Who’s who in the Zoo – Brooke Simmons

In this week’s edition of our Who’s who in the Zoo blog series meet Brooke Simmons, Lecturer in Astrophysics at Lancaster University and Zooniverse team member. 

– Helen

simmons_head_fromwiyn_kpno - Brooke Simmons

Name: Brooke Simmons

Location: Lancaster University




Tell us about your role within the team:

I joined Galaxy Zoo in 2012 and the Zooniverse at more or less the same time. In addition to project-specific roles I wrangle the Analysis Group, which helps project teams with data analysis, and the Transients Group, which is for helping address the specific needs of projects needing results from live or near-live data.


What did you do in your life before the Zooniverse?

I joined GZ and the Zooniverse right as I was finishing my PhD in Astronomy. My PhD path was a bit winding as for non-work reasons I ended up taking 4 years’ leave of absence. I call it that now, but really I thought I was leaving academia. I started a tutoring business and one day I realized how much I missed research. I was very fortunate that my PhD supervisor was glad to welcome me back.


What does your typical working day involve?

Emailing, meetings, teaching, meeting with students about their research projects or just being a friendly source of advice. I try to fit in some research every day but that doesn’t always work out!


How would you describe the Zooniverse in one sentence?

The Zooniverse is a platform where anyone and everyone in the world can come together and help solve real research problems that can’t be solved any other way


Tell us about the first Zooniverse project you were involved with

I joined Galaxy Zoo as a classifier on its launch day in 2007.


Of all the discoveries made possible by the Zooniverse, which for you has been the most notable? 

I’m really proud of the Planetary Response Network’s work. For example, in 2017 we were able to quickly survey satellite data in the Caribbean after Hurricanes Irma & Maria and provide island-wide data on road blockages, floods, and structural damage. One of our volunteers discovered a blocked airport runway and we were able to pass that information on even before the first round of classifications was finished. The organization we partnered with on the ground gave us feedback that the work our volunteers & team did *truly* helped save lives. It is amazing to me that we were able to do that.


What’s been your most memorable Zooniverse experience?

I love taking code that I’ve written to help with data analysis on one project and using it for something that seems completely different, but is actually the same problem. When we ran our first humanitarian project for the PRN (in Nepal in 2015) I wrote some code to extract classifications and make sense of all those clicks. Later on I adapted that code to help the Pulsar Hunters science team find undiscovered pulsars (rapidly spinning neutron stars) in a Stargazing Live project. And later I adapted that code again to help the Exoplanet Explorers team find new planets around other stars. It just reinforces that so much of science (and beyond) all have at heart the same data problems they need to solve.


What are your top three citizen science projects?

I’m directly involved as a team member on more than 3 Zooniverse projects, so I couldn’t possibly pick 3!

If we’re talking about non-Zooniverse projects, though, EyeWire is fun they do a great job of making a very complex 3-dimensional task approachable. And Mark2Cure is doing really important work learning how to cross-reference context and meaning in the overwhelmingly large regime of medical literature, which will hopefully lead to new treatments for diseases.


What advice would you give to a researcher considering creating a Zooniverse project?

Just jump in! And use Zooniverse Talk; there are great people there willing to help you as you learn the ropes.


How can someone who’s never contributed to a citizen science project get started?

If you want to start with something where you collect the data yourself and help work on really local science, try looking on a local museum’s website to see if they have anything interesting going on. If you’re looking for a project you can do during a commute or your lunch break, try the Zooniverse App!


Where do you hope citizen science and the Zooniverse will be in 10 years time?

I hope we’ll have handed over a lot of the simpler tasks that our volunteers do now to AI, so that our volunteers can focus on the next level of science. But I also don’t think that in 10 years we’ll fully trust the machines, either. So, separately, I’d like to see at least 100 million people having a citizen science App integrated into their Alexa or Siri or whatever creepy dystopian female-voiced machine will have taken over all our homes by then. You could have a bit of science every day with your morning coffee, to put you in a better mood so that you’re ready to face the day.


Is there anything in the Zooniverse pipeline that you’re particularly excited about?

