Are you involved in people-powered research?

Sometimes we don’t realize that we are citizen scientists until someone tells us that we actually are. I was about 12-14 years old when I stepped into the world of people-powered research – I was observing bees on a regular basis.

I used to spend my school summer vacations with my grandparents in the countryside. My grandfather used to have many beehives, seven or nine. They were placed in a small area surrounding our country house and terrifying all the neighbours. I was also scared of those small creatures living in the colourful constructions – their bite could easily spoil my day. However, I found bees very cute, fluffy and hard-working. Moreover, there was something almost hypnotising in watching their daily routine – how they were departing from the hives, carrying pollen on their tiny legs or landing on the hives’ stands. I was also lucky because I had an opportunity to assist my grandfather in his small bee-garden – to open the hive covers or take out frames with honey. Every day, every year, except winter time when bees went into hibernation, we were observing the bees, their activity, their behaviour. Everything was noted, thoroughly described, measured, and even reported to the local union of beekeepers and some other institutions. Probably, the union analysed all the data and sent the summary to the national union of beekeepers but I don’t remember the details now. I just loved watching the bees and having them in my life. It was a very unique and very personal experience that I cherished because it made me be closer to nature and helped later to better understand the scientific process.

I assisted my grandfather because of the curiosity and desire to be involved in something mysterious, as I thought, and I understand now that the observations we did in our small bee-garden actually contributed to something bigger, helped to better understand the lovely yellow-black creatures and map the areas where one could find a certain type of honey. Thanks to my current research project on citizen science at Umea University, I see that the benefits of bee watchers to conservation and science as well as to participants themselves are increasingly recognized and valued. Citizen science programs mobilise people to contribute to scientific research. Scientific data gathered by communities gives concerned people, decision-makers or scientists access to more information than what they can gather on their own. Also, citizen scientists themselves can gain knowledge on insects and their population distributions, seasonal cycles. And that’s true – time has passed but I remember very well some facts about bees and flowers pollen that affect the taste of honey.

Looking back, I wish I had had more opportunities for science engagement, and citizen science particularly, as a kid. Knowing how many citizen science related web-platforms and mobile apps are available now, I’m truly happy for children, their parents, teachers and researchers. Thanks to the development of technology, we can learn so much about the world around us in a never-ending mode.  

So, look up for a citizen science app and go outside – watch bees, beetles, ants, birds, whatever. Explore the world around you! Have a look at some citizen science platforms and projects:

Sweden:

  • Bikalender – a citizen science project for beekeepers in Sweden
  • ArtPortalen – a website for observations of Sweden’s plants, animals and fungi
  • Naturens kalender – the Swedish National Phenology Network, a collaboration between universities, governmental agencies, and volunteers

International:

  • SciStarter – a citizen science project directory and knowledge hub
  • Zoouniverse – a citizen science web portal
  • iNaturalist – a citizen science project and online social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists
  • eBird – an online database of bird observations

 

The midsummer rod issue

Happy Easter everyone! Easter is not particularly celebrated in Korea even though about 18 % of the population is Catholics and 45 % are Protestants. In other words, no Easter celebrations for me this year. No Easter eggs, Easter buffet or family time. I will think of you lucky people at home this weekend!

Easter marks about halfway of my stay here in South Korea. I realized today as I was walking to work that I am starting to feel at home here in Korea and at Hanyang University. I am wondering what the coming 3 months have to bring? A few things that I am planning is to experience the south of Korea by traveling to Busan and Jeju Island. I will also go hiking in Seoraksan Naional Park and arrange traditional Swedish midsummer celebrations for my colleagues. I am thinking about alternatives to the midsummer rod so we can dance and sing “små grodorna”.

The midsummer rod is a very important issue to solve. However, I may have some time for my PhD project as well. I am looking forward to learn more about the Korean building design and energy efficiency. I am also hoping to understand the work and the assessment tools used at the Sustainable Building Research Center a bit better. And of course I will work hard on my Fika legacy here at the office.

