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Bringing a Taste of Crowdsourcing to Bioscience

By Nicole L. Garneau, PhD, Curator and Chair of the Health Sciences Department and PI of the NIH SEPA-Funded Genetics of Taste Lab at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science

 

“Mom, can we please do the taste study? Please?”

It is not uncommon for the staff and citizen scientists working in the Genetics of Taste Lab to hear this plea from children when they realize they can participate in real research at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. The Lab is located inside the popular Expedition Health exhibition, where guests actively explore human biology and physiology. This real working laboratory provides a unique opportunity for individuals, families, and groups of friends to be a part of authentic scientific research that is relevant to their everyday lives. Let’s face it, everyone eats! Taste research, then, is not only a great foundation for making discoveries about genetics, nutrition, obesity, and overall health but also offers a welcoming and non-intimidating environment for people to learn about genetics and human biology.

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Genetics of Taste Lab enrolling guests. Photo courtesy of Nicole Garneau.

We run one clinical study a year open to the public, ages 8 and older (with a legal guardian if 8–17), who choose to contribute their data. The 30-minute enrollment includes informed consent, a series of taste tests of flavored water, a buccal swab for cell (DNA) collection, and, depending on the study, any number of other data points (e.g., food frequency questionnaire, self-reported oral health, body composition measurements). Each study opens the week of Thanksgiving and runs through the first week of August the following year. This allows for approximately nine months of open enrollment to collect data, leading to 1,000–2,000 enrollees.

More than 1,700 people enthusiastically participated in our most recent Science of Sour Study. This public participation is a form of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing was coined by Jeff Howe in 2006 as the efforts of “everyday people using their spare time to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R&D.” In this case, crowdsourcing incorporates the community in meaningful ways that have the potential to benefit both science and public. From the biomedical standpoint, there are some well-established ways to add crowdsourcing to our tool box for research studies. These include Community-Based Participatory Research, passive app-based data collection, and active forms of contribution of self-data and samples (through programs such as the American Gut Project).

The Lab also offers another aspect of crowdsourcing: being a citizen scientist. These community scientists are dedicated volunteers who are involved in every level of the scientific process, from study design on through to publication. For our Nov 2018–Aug 2019 study, we are even involving our citizen scientists in the selection of the study topic. (This RFP is open until Dec 31, 2017, at www.dmns.org/taste.)

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Camila, a citizen scientist, extracts DNA from a sample. Photo courtesy of Nicole Garneau.

While we have had immense success at recruiting both subjects and community scientists, this pool does not represent the rich diversity of metro Denver. We want to change that. The Genetics of Taste Lab was awarded a generous grant in 2016 from the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program from the NIGMS of the NIH. The award supports our scientific efforts to understand the role of genetics in taste function and overall health. In addition, our SEPA award is giving us a rare opportunity to study barriers to participation, learning how to break them down and develop ways to recruit and retain more diverse members of the community. We will also examine how participants and citizen scientists learn in community labs and whether there are long-term impacts from their involvement. All of this occurs in the context of the scientific rigor itself.

As this research continues, we have already created a stepping stone model for increasing the diversity of our citizen scientists. First is attracting underserved high school students. We are launching and testing a community service model where students gain credit for their lab time during school breaks, evenings during Museum events, and outreach festivals (High School Comunidad Scientists Program). We are also piloting a paid work-study program with a local high school in which the students work in the lab one day a week and attend classes the remaining four days. The second effort is bringing on undergraduate students from the local community colleges in exchange for laboratory credits on a semester basis. Finally, the Museum’s adult volunteer program offers shifts in the lab seven days a week. These combined efforts immediately increase diversity and present an opportunity to test a mentorship hierarchy and bring further support to our students as they work toward a STEM-based career.

We hope to have much more to report on these findings at the NIH annual SciEd Conference www.SciEd.info! In the meantime, check out our peer-reviewed publications from our previous studies at www.dmns.org/genetics.

 

About the author

Dr. Nicole Garneau, Curator and Department Chair, Health Sciences

Dr. Nicole Garneau is a taste scientist and keynote speaker who brings flavor science to the table. Her formal training in genetics and microbiology led her to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science where she serves as the Curator of Human Health and directs the Genetics of Taste Lab. Dr. Garneau is an advocate for women in science, and believes science should be for the people and by the people. Using a community-based research model of crowdsourcing and citizen/community science, she makes science accessible and personally relevant. As a sought-after public speaker and science communicator, she has had the honor of being an invited presenter at MileHigh TEDx, the Great American Beer Festival, the Craft Brewers Conference, and many scientific conferences including the American Society for Microbiology and Experimental Biology. She has been featured on television, radio and online outlets, including NPR’s TED Radio Hour. You can find her in the Twittersphere @DocGarneau (personal) and @YoPearlSciGirl (museum). 

  1. citizen science
  2. crowdsourcing
  3. DMNS
  4. genetics
  5. genetics of taste
  6. health
  7. human biology
  8. nutrition
  9. obesity
  10. science
  11. taste research

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