I’m loving watching the mobile app grow, and also the team is doing some cool stuff with museum exhibits and I can’t wait to see how that turns out.


When not at work, where are we most likely to find you?

In a pottery studio somewhere, or cooking comfort food for friends & family.


Do you have any party tricks or hidden talents?

I once took out an entire carnival booth because they hadn’t expected someone who actually knew how to throw a softball to come by and try to topple the bottle pyramid. The back wall of the tent just wasn’t ready. (The bottles, mysteriously, barely moved.)

Chicago Earth Fest celebrations

The Chicago Zooniverse team had a great time celebrating Earth Day with members of the community at the Adler Planetarium and Chicago Botanic Garden.

At the Adler Planetarium’s EarthFest celebration on Saturday, April 13, guests were able to participate in an in-real-life version of Floating Forests, tracing areas of kelp from a satellite image onto tracing paper to see how a consensus result might be reached in the online version. Online at https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/zooniverse/floating-forests, you’ll be able to do this same activity, helping researchers learn how Giant Kelp forests change over time.

The next day at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s UnEarth Science Festival, visitors learned about the parts of a plant though a matching activity that segued into Rainforest Flowers, a Zooniverse project helping researchers at the Field Museum in Chicago to create a database of images of plants from the tropical forests of Central and South America.

We love meeting the community! If you missed us this time, keep your eye on this blog for our next event.


This coming Saturday 13th April is Citizen Science Day, an ‘annual event to celebrate and promote all things citizen science’. Here at the Zooniverse, one of our team members will be posting each day this week to share with you their favourite Zooniverse projects. Today’s post is from Grant Miller, project manager of the Zooniverse team at the University of Oxford.

Having been at the Zooniverse for almost six years and helped over one hundred research teams launch their project on the Zooniverse platform I find it very difficult to choose just one of them as my favourtie. However, unlike Helen did on Tuesday, I’m going to give it a try 😛

For me it’s got to be the very first project that  was pitched to me on my first  day of the job back in 2013 – Penguin Watch! Over the last decade the lead researcher Tom Hart and his team have been travelling to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica to place time-lapse cameras looking at penguin nests. They now collect so many images each year the cannot do their science without the help of the Zooniverse crowd. This projecy perfectly demonstrates the key elements which go into making a truly great citizen science project:

  1. It has a clear and relatable research goal: Help count penguins so we can understand how over-fishing and climate change is affecting their populations, and then use that information to influence policy makers.
  2. It has an extremely simple task that for now can only be done accurate by human eyes: Click on the penguins in the image. It’s so simple we have 4-year-old children helping their parents do it!
  3. It has an amazing and engaged research team and volunteer community: Even though they are a very small team the scientists take plenty of time to communicate with their volunteer community via the Talk area of the project, newsletters, and social  media channels. There is also a fantastic core group of volunteer moderators who put in so much effort to make sure the project is running as well as it should.

Half a million king penguins at St Andrews Bay, South Georgia.

In addition to all of this I was lucky enough to join them on one of their Antarctic expeditions last year, as they went down to maintain their time-lapse cameras and collect the data that goes into Penguin Watch. You can see my video diary (which I’m posting once per day on the run up to World Penguin Day on the 25th April) at daily.zooniverse.org.

Get involved in Penguin Watch today at www.penguinwatch.org.

Celebrating Citizen Science Day 2019, pt. 4

To celebrate Citizen Science Day 2019, which is this coming Saturday 13th April, a different member of the Zooniverse team will be posting each day this week to share with you some of our all-time favourite Zooniverse projects. Today, Zooniverse Lead Designer Becky Rother.

Let me start by saying that I am not an astronomer. While I’ve always had an interest in space, I went to school for journalism and design and never considered that there might be a way I would contribute to real astronomy research.

This is where I get SO EXCITED about Zooniverse – it’s a chance for anyone to be able to see the same data that astronomers see and actually make useful contributions to research.

One of my favorite recent astronomy-related projects is Local Group Cluster Search, a project looking for star clusters – groups of hundreds to millions of stars that were born at the same time – to help astronomers understand the origins of the universe. The project has been broken down into a manageable task, and there’s tons of help text to help non-astronomers like me feel comfortable.

