel or crew.  By traveling at 20% of the speed of light, their journey to Alpha Centauri will take some 20 years!

Electronics and instrumentation in the nanoscale will be used to construct the nanospacecraft.  Each will have a special “space sail” that unfolds in space to collect energy beamed by arrays of very high power lasers on Earth; the transmitted energy pushes their propulsion.  Close-up images and data will be transmitted back to Earth for analysis.  The new research data acquired will exceed what can be gathered by advanced telescopes located on Earth.

Are any big problems foreseen for this new research project?  [1-5]

Yuri Milner is donating $100,000,000 to cover expenses for the first 5-10 years of initial research and development (R&D) work.  By providing this private funding, Milner forcefully gets everything started and immediately neutralizes the usual objections to spending oodles of taxpayers’ money to conduct this science-fiction-type research project!  He foresees that collaborative international sources will provide the many billions of dollars needed for later completion of the project; that gigantic sum equals the multibillion dollars from multiple international sources already used to establish new synchrotron facilities, construct very large new telescopes, and launch a new space telescope (see:  “The New James Webb Space Telescope: Big Science Requires Big Money and Big Time, But Should Produce Big Results!” ).  Global Industry is another possible source of the many billions needed.

Individual scientists already have been proposing and speculating about possible means for interstellar travel.  The many hundreds of research workers (i.e., scientists, engineers, industrial producers, managers, technicians, etc.) needed to conduct the extensive R&D effort for the Starshot project certainly are available.  This enterprise could take place within some organization similar to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), but kept outside of governmental operations.

Many design features for the Breakthrough Starshot are both novel and untested, but seem to be within the present range of engineering and developing technology.  The high power laser systems do not yet exist, but military development of laser weapons already is progressing.  The ultraminiature spacecraft also do not yet exist, but science and engineering now are expanding development of nano-cameras, nano-computers, nano-electronics, etc., so their innovative design should be doable.  Milner, Hawking, and other scientists see this amazing conceptual framework as being realistically possible.

Concluding remarks! 

To be sure, as with all truly innovative ideas, many problems will arise.  At present, none of those seem to be insurmountable.  The possibility of reaching the project goal is truly exciting, and the results will be utterly meaningful for our own planet.

 

 

[1]  Breakthrough Initiatives, 2016a.  About Breakthrough Initiatives.  Available on the internet at:  http://breakthroughinitiatives.org/About .

[2]  Breakthrough Initiatives, 2016b.  Internet investor and science philanthropist Yuri Milner physicist Stephen Hawking announce Breakthrough Starshot project to develop 100 million mile per hour mission to the stars within a generation.  Available on the internet at:  http://breakthroughinitiatives.org/News/4 .

[3]  Merali, Z., 2016.  Q&A: Web billionaire describes his plan to shoot for the stars.  Science .  Available on the internet at:  http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/05/qa-web-billionaire-describes-his-plan-shoot-stars .

[4]  Overbye, D., 2016.  Reaching for the stars, across 4.37 light-years.  The New York Times, April 13, 2016, page A12.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/13/science/alpha-centauri-breakthrough-starshot-yuri-milner-stephen-hawking.html?_r=1 .

[5]  Choi, C.Q., 2016.  Three questions about Breakthrough Starshot.  The enormously ambitious mission faces a few challenges.  Popular Science, April 27, 2016.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.popsci.com/three-questions-for-breakthrough-starshot .

 

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