Science is sexy: rigorous citizen science project FjordPhyto sets best practices in ecotourism

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

Climate change awareness is on the rise and proving beneficial to both the public and science in unconventional ways. More frequently, people are being mindful about their choices and impacts on the natural world. This has extended into a niche market of travelers that want to not only see the world, but support environmental sciences while they’re at it. Citizen science travel, as it were, has garnered popularity, but not without a few raised eyebrows. Who would have thought that environmental science could be a selling point?

“Citizen science” is a particularly vague term, used to describe anything from scientists driven by a social conscience, to volunteers (typically without scientific backgrounds) assisting scientists in research efforts. Most projects popping up in ecotourism are referring to the latter, but there are not commonly accepted standards yet for what constitutes rigorous citizen science, proper project design, or degree of volunteer involvement. Even so, each project should be evaluated individually, and not assumed to be substandard because nonspecialists assisted with data collection.

Citizen science projects that are properly designed, conducted, and evaluated are perfectly capable of providing sound science. In order to address pertinent, scientific questions or help solve problems, it’s necessary to have hypothesis-driven data, as in conventional studies. One such project, FjordPhyto, has done just that, as a collaborative effort between an enthusiastic group of trained tourism guides and Scripps Institute of Oceanography’s Dr. Maria Vernet and her PhD candidate advisees Allison Cusick and Martina Mascioni.

FjordPhyto studies how differences in physical oceanography correlates with biological shifts in phytoplankton communities of polar fjords. Fjords are glacially-carved mountain valleys that cradle the sea, many of which can be found in both polar regions (ice, ice baby). These fjords, are experiencing increased rates of freshwater input (from snow and ice melt) due to climate change. Uniquely, Antarctica’s western peninsula, is known to have biodiversity hubs within certain fjords during plankton blooms every summer. These blooms attract massive aggregations of krill (tiny shrimp-like animals), whales, seals, penguins, and adventurous tourists. There is growing concern that increasing freshwater input may detrimentally change these dynamics. FjordPhyto aims to find which fjords are most effected, how phytoplankton communities respond, and what this means for the ecosystem as a whole.

Previous data collection has been reliant on limited research vessel access and seasonality, leaving large knowledge gaps. Involving tourism in hands-on sampling through citizen science travel, not only enhances tourists’ connections with these remote destinations, it also allows scientists access to otherwise unreachable data. This inclusive experience can create a lasting, inspiring impression with guests and destinations alike! Increasing data acquisition in this way, helps to paint a more fine-scale, holistic picture of changes in a dynamic environment.

Robust scientific projects inevitably encounter complications despite ample planning. Allison spent her entire Master’s thesis coordinating and pitching the logistics for funding and collaborative opportunities. Now well into her PhD program to continue this work, Allison considers Dr. Vernet’s previously established professional network vital to the facilitation of working at the ends of the world. Unlike an app-based project, for example, where data can be taken with the tap of a smart phone, FjordPhyto has a much more involved data collection process. Deploying oceanographic instruments, physically processing samples, and sharing findings with guests through microscopic images requires a commendable amount of additional work and associated challenges. These efforts do not go unnoticed by the assisting volunteers. Arguably, more involved data collection can help volunteers become more invested in the science. Learning to tie a bowline knot, properly deploying the plankton net, and filtering samples all have high potential to form personal connections with the project.

Unfortunately, skepticism needs to be employed when distinguishing legitimate citizen science projects from marketing ploys. Sound research employs standardized procedures in order to answer pertinent scientific questions, not to make a buck (or several million). These priorities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, nor does every project need to be as ambitious as FjordPhyto. Valuable information has been gleaned from plenty of other valid projects using apps, photographs, observations, and the like. Yet it begs the question, shouldn’t properly designed citizen science projects be distinguished from poorly developed ones, often designed to increase marketability?

Some of the most difficult aspects of this work go largely unnoticed by the public. Training associates in methodology, storing and traveling with frozen samples across the globe, and analyzing data, however, are nonetheless critical components. It takes Martina between two to three hours to develop microscopy images for each sample! FjordPhyto collects upwards of 70 samples each season, no less. After all of this hard work though, FjordPhyto will tell an important story providing evidence to support graduate students Allison and Martina’s hypotheses, or something altogether unexpected. Ecotourism companies partnering with scientists like FjordPhyto’s team has shown that science sells. The results conclude that it’s a mutually beneficial product- and worth selling!

Follow along with this project’s progress and learn more at: