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Not A Scientist? You Can Still Help Collect Valuable Data

Volunteer Peter Lent wades through Oatka Creek looking for bugs to send back to Albany [Caitlin Whyte/WXXI News]
A man wades through a creek [Caitlin Whyte/WXXI News]

By Caitlin Whyte

The Cumming Nature Center is a little oasis about an hour south of Rochester. With miles of quiet trails through swamplands and towering pine trees, it’s a great place to talk about citizen science.

So what exactly does that term mean?

Nathan Hayes, the director of the nature center, says its the “crowdsourcing of scientific information. Multiple people all over the place putting the puzzle pieces together to get the picture.”

There is so much information to collect, Hayes says, that scientists alone can’t do it all. That’s where the rest of us can help. He says people can get involved and collect valuable information wherever they may be.

“We can study -- we should study -- these woods, and not worry about the Amazon. I mean, worry about the Amazon, but you don’t have to go away to contribute to important scientific base of knowledge, you can do it in your backyard.”

I became interested in citizen science when I learned that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation was asking people to participate in something called the WAVE program, or Water Assessments by Volunteer Evaluators.

So I reached out to Alana Onion, who runs this specific citizen science project.

When I first saw this listing, asking people to head into their local streams, collect bugs and send them to Albany, it struck me as odd. Like, don’t you need a degree for that? The DEC is really going to trust random people with this kind of work? But Onion says that’s exactly the point.

“Effecting environmental change is more than just doing science. It takes more than just doing science to effect change -- it takes community, it takes ownership and it takes people willing to go to the next level and take action.”

Onion says through citizen science work, people get to know the streams they encounter every day, cultivating this sense of ownership.

She suggested I meet longtime volunteer Peter Lent to get my hands dirty doing some science myself.

I meet Lent at Oatka Creek in Scottsville and immediately feel underdressed. I mean, I thought I was all set in my rubber boots, but he’s wearing chest-high waders.

He’s been working with the WAVE program since 2013. A retired DEC worker himself, he always wanted to do more hands-on stuff than the work he was doing in the permitting department.

This project asked residents and landowners to head out to their local streams with a net, catch a bunch of bugs, package them up and send them to Albany to be studied.

“The diversity of the habitat determines how many kinds of insects you got.”

The bugs will show how healthy the stream is. If the stream is impaired, it will have less life, and if it’s doing well, bug life will flourish.

Lent dumps a bucket of river water into a white pan and begins sifting through the algae and plants to find bugs. He says citizen science helps promote environmental awareness and expands on what professional scientists can do.

“But more than that, I think it’s ... people are just interested in doing something. Number one because they want to do it, and number two, because it’s a good thing to do. If you got people involved in citizen science, you know they would support when they go to an election. And they would probably know when somebody, it’s not being addressed like it should be.”

Citizen science doesn’t always mean wading through a river to collect bugs, if that’s not your thing. It comes in a variety of forms.

For Hayes, he participates in programs counting birds with his daughters and says there are crowdsourcing apps now to share regional information.

You don’t need to know every plant in the forest, or the Latin names of animals. Just by being there and taking note of what’s happening around you, that information can be valuable to science.