If you ever get the chance to visit a foreign university for a couple of months, take it! You will not get disappointed, I promise. If you are interested in South Korea and maybe even Hanyang Univeristy, go for it. Here are some issues that Korea is facing where there is a need of competence and technology development;

  • Over consumption of plastic. Trash is piling up on the streets and recycling businesses are losing their money. As a response to this, the Korean Ministry of Environment have decided to increase domestic recycling rate from 34 per cent to 70 per cent by 2030.
  • High energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. The buildings have poor insulation and are heated by fuels with high climate impact.
  • Renewable energy sources in an urban environment.
  • The work-related stress is hard to not see. In addition the car is the Koreans best friend. Combined with a diet high on carbohydrates can become lethal in the future.

Maybe this can give you some ideas for your PhD project or your master thesis.

If you have any questions about being a visiting scholar at a foreign university, do not hesitate to contact me. I will try to answer your questions to best of my ability.

With that I would like to thank you for reading my blog posts over the last two weeks. I would also like to wish you happy Easter and a nice holiday!

Regards Helena Nydahl

The future is female

Spring is arriving in South Korean and Ansan, the cherry flowers are in full bloom. Spring is telling us that new and brighter times are coming. A prosperous future awaits where all flowers get the opportunity to flourish. I am looking forward to it. I am also looking forward to a prosperous scientific community with diversity and inclusion.

I have a t-shirt that I use on selected occasions, it says “the future is female” in big bold letters. For me it means a future where men and women have the same opportunities and gender norms do not exist. I will dedicate this blog post today to women in research.

I am somewhat living in the female future already. My grandmother always tell me about her dreams to study when she was young and how her parents did not support it. She never got the opportunities that I have gotten, studying to get a PhD and visit a foreign university for six months. There is still however work to be done to reach an equal research community.

At my department, the department of Applied Physics and Electronics at Umeå Uiversity, females are and has always been a minority. In the undergraduate educations the mix between women and men are quite well balanced. For the PhD education it might be a bit higher representation of men, but still women are quite well represented. There is however no female professor and there has never been.

I can see this phenomenon at the office here at Hanyang Univeristy as well. The picture show me and my colleagues. You probably see my point. However, I am not here to pointing fingers, there are probably many possible explanations for this. But what efforts are being made to change this?

Role models are an important source of motivation and self-confidence – when people who are similar to ourselves do something incredible, we realize that we can do the same. A good idea would be a platform where female researchers are given the opportunity to be role models for undergraduate students and PhD students. A platform only dedicated to this matter.

This platform does not exist as far as I know, so I will help create a small platform here with some names of female researchers that I have had the opportunity to meet and that are role models for me. Anna Linusson, Britt Andersson, Johanna Björklund, Erika Sörensson and Maria Bengtsson. I can also recommend women.doing.science on Instagram. Please add your female role models within research in the comments below.

I feel like I have to write a disclaimer saying that I am extremely proud of my male coworkers and have a few role models among them as well. However, I am not writing about them today.

Groundbreaking old solutions for energy efficient buildings

Why am I choosing to spend six months at the Sustainable Building Research Center in South Korea? It all started with my supervisor Thomas Olofsson. A couple of weeks into my PhD studies he told me about an exchange that he had done during his PhD project. My immediate response was “I also want to do that, when can I go?”. He was very encouraging but told me that it could be a good idea to wait and do the exchange about half way through my PhD project, “then you will have a bit more experience and be able to work more independently”, he said. A week before I left Sweden for Korea I held my midterm seminar.

Being in Korea now, I believe that my supervisor was right. Most PhD students would probably agree that every day as a PhD student is a challenge, an extremely fun and developing challenge, but still a challenge. Working at an office where they speak a language that I do not understand and their English is limited, it is good that I kind of know what I am doing or at least have an idea of where I am heading in my PhD project.

Anyway, I consciously started taking note of the affiliation of the authors of the scientific literature I was reading. Most researchers worked in Scandinavia, but I will be honest and say that I wanted to travel a bit further than that. I contacted a few researcher, among them Professor Sungho Tae at Hanyang University, and he invited me to come and work in Korea for six months. I thought that the Sustainable Building Research Center at Hanyang Univeristy was a great fit for me for several reasons. Both Sweden and Korea are in need of buildings that can handle temperatures well below and well above zero degrees Celsius. Buildings are in need of heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. This is a challenge from an energy and design perspective. However, it is quite clear that we solve these challenges in different ways, which is interesting to study.