This project builds on one of Zooniverse’s legacy projects, Andromeda Project, which was completed in 2013 and resulted in 2,753 identified star clusters. The resulting catalog represents an unprecedented census of star clusters, providing a sample that is currently unmatched in terms of mass completeness and age precision. All thanks to the hundreds of volunteers who contributed 1.82 million classifications over the course of the project’s life!

You can participate in Local Group Cluster Search both on Zooniverse.org and on our mobile app, available for iOS and Android.

Celebrating Citizen Science Day 2019, PT.3

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This coming Saturday 13th April is Citizen Science Day, an ‘annual event to celebrate and promote all things citizen science’. Here at the Zooniverse, one of our team members will be posting each day this week to share with you their favourite Zooniverse projects. Today’s post is from Laura Trouille, co-PI for Zooniverse and VP of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

To follow on Sam’s Monday post kicking off this series and her mention of the diversity of approaches and models for citizen science, I thought it would be fun and helpful to highlight Hawk Talk, a project co-created by citizen scientists and researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

During the summer of 2018, a group of volunteers spent weeks observing the Red-tailed Hawk cam, brainstorming questions about what they were seeing, and ultimately voting on a question to investigate:

Do hawks use different kinds of calls in different situations at the nest?

Previous researchers have documented Red-tailed Hawk vocalizations, but have been mostly limited to what they can hear on the ground or when briefly checking a nest. The 24/7 Red-tailed Hawk cam gives the community the chance to document vocalizations right at the nest without disturbing the birds!

Join them at Hawk Talk for this first round of clips in which you will look at the first week of footage after the nestlings start to hatch.

We also invite you to learn more about the Bird Cams Lab, the larger project that Hawk Talk is a part of. Click here to help test new activities for co-created research investigations.

Almost every day, the Hawk Talk team posts in the project’s announcement banner. Sometimes they direct you to a specific clip to help figure out what is going on. Other times they let you know about exciting news happening on the live Red-tailed Hawks cam.

The team also posts the number of classifications received on the previous day and encourages continued participation. Help them increase the daily number of classification from ~200/day to more!

The greater the participation, the more quickly the citizen scientists and researchers can use these data to answer their question. This is a wonderful example of citizen scientists engaged in all steps of the research process. Join the Hawk Talk community and help make it a success!

Go straight to Hawk Talk or to the Zooniverse portal for Bird Cams Lab, where you can find both Hawk Talk and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s other project, Battling Birds.

Thank you!


Celebrating citizen science day 2019, PT.2

This coming Saturday 13th April is Citizen Science Day, an ‘annual event to celebrate and promote all things citizen science’. Here at the Zooniverse, one of our team members will be posting each day this week to share with you their favourite Zooniverse projects. Today, we hear from our Biomedical Research Lead, Dr Helen Spiers:

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’d find it hard to pick a favorite Zooniverse project. Since the first Zooniverse project, Galaxy Zoo, was launched way back in 2007, we’ve launched over 150 different projects, so there are an awful lot of fantastic projects to get involved with, from helping to identify manatee calls to transcribing fragments of documents from the middle ages. So rather than trying to pick a single stand-out favorite, as Biomedical Research Lead, I thought I’d highlight a couple of the projects from this domain.

If you’ve ever wondered what a virus looks like we have the project for you! In Science Scribbler: Virus Factory you can join a growing community of volunteers who are helping advance science by identifying virus particles in images of the inside of a cell that has been infected with a virus. The aim of this project, which was launched earlier this year, is to help improve understanding of how viruses hijack their host cell’s internal machinery to create ‘factories’ where they replicate. Not only will this help improve understanding of how we can disrupt this process and better cure viral infections, the efforts of our volunteers in this project will also help researchers improve automated data analysis techniques so we can do more science faster! You can read more about this project here or get started and contribute some classifications here.

