Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation
Spring 2014: Citizen Science

Letter from the Executive Director

Lissa Widoff
Executive Director
Lissa Widoff

The topic of "citizen science" has garnered more attention lately, and it is a lively countertrend to the erosion of governmental support of scientific research and the ever present challenges to scientific integrity - the hoped-for independence of science from political pressure and biases. Engagement of citizens in collecting data that can meaningfully contribute to present day problems - be they conservation challenges, environmental health or water quality concerns, will increase our communities' connection with and responsibility for the natural environments and resources upon which our lives and livelihoods depend, as well as help hold governmental agencies and polluters accountable.


Citizen science efforts embody the kind of collaborative problem-solving that Switzer Fellows heartily engage in across the country and the globe. The myriad ways in which academic scientists, community organizations, state and federal agencies work together with community members to track real time environmental impacts and progress is a growing field and also becoming a necessity. NatureServe, the nation's premier organization dedicated to tracking conservation data recently released its citizen science strategy and describes citizen science this way:


"Citizen science taps the human passion for exploration and discovery to illuminate our understanding of the natural world. Functioning as both a scientific methodology and an organizing principle, citizen science encourages amateur participants (who, in the word's original sense, do the work for love, not money) to take an active part in creating knowledge by aligning their interests and labor with those of professional scientists." - NatureServe Citizen Science Strategy, January 2014


Along with Healy Hamilton, now NatureServe's Chief Scientist and VP of Conservation Science, several Switzer Fellows are highlighted in this newsletter for their programmatic work in citizen science. Whether they are assessing the efficacy of "salamander brigades" that ensure successful spring migration of amphibians in the northeast to their vernal pools for breeding, or working with new national networks of citizen scientists, Switzer Fellows are leading the charge for citizen science, and ultimately, furthering the health of our ecosystems and human communities.

Susannah Lerman: Connecting Urban Dwellers with Nature Through Their Yards
When you look at your yard, you probably see some grass, a few flowers, maybe a bird or two.  Susannah Lerman, 2010 Fellow and 2011 Leadership Grant recipient, sees a huge opportunity for wildlife habitat with little or no investment. Lerman began her career wanting to work with species in remote areas, but she soon realized that cities offer the best opportunities for educating people about nature. Now she finds ways to increase citizen participation in increasing wildlife habitat and reconnect people with nature, particularly in urban areas.  She partners with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and heads their Neighborhood Nestwatch project in Springfield, MA, a citizen science project to study nesting populations of common backyard songbirds in the yards of 100 volunteer families across western Massachusetts.

Creating Urban Habitat for Birds with Switzer Fellow Susannah Lerman


Brian Haggerty: Helping Citizen Scientists Monitor the Impacts of Climate Change on Plants and Animals

Climate change continues to rapidly transform the landscape in unexpected ways. How are plants and animals responding to these changes? 2012 Fellow Brian Haggerty helped launch the California Phenology Project as a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara to enable citizen scientists to help track these changes. Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life, like trees flowering in the spring or going dormant in preparation for winter. Citizen

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Spring Retreats:
Collective Leadership,
Shared Stories

Whether we find ourselves in "breakthrough" projects that require new connections and ways of thinking, or long-standing working relationships within our organizations, we always need to engage others in our work, and the most meaningful way to connect with others is through our stories. These were the themes that guided our spring retreats for Fellows this year in Oakland, CA, and Cambridge, MA. Read more

Upcoming Events

May 20

WEBINAR: Leading From Within... Literally: Fellows doing environmental good in corporations

Join us for a webinar and discussion with five Fellows who have experience working for the greater good from within large corporations. Perspectives include internships and careers, developing products, getting things done inside corporate systems, and more. Register 


June 11

WEBINAR: Stopping Methane Leaks from the U.S. Oil & Gas Industry

Curbing methane represents a "win-win-win-win" that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality, save fuel, and help ensure pipeline safety. 2011 Fellow Sarah Uhl, Senior Project Director with the Clean Air Task Force, describes the growing momentum for EPA and Department of the Interior rules that would require oil and gas companies to stop methane leaks. Register



WEBINAR: Developing Mobile Apps

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WEBINAR: Environmental Issues and Justice in California's Central Valley

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October 17-19

California Naturalist Statewide Conference

with 1994 Fellow Deborah Edelman


Our Fellows publish books and book chapters on a variety of topics every year. Here is a sample of books related to citizen science.


Deborah Edelman

The California Naturalist Handbook


Elizabeth Farnsworth

Peterson Field Guide to Ferns: Northeastern and Central North America


A Field Guide to the Ants of New England


Mark Elbroch

Field Guide to Animal Tracks and Scat of California


Peterson Reference Guide to the Behavior of North American Mammals


Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species


Noah Charney

Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates: A Guide to North American Species


Brian Haggerty

Citizen Science: 15 lessons that bring biology to life, 6-12

(chapter: Flight of the Pollinators)


Phenology: An Integrative Environmental Science, 2nd edition

(chapter: Phenology in Higher Education)

scientists are a critical resource in collecting useful observational data, and the California Phenology Project has been recruiting and training hundreds of citizen scientists alongside educators, natural resource managers, and research scientists. The project is completing its pilot phase in California's National Parks, during which time it has grown to include the UC Natural Reserve System, environmental education organizations, botanic gardens, and schoolyards and backyards across the state.