One example of this was a couple of weeks ago when Professor Sungho Tae invited me to join him to a meeting with Dr. Chae Chang-U at the Korean Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology (KICT). KICT has their offices in a Zero Carbon Green Home prototype building and of course, I got a guided tour through the building. Some energy solutions that were proudly displayed in the building was insulation, heat recovery ventilation and three glass windows. Solutions that are standard in Sweden to reach building regulations. Of course Professor Tae and Dr. Chang-U where well aware of this, nevertheless, buildings does normally not include these energy solutions in Korea. This experience made me a bit proud of the Swedish building energy performance. But we cannot relax and feel like we have it all under control because Korea is developing quickly and there are a lot of money going into the development of green building certification systems.

This exchange also gives me an opportunity that I do not have at Umeå University, a research center completely dedicated to building life cycle assessment. Which is a great opportunity since my PhD project focus on environmental performance measures to assess sustainable construction from a life cycle perspective. The language has been a bit of a barrier for knowledge exchange but I still have some months left here so hopefully it will work out. I really enjoy the experience, however, and there are so much more than just the office and research experience that I will bring with me from this exchange.

Chopsticks, kimchi and noodles

 

South Korea, the land of kimchi. You will get it served at every restaurant together with a spicy noodle soup. Everything is spicy, which takes a bit getting used to for a Swede that usually season the food with only salt and pepper. However, there are some non-spicy, very delicious foods that I have tried during my stay here, gimbap (Korean sushi roll), mandu (dumplings), Korean pancake and Korean BBQ to mention a few.

I have stayed in Korea for about 2 months now. I am a visiting scholar at the Sustainable Building Research Center at Hanyang University ERICA Campus in Ansan. I am working on my PhD project focusing on Sustainable Construction from a Life Cycle Perspective.

How would I explain Ansan? According to Wikipedia Ansan has a population of about 700 000, a little bit bigger than Gothenburg. However, you do not really get the feeling of a big city, because the city is quite spread out with several small city centers. If you ever visit, I would recommend getting of the tram at Ansan station, wander around these multicultural streets, and visit the market. You will find food from all over the world, fresh bread and vegetables to a fair prize.

Working at a Korean office is a bit different from a Swedish office. Coffee brakes, which is holy in Sweden, does not exist. I am doing my best to introduce at least morning fika, or pika as the Koreans pronounce it. Yesterday we had Västerbotten cheese and dried reindeer together with crackers and apple jam for morning fika. My colleagues really enjoyed it and we actually sat down together for 20 minutes chatting. We do not even sit chatting during lunch, it is more focus on eating and when the last person puts the last bit of food into their mouth everyone gets up to leave.

In general, it is a stressful environment working at a Korean office with high requirements on performance and availability. I have pondered over the Swedish fika culture and our one-hour lunch sit-downs where we discuss personal and work related topics, and compared it to my Korean office experience. Of course, I will not understand the Korean office culture perfectly in just 2 months and I do not speak their language, which is an obstacle for chatting. But I really miss the Swedish fika/chatting breaks. A selection of non-scientific sources says that a fika break makes us more efficient, innovative and happy and I can recognize this. I will continue my mission to leave a legacy of fika breaks when I leave the Sustainable Building Research Center office in July.

TeaTime4science

Tomorrow will be an exiting day in our global decomposition (plant decay) study. After four years of burying tea bags (25 000 bags to be exact) and collecting data (from 2500 locations), our collaborators in Zurich have been putting things together and will show us the first global decomposition maps! The tea bag virus broke out about ten years ago, when I was having a coffee break with my colleagues (well, actually I was having a tea break; Who needs coffee?). All day long, I had been filling so-called ’litter bags’ with plant material (reed). Before that, I had spend hours sowing these bags. So I needed a break.

