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.
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.)