Bay Nature magazineSpring 2017

Bay Nature Local Heroes

2017 Environmental Education Award Winners Alison Young and Rebecca Johnson: Democratizing Science One Observation at a Time

March 28, 2017

Rebecca Johnson and Alison Young don’t do guided nature walks. They’re not the kind of scientists who stand outdoors and point at things and talk at you. No, they are far more democratic than that. As citizen science coordinators at the California Academy of Sciences, they galvanize ordinary people to hunt and document species, and their philosophy on that is to make it rewarding for you and for science. There’s an addictive joy in finding things in nature, and Johnson and Young are our region’s prime enablers.

When you volunteer on their outings—as I’ve frequently done over the last few years—you’re signing up for a kind of guided discovery. Johnson and Young identify the questions scientists have that only an army of observers can answer, and then unleash volunteers to find it. It’s empowering to be one of their finders—it’s thrilling to stand at the edge of the wave-battered Pacific Coast while trying to identify some unusual nudibranch, and to know that every observation has a value to the wider world that will be apparent to Johnson and Young, even if it’s not immediately apparent to you.

Johnson learned the hard way about ensuring benefit to both volunteer and science when, a decade ago, she was part of an academy team that coordinated volunteers to count and measure strands of Fucus, a kind of common brown algae, in intertidal quadrats. “It was like a case study of how you shouldn’t do citizen science,” Johnson says. “I can’t think of anything more boring than pulling up each Fucus and measuring each plant. And the data wasn’t even being used!”

Young, meanwhile, was working at the academy to determine how citizen observations could be useful to scientists, and how to engage the public in a way that didn’t involve unidentified specimens turning up in the academy’s mailbox. “People were just sending us things, not even data, just things that might get turned into data,” she says. “People were literally sending me live spiders in the mail. I’d open the envelope and, ‘Ack! What’s in here! Is it dead? Is it alive?’”

Five-and-a-half years ago the academy paired Johnson and Young and created a formal citizen science program to solve the problem—and to build a bridge between education and research, help scientists figure out appropriate uses of citizen science, and help observers channel their energy into answering scientific questions.

“We had to convince people that making observations was an important part of science,” Young says. “That through building up observations, that’s how we’ll get hypotheses that we can get scientific questions from.”

“One of our mantras has become, ‘Every observation is important,’” Johnson adds. “All science is based on observation.”

Technology has helped: Under Johnson and Young’s direction, volunteers upload photos of their observations onto the academy’s citizen science app, iNaturalist. Photos offer visual proof and when taken on a phone are time-stamped and geotagged. But a bigger part of the job is determining the kind of questions citizen scientists can reliably answer—what lives in one area versus another and how that changes over time, for example. “We’ve always said you should never design a protocol that you’re not going to trust,” Young says. “Ask people to do something you can trust.”

One of the academy’s defining citizen science projects takes place amid the tide pools at Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay, where over the last decade 148 citizen science volunteers have made 11,725 observations of 547 species (at last count). Young shares a time-lapse animation at conferences that shows observations obliterating the view of the map beneath, like heavy raindrops on glass. Observers under Young and Johnson’s direction have covered every square inch of that reef and continue to cover it several times a year.

When the tides are right, coordinators and volunteers meet in the parking lot an hour or so before the peak of low tide, quite often in foggy twilight. It has the feel of a social gathering, like a church barbecue or a beer league hockey game; it’s relaxed and friendly and the veterans help take care of novices. Johnson and Young, in standard-issue waterproof overalls and rubber boots, make introductions and lead everyone out onto the reef. They find the anchor bolts they use to make sure they’re observing consistently, roll out markers to create a circular plot around each anchor, and then set the volunteers to finding. People peer into crevices, look under thick mats of kelp, and call out targeted species of sea stars, nudibranchs, urchins, and crabs as they find them. Either Johnson or Young starts in the middle with a clipboard to tally observations, but inevitably they get drawn down into the pools to help identify, and photograph, and to share in the discovery. After a focused hour or so of observing in the name of science, volunteers start to wander off to look outside the study plot or see what other cool stuff they can find.

“When the state set up its marine protected areas, they left Pillar Point as a control,” Johnson says. While a nearby state marine conservation area covers the area west of the rocks, most of the reef itself is unprotected. “No one was doing any work there. We didn’t even have a species list, so that was our beginning. It’s amazing because it’s under-studied, but also because it’s a multiple-use area. There’s the harbor, people picking mussels, people fishing, people with their dogs. There’s something special about that, I think, when it’s a place that’s used by everybody.”

The emphasis on fun and community, the titles of “citizen science coordinator” rather than “researcher,” tend to obscure just how much Johnson and Young actually know about the world they’re helping people explore. They are, in this sense, a rare kind of creature: academic experts who can identify, and seemingly know, everything, but never make you feel dumb for asking them.

Young has a marine biology master’s from Humboldt State and began observing at Pillar Point as a citizen science coordinator with the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary’s student citizen science program LiMPETS (Long-term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students) even before she arrived at the academy. Johnson has a Ph.D. in nudibranch molecular phylogeny and did fieldwork in the South Pacific.

“I went to school for a really long time to be a scientist,” Johnson says. “But I’ve always worked at a museum, so I’ve always had the public outreach part of the job. It’s inspiring to marry the things I really like: the natural world, connecting people to the natural world, community building, the places that I love, the Bay Area—mixing science and history, civic engagement, and community organizing to bring the right people together.”

They share the intertidal expertise, but they’ve led bioblitzes all over Northern California, in every kind of habitat.

“I feel like I’m a nature geek at heart,” Young says. “I’m driven by the fun of discovery. I get excited every time we go to the tide pools. I spend my weekends hiking and putting things on iNaturalist. Now I can do that at my job, and do it with people who are like that, too.”

“For me,” Johnson says, “it’s the fun of the discovery, and the discovery that someone else might care about what you’ve found. There’s a huge social aspect in being a naturalist. You can make a connection like, ‘I saw this bird, and I’ve never seen it. I took a picture, somebody else knew what it was, and it was really important to somebody else. I can learn about it.’ You remember more because someone else cares.”

Citizen science isn’t easy to organize, but it also feels more imperative than ever. A variety of indicators show natural history as a discipline is in serious decline, and study after study finds that people have a diminished connection to nature. Big-budget nature documentaries show the natural world in great glory, but they also emphasize a kind of nature that’s exotic, far away, and beyond the reach of average people. Johnson and Young are here to restore the power of citizens and to connect empowered observers, and often in the places where they live.

“When we first started citizen science, we did this three-day bioblitz at Pillar Point,” Young says. “One of the questions we asked was, ‘What was something unexpected?’ and the number one answer was, ‘hanging out with people who love the same place I do. Meeting other people who love tide-pool creatures.’ There’s something about iNaturalist, where you personally might have been interested in tide-pool creatures and doing it on your own, but this place-based citizen science allows people to find each other.”

“Now more than ever, it’s important to think about how to mobilize people and empower people to make observations, not only for science and conservation, but to be more connected to each other around nature,” Johnson says. “I don’t think there are many scientists who are employed who get to do all those things together. I feel lucky…that keeps me going. If you start caring about the bird in your backyard then you’re more likely to care about a bird in Africa, or wherever. I don’t think it works as well the other way around.”

Read interviews with our other Local Heroes:

David Lewis of Save The Bay (Conservation Action)
Uriel Hernandez of Canopy (Youth Engagement)

About the Author

Eric Simons is a former digital editor at Bay Nature. He is author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans and Darwin Slept Here, and is coauthor, with Tessa Hill, of At Every Depth: Our Growing Knowledge of the Changing Oceans.

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