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Crowdsourcing Chemistry

Public participation in chemical research drives discoveries in solar fuels, environmental health, and more

by Deirdre Lockwood
November 12, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 46

Credit: Jillian Dempsey/Caltech
In 2010, Carolyn Valdez (right), then an undergraduate at Caltech, explains a solar activity station to Chelsea Newbold, then a 11th grader at Blair High School in Pasadena, Calif.
Photo shows Carolyn Valdez (right), a then undergraduate at Caltech, explaining the solar activity station in 2010 to Chelsea Newbold (left), a then 11th-grader at Blair High School in Pasadena.
Credit: Jillian Dempsey/Caltech
In 2010, Carolyn Valdez (right), then an undergraduate at Caltech, explains a solar activity station to Chelsea Newbold, then a 11th grader at Blair High School in Pasadena, Calif.

Bruce Parkinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Wyoming, wants to turn sunlight into fuel. All he needs is the right catalyst—a material that would drive the photoelectrolysis of water to make renewable hydrogen fuel and be stable in sunlight for decades. The answer, he’s come to believe, is a semiconducting oxide made of several different metals, but the problem is finding the right mix. With some 60 metals on the periodic table, the possibilities are legion.

In 2008, Parkinson came up with an idea to crowdsource the problem by making a cheap, quick, and simple combinatorial chemistry kit. For the prototype, he jury-rigged an ink-jet printer to deposit mixed patterns of different nitrate salts on a conductive glass plate. His lab built a scanning station with a modified laser pointer and a Lego Mindstorms kit, a favorite tool of robotics dabblers, to test the plate’s photocurrent after the salts were heated to decompose them into mixed metal oxides.

Since then, Parkinson’s kit-based solar research strategy has attracted more than 500 students at some 70 universities and high schools. California Institute of Technology chemist Harry B. Gray, who leads the National Science Foundation Center for Chemical Innovation in Solar Fuels, has adapted the project for outreach. Caltech students and postdocs recruit for the “solar army,” as Gray calls it, by taking the project into nearby high schools. Using Parkinson’s Lego-based Solar Hydrogen Activity Research Kit, or SHArK, or a simpler design distributed by Gray, students create unique combinations of metal oxides and log their results in a shared database.

Students have hit on some materials with promise for photoelectrolysis, Parkinson says. But they’ve also experienced the highs and lows of research, full of variables to test and problems to be solved along the way. Jennifer D. Schuttlefield, a chemist at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, who collaborates with Parkinson on the project, says the creative approaches of students, including a high schooler who proposed statistically analyzing the database, have impressed her. Students at Grinnell College in Iowa are submitting their results to a scientific journal.

Although the public has participated in scientific research since at least the first Audubon Christmas Bird Count of 1900, so-called citizen science has gained momentum in the past decade through funding, enthusiasm, and technology. This trend is dominated by projects in biology, but chemists are getting on board, too. NSF’s funding of citizen-science projects has grown from a handful each year in the early 2000s to at least 25 per year today. Hundreds of citizen-science projects are going on worldwide, and at least 1,000 publications have resulted from the efforts, the late NSF program director David A. Hanych said in a webcast this summer. And ever-growing computing power and online media have made it easy for participants to connect with scientists to generate or analyze large data sets.

By funding these efforts, NSF hopes not only to advance innovative scientific discovery but also to promote learning that will create a more scientifically literate public and inspire the next generation of scientists, says Ellen McCallie, a program officer for NSF’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program. The program, which provides much of NSF’s funding for citizen science, offers grants of up to $3 million per project.

For members of the public interested in participating in scientific research, it’s now easier than ever to find a project through websites such as,, and SciStarter lists hundreds of projects that are searchable by topic and by type of activity, such as “in the snow or rain,” “while fishing,” or “exclusively online.”

Citizen chemists can stay dry by curating content on ChemSpider, a chemical structure database, or join one of scores of wetter projects to monitor water quality in local streams and rivers. Online gaming project Foldit has attracted many participants to find the lowest-energy configuration of proteins. Foldit players recently solved the structure of a retroviral protease that had long stumped structural biologists (Nat. Struct. Mol. Biol., DOI: 10.1038/nsmb.2119).

Scientists and members of the public have increasingly been connecting through the Internet and social media. As Hurricane Sandy neared the East Coast last month, University of Utah researcher Gabriel Bowen used Twitter and his website to ask people to collect storm-water samples. He plans to analyze their isotopic composition to understand how different sources of moisture—including the ocean, land, and precipitation recycled back into the storm through evaporation—sustained the superstorm. Within two days, he had 100 volunteers. Bowen says the data could help improve forecasts of future complex storms. Meanwhile, European researchers at the EveryAware project have developed a portable device that can be attached to individual smartphones to map air pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone.

All this public participation helps scientists extend their reach in both space and time. When Julie Masura, an environmental scientist at the University of Washington, Tacoma, was asked by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration to determine how much plastic is in the ocean, she recruited citizens to sample Washington’s Puget Sound. Her coverage of the sound grew from the dozens of samples she could take alone to hundreds of surface net tows taken by participants on educational cruises sponsored by community groups. In every single sample she analyzed, she found microplastics, or small plastic particles, in concentrations ranging from parts per billion to parts per thousand.

Credit: Saint Louis Science Center
Lezieanya, 6, of St. Louis, found the top oil-producing algae strain of 2010 in the Backyard Biofuels project.
Photo of Chinonso Lezieanya, age 6, of St. Louis, who found the top oil-producing algae strain of 2010 in the Backyard Biofuels project.
Credit: Saint Louis Science Center
Lezieanya, 6, of St. Louis, found the top oil-producing algae strain of 2010 in the Backyard Biofuels project.

Sometimes citizen-science projects start with the citizens. When the Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter in Dewey-Humboldt, Ariz., was listed as a Superfund site in 2008, University of Arizona graduate student Monica Ramirez-Andreotta heard the concerns of community gardeners at a public meeting in Dewey-Humboldt. They wondered whether it was safe to eat the vegetables they grew.

“I could give them general knowledge, but I couldn’t answer the question,” Ramirez-Andreotta says. So she conceived of a project called Gardenroots. With a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, Ramirez-Andreotta recruited local gardeners and trained them to collect samples of soil, water, and vegetables. Six months later, she got 25 sample sets back from gardeners who lived within 8 miles of the mine. She analyzed the samples for arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.

She found that although the gardeners’ vegetables had relatively low arsenic content, it was generally greater than that of store-bought vegetables. ­Accidentally ingesting soil while gardening, however, posed a greater health risk than eating the vegetables because of higher arsenic concentrations in the soil. In community gatherings, she reported her results and shared ways to avoid soil ingestion, including not eating or drinking while gardening. She also gave participants a report listing how many servings of different vegetables from their garden they could eat at three different target levels of excess cancer risk.

Ramirez-Andreotta’s report on the study is forthcoming in the journal Science of the Total Environment. In 2011, she received the Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for her work on Gardenroots.

The project also spurred community activism. When Ramirez-Andreotta analyzed gardeners’ drinking water, she found that a few who receive their water from the municipal water system had arsenic levels above the maximum contaminant level set by EPA. In response to the findings, community members organized to send results to the water system authorities, EPA, and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, and five months later the water utility received a citation from the department.

“As part of an academic institution, I have no regulatory power. But they came together, they got the water retested, and got the notice of violation,” Ramirez-Andreotta says. “That’s exactly what you want to happen.”

Even the youngest citizen scientists are making discoveries in their own backyards. Like Parkinson, researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis are seeking sustainable sources of fuel—but they’re looking to oil-producing algae. Most research on algae-based biofuels has focused on one laboratory strain that was discovered about 20 years ago. Danforth researchers wondered whether the algae thriving in the wild might be better at making oil, and so they paired up with the Saint Louis Science Center to engage youth and families in a search for the answer.

“Everyone knows of a location where they can find algae, maybe a spot where their hose leaks or a ditch down the street,” says Matthew Stevens, senior educator at the Saint Louis Science Center, who was involved in the project. “What if people went out and took samples of what’s around them?”

So began the Backyard Biofuels project. Danforth researchers and museum staff recruited samplers among museum visitors and local elementary and middle schoolers. After participants sent in their samples, the researchers cultured the algae in an open lab at the museum and analyzed them using fluorescent staining and detection at the Danforth Center.

“It had a lot of public appeal,” Stevens says about the research on alternative fuels. The results of the project were a surprise: “We were getting algae testing off the charts,” he says. Some pumped out two to three times as much oil as the laboratory strain. One of the highest-producing strains was found in a dog’s water bowl.

In 2010, the museum hosted a celebration to honor its “top hunters,” including then-six-year-old Chinonso Lezieanya, who captured the highest-producing algae strain in one of the 20 samples he collected. His strain and others are now undergoing further testing at labs including ones at Ohio-based biofuel firm Phycal.


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