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Images of a virus from Science Scribbler: Virus Factory

Continuing at the subcellular scale, in Zooniverse project Etch A Cell you can colour in for science! In the first edition of this project, a community of 5,546 volunteers have helped researchers based at the Francis Crick Institute in London study subcellular structures by drawing around the cell nucleus (a task known as ‘segmentation’) and their efforts have already produced some fantastic results which you can read more about here. If you’re in London soon, you can visit The Crick and see Etch A Cell featured in a free exhibition, ‘Craft & Graft: Making Science Happen’, running until 30th November 2019. Read more about the project here or start drawing for science here

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 16.37.51A segmented cell nucleus from the Etch A Cell project

Both of these projects, Etch A Cell and Science Scribbler: Virus Factory, can be found on our Project Page along with all other current Zooniverse projects. We typically launch a new citizen science project each week, so chances are you’ll see a different project each time you visit – if you have a spare five minutes this Citizen Science Day why not take a look, and spend a few of your clicks on citizen science; you never know what you may discover!

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Join us at Earth Fest!

The Zooniverse is going on the road!

To celebrate Earth Day 2019, members of the Zooniverse team will be at two events in Chicago the weekend of April 13 and 14.

First, visit us at the Adler Planetarium’s Earthfest on Saturday, April 13. Participate in a real-life version of our Floating Forests project, pick up some cool Zooniverse swag, and talk to members of the Zooniverse team about their work. The event is free with Adler admission and we’ll be there between 10 am and 4 pm.

If you can’t make it to the Adler, join us at the Chicago Botanic Garden for the Unearth Science Festival on Sunday April 14. There, we’ll be talking about all the fantastic Zooniverse projects you can contribute to online or via our app, as well as taking an in-depth look at the anatomy of flowers via the Rainforest Flowers project.

Hope to meet you there!


Celebrating Citizen Science Day 2019, pt. 1

To celebrate Citizen Science Day 2019, this coming Saturday 13th April, a different member of the Zooniverse team will be posting each day this week to share with you some of our all-time favourite Zooniverse projects. First off in the series is our Digital Humanities Lead, Dr. Samantha Blickhan.

From CitizenScience.org: “Citizen Science Day is an annual event to celebrate and promote all things citizen science: amazing discoveries, incredible volunteers, hardworking practitioners, inspiring projects, and anything else citizen science-related!”

Here at Zooniverse, we’re excited to participate by highlighting a series of projects that we enjoy. I want to kick things off by showing off a current project that does a great job illustrating one of my favorite things about this type of research: its ability to cross typical academic or discipline-specific boundaries.

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Reading Nature’s Library is a transcription project, launched in February 2018, that was created by a team at Manchester Museum. The project invites volunteers to help transcribe labels for the museum’s collections, which include everything from Archery to Numismatics to Zoology, so this project has something for everyone! In the 13 months since their project launched, a community of 2,669 registered Zooniverse volunteers have completed over 9,283(!) subjects.

Beyond the wide-ranging contents of their dataset, this project is a great way to show how projects can affect a range of disciplines. The results of this project could be used for research in a range of disciplines within the sciences (as varied as their collections), not to mention studies of history, archives, and collections management. Furthermore, large amounts of transcribed text can be a useful tool for helping to train machine learning models for Handwritten Text Recognition.

Today’s project selection also raises a good point about terminology and models for participatory research. Although this week we are celebrating ‘Citizen Science Day’, not all projects fit into the same ‘Citizen Science’ model, and the use of ‘citizen’ is not intended in a narrow, geographic sense. As we celebrate the efforts by project teams and their communities of volunteers, we also want to acknowledge the work being done to illuminate these differences and work to develop models for inclusivity and sustainability. The following article great place to start if you’re interested in learning more:

Eitzel, MV et al. (2017) Citizen Science Terminology Matters: Exploring Key Terms: https://theoryandpractice.citizenscienceassociation.org/articles/10.5334/cstp.96/

Citizen Science Day 2019

To celebrate Citizen Science Day 2019, which is this coming Saturday 13th April, a different member of the Zooniverse team will be posting each day this week to share with you some of our all-time favourite Zooniverse projects. Watch this space!