Who’s who in the Zoo – Mary Westwood

In our Who’s who in the Zoo blog series we introduce you to some of the people behind the Zooniverse.

In this edition, meet Dr Mary Westwood, a recent addition to the Zooniverse team.

– Helen

Name: Mary Westwood

Location: University of Oxford, UK

Tell us about your role within the team 

I joined the Zooniverse as a postdoctoral research assistant/project manager at the end of January 2022.

What did you do in your life before the Zooniverse?

I did a BSc and MSc in Biology at Wright State University in Ohio (where I’m from), then moved to the UK to do a PhD in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Edinburgh. Mostly I’m interested in how timing affects interactions between individuals, and towards the end of my PhD I started to dabble in bioacoustics and machine learning. Those last two topics are what led me to the Zooniverse.

What does your typical working day involve?

It varies a lot, but primarily I split my time between helping research teams get their projects up and running and doing my own research. I also get to write the weekly newsletters, which is a lot of fun.

How would you describe the Zooniverse in one sentence?

The innate curiosity and goodness of people put to very good use.

Tell us about the first Zooniverse project you were involved with

When I first checked out the Zooniverse, I wanted to see how bioacoustics projects were run on the platform. I can’t remember every project I looked into, but I do remember seeing HumBug and thinking what an incredible project it is.

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

Research from the Penguin Watch team and volunteers has led to additional protections to marine protected areas, which is a really awesome outcome from a Zooniverse project.

What’s been your most memorable Zooniverse experience?

Best memory: all of the project launches, they’re a lot of fun.

Worst memory: mistakenly thinking I’d changed the background image of the entire Zooniverse website.

What are your top three citizen science projects? 

I love them all equally.

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

Just go for it. Start building a project, play around with setting up workflows. Delete them, start again. Don’t be afraid to reach out to us for help.

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

Browse which projects we’re hosting to see what sparks your interest. Download apps like iNaturalist and Merlin Bird ID – both awesome platforms which get you out into nature (win) and help science (double win).

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

Everywhere. Since discovering the Zooniverse, I can’t believe everyone doesn’t already know about it.

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

I’m about to experience my first Zooniverse Team Meeting. Very excited to finally get together with all of the awesome people I’ve worked with remotely over the past six months.

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

Somewhere outdoors and with a pint, possibly also with a book or friends.

Do you have any party tricks or hidden talents?

My party trick is strong-arming any topic of conversation into a discussion about circadian rhythms.

You can check out Mary’s Zooniverse project here: The Cricket Wing

You can hear more from Mary on Twitter.

Zooniverse-Based Activities for Undergraduates Are Here!

Our pilot-tested, research validated, Zooniverse-based activities for undergraduates are here and are ready for widespread use in your undergraduate science classrooms! These activities are 75-90 minutes long and are intended for use in introductory, undergraduate courses for non-science majors (or upper-level high school courses). These activities have been developed for use in either in-person courses or online courses through Google Docs. 

Geology/Biology/Environmental Science 101 with Floating Forests

In this activity, students learn about kelp forests in Tasmania in order to conduct an investigation into how marine ecosystems are impacted by small increases in ocean warming. Students use data generated by fellow citizen scientists in order to see how climate change has affected kelp forests specifically in Tasmania, Australia. In part one, students interpret graphs to draw conclusions about the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and temperature, as well as learn about long term trends in Earth’s climate. Part two is intended to familiarize students with the Floating Forests platform. First, students practice classifying on a curated image set with a corresponding answer key. They will then be tasked with classifying images on the actual Floating Forests project. Part three uses data gathered by Floating Forests volunteers to introduce Tasmania, Australia as a case study of an ecosystem affected by climate change. 

Astronomy 101 with Planet Hunters

This is another three-part activity where students learn about the discovery and characterization of planetary systems outside of our Solar System. 

In part one, students use a lecture tutorial-style approach to learn about planetary transits and transit light curves. Students learn how important planetary properties such as orbital period and size can be approximated from specific features in a transit light curve. In the second part of this activity, students practice identifying transits (or dips) in a curated set of actual light curves. They will then receive feedback regarding whether or not they identified the transits successfully. Once the students have practiced, they classify on Planet Hunters – TESS, the current iteration of the Planet Hunters Project. Students get the opportunity to observe actual TESS light curves, and help the Planet Hunters research team identify potential planetary transits in those light curves. Finally, the activity concludes with a data driven investigation where students are presented with the complex research question, ‘Is our Solar System unique?’, and they will have to interpret data representations derived from the NASA Exoplanet Archive to form their own conclusion. 

A Little More About These Activities…

The Floating Forests and Planet Hunters-based classroom activities have been pilot tested with nearly 3,000 students across 14 colleges and universities. Survey data collected from participating students showed that completing either one of these two activities had statistically significant (positive) impacts on students’ ability to use data and evidence to answer scientific questions, on their ability to contribute in a meaningful way to science, and on their understanding that citizen science is a valuable tool that can be used to increase engagement in science. More than 70% of students claimed that these activities inspired them to come back and classify on additional Zooniverse projects! The results of these findings are being published in the Astronomy Education Journal (Simon et al., 2022, in review) and the Journal of Geophysics Education (Rosenthal et al., 2022, in prep). 

Additional feedback from pilot instructors indicated that these activities were easy to implement into new or existing introductory science courses. A few of our favorite instructor comments:

  1. “Being able to see and analyze the data and help with the entire research analysis process – students were very interested in that. They appreciated that it was real data. This is a real research project.” 
  2. “Well, there’s not enough time for me to say all the good things that I could say about Zooniverse. I think the benefit to the community, just the broader public, has been enormous. So I think these activities are fantastic, and sharing them, not only with colleges, but with high school and middle school educators, I think would be really beneficial. They’re fantastic.” 

The full activities and corresponding activity-synopses are available on the Zooniverse Classrooms Page (https://classroom.zooniverse.org)! The development and assessment of these activities were part of a larger NSF-funded effort, Award #1821319, Engaging Non-Science Majors in Authentic Research through Citizen Science. A final activity based around the Zooniverse project Planet Four will be coming soon! 

Also at classroom.zooniverse.org are two additional sets of materials, created through previous efforts:

  • Wildcam Labs
    • Designed for 11-13 year olds
    • The interactive map allows you to explore trail camera data and filter and download data to carry out analyses and test hypotheses. 
    • An example set of lessons based around Wildcam Labs, focused on using wildlife camera citizen science projects to engage students in academic language acquisition
    • Funded by HHMI and the San Diego Zoo
  • Astro101 with Galaxy Zoo
    • Designed for undergraduate non-major introductory astronomy courses
    • Students learn about stars and galaxies through 4 half-hour guided activities and a 15-20 hour research project experience in which they analyze real data (including a curated Galaxy Zoo dataset), test hypotheses, make plots, and summarize their findings. 
    • Funded by NSF

For both Wildcam Labs and Astro101 with Galaxy Zoo, instructors can set up private classrooms, invite students to join, curate data sets, and access guided activities and supporting educational resources.