Read more

Tavis Forrester: Training Citizen Scientists to Use 'Camera Traps' to Document Large Mammal Activity

Technology is often accused of separating us from nature. 2011 Fellow Tavis Forrester's  eMammal project puts high-tech "camera traps" into the hands of volunteer citizen scientists, allowing them to connect with animals and behaviors usually hidden from view. 

Forrester says the result is "magical" in its ability to fire up people with the excitement of scientific discovery.

Read more

Brett Thelen and Brad Timm: Measuring Effectiveness of Citizen Science on Amphibian Conservation with "Salamander Crossing Brigades"
2004 Fellow Brett Thelen, Science Director for Conservation at the Harris Center for Conservation Education, and 2008 Fellow Brad Timm, Post-doctoral Researcher at UMass Amherst, spend rainy spring nights on dark roads, working with citizen volunteers who are helping amphibians reach their increasingly threatened vernal pool habitat by preventing cars from running them over.  But how effective is this work in preserving the amphibians themselves? A Switzer Network Innovation Grant of $10,000 to Thelen and Timm seeks to answer this question, and the results could have implications for other citizen science projects.
Read more

Myra Finkelstein and Vickie Bakker: Enlisting Citizens to Help Endangered California Condors with 'Condor Watch'

"We have over 100,000 archived photos of condors in the wild, but we don't have the resources to go through them and mine all of the information they could provide. Condor Watch allows us to engage a team of citizen scientists to tap into this wealth of information," says 1998 Fellow Myra Finkelstein, an adjunct professor of environmental toxicology at the UC Santa Cruz. She and 1997 Fellow Vickie Bakker, Assistant Research Professor at Montana State University, launched the site last month as part of Zooniverse, a collection of web-based citizen science projects that use the efforts of volunteers to help researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them.

Read more


Brian Johnson and Healy Hamilton: Leading Biodiversity Conservation Initiatives That Include Citizen Science Programs 

Although you may never have been to the Bronx Zoo, home of the Wildlife Conservation Society, you are probably aware that WCS manages a range of national and international conservation programs and biodiversity efforts. 2008 Fellow Brian Johnson is the new Director of Educational Research and Program Development and is based in New York. Johnson oversees research and evaluation of education programs at the WCS zoos and aquarium in New York City, including hiring citizen science staff for projects. 


Now based in Washington, DC, 1991 Fellow Healy Hamilton is the new Vice President for Conservation Science and Chief Scientist, NatureServe. Part of Hamilton's portfolio is responsibility for NatureServe's new citizen science strategy, which emphasizes providing citizen scientists with tools that collect and manage data in ways that improve its quality, interoperability, and applicability.

Nithya Ramanathan: Transforming Everyday Objects into Powerful Connected Devices for Social Impact

2007 Fellow Nithya Ramanathan, Assistant Research Professor at UC Los Angeles, is a computer programmer who believes in the power of mobile devices for social change.  Her company, Nexleaf Analtyics, is building an issue tracking and communication system that allows poor residents in Indonesia to communicate with their water and sanitation services providers.  The system transforms community needs and concerns into a live data feed that helps service providers improve their services and that highlights both effective and ineffective solutions for utilities, governments, civic leaders and aid organizations.

Read more


Caitlin Cleaver: Collaborating with Scallop Fishermen to Test Management Strategies of a Shared Resource

Last June, 2013 Fellow Caitlin Cleaver organized a collaborative research project with a number of partner organizations and Maine scallop fishermen. The project brought together a diverse group of people who are all genuinely interested in sustaining the state's scallop resource and would like to better understand how small-scale closed areas might be an effective management tool to help do so.

Read more


Chris Bowser: Involving Citizen Scientists in Eel Research Programs in New York 

2005 Fellow Chris Bowser is a Science Education Specialist with the Hudson River Estuary Program of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Bowser is a professional educator and environmental scientist with strong experience in citizen science. He has designed and implemented citizen science research projects monitoring juvenile eel migration at nine different sites in the Hudson River.
Read more


Susannah McCandless: Empowering Indigenous Communities to Preserve Their Heritage 

2004 Fellow Susannah McCandless's work empowers indigenous communities to participate in preserving their heritage by defending their rights to their ancestral lands in the face of competing global priorities for resources. She has worked all over the world, with several projects in Southeast Asia, including in Borneo. She is currently the International Program Director and North American Regional Program Director of the Global Diversity Foundation.  Read more


Citizen Science: Further Exploration

We offer this list of websites and apps related to citizen science to help you learn more about the topic.


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Citizen Science website


USA National Phenology Network






The Water Reporter app


DateONE: Data Observation Network for Earth

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