Litter bags are bags made of plastic with little holes in it. In this way, only the plant material inside the bag will decompose whereas the bags remain a constant weight. So after making, filling and weighing such bags, one has to place them in the field and weight. Micro-organisms and everything else that fits trough the mesh of the bags will than start eating the plant material, and the bag will loose weight. By taking out bags at different time intervals (three or more) one can graph the weight loss over time and calculate decomposition rates. However, depending on the number of treatments, replicates and time intervals, one can end up with scary numbers of bags to prepare.

So did I, and therefore, I complained a lot during this coffee break. Staring at the tea bags in our cups we contemplating about al the sacrifices we made for science. The teabag was one of those fancy triangle ones that were new and fashionable in 2010’s. Suddenly I noticed that the fabric was equivalent to the bags that I had been struggling with in the lab. Plastic, with little holes. Not to let things in, but to let the flavor out. I showed it to my colleague and his replied that I was drinking a litter bag, as tea is also plant material. Instead of complaining, we started joking, and with a refreshed mind I filled my remaining litter bags.

Time went by and the thought of tea bags as equivalents of those laborious litter bags grew. So on a sunny day I was convinced that burying teabags was a better contribution to science than the manuscript I was working on so I shut down my computer, and went go out, into the sun, into the fresh green grass and got my hands dirty. On that memorial day the first triangle tea bags were buried,  and the Tea Bag Index project was born. It would take another three year and a course project to develop the method further, and another four years concur the world. Last February researcher from everywhere gathered in Umeå, and tomorrow, we will take an important step towards publishing the results.

How does it work? It’s simple. We bury green tea and rooibos and measure the weight loss of the tea bags after three months. With the weight loss of rooibos we calculate a proxy for initial decomposition rates, whereas green tea tells us how much material will not be decomposed but stabilizes. With this information, we will create a global map of decomposition that can for instance be used as a reference for future decomposition studies or as input for climate models. You can read more about it on our website. During the past years, many people started their own projects, and they tell about their work in a short video made by Umeå University. Our work continues, aiming not only on data collection but also in providing a platform where people get connected and can share ideas, methodological insights and data. There are always opportunities for more research, and you are all welcome to join!

Bright new days

August 2012, One of those good old days, at least a very sunny one. I am walking together with some newly started PhD candidates and some master students through the nature area ‘Westbroek’ in the Netherlands. They have saved my day by counting seedlings in an experiment that sounded so simple in the beginning, but that turned out rather laborious. In return I will give them a crash course plant species identification. A clear win-win situation. Of course we head to nature area that I know so well. The place where I myself made my first vegetation surveys, where I fished thousands of seeds out of the water, spend weeks counting reed stalks in pouring rain and measured wind, water and soil quality trying to understand how plants colonize pond shorelines. I am sort of walking into the good old days of my PhD thesis there. On this sunny bright new day, we have a very nice time looking at plant leaf points, flowers and random fliebertjes (an brilliant Dutch word, don’t ask me to translate this). On our way out, we meet a photographer, who takes a rather spontaneous picture of us.

Years later, I visit Westbroek as I have to bury some tea bags for an experiment there (see www.teatime4science.org). At the entrance I find an information board with a picture of some hikers. On closer inspection these hikers appear to be us, on our plant identification excursion. I think back on those good old days. Things have changed, one PhD turned doctor, the students turned PhD candidates, and one of them got together with one of the PhD’s of our excursion. Despite the pouring rain I notice bright new days…

March 2019. Today I am opponent in a Dutch defense ceremony. On this bright new day, I remember those good old days of my own defense in the same building. Now I will sit at the other side of the table, together with the evaluation committee. My PhD supervisor which again is part of the evaluation committee, has been upgraded to professor. This means that she has to wear an official toga and beret. In the toilet it still says “Tork” on the paper tissues, but I now know this means more than a brand name. The PhD that we have to question about his thesis is one of the people of the excursion, but the information board in Westbroek is replaced by something new.

A Dutch defense is a very official and big party, with official dress codes, formal speeches and ways of addressing, pictures of medieval scientists on the wall and a whole audience of family, friends and colleagues watching the scientific discussion. This highlight can only be reached after years of hard work, and the new Doctor now enters into the life of a scientist filled with many paper- rejections, constant job-insecurity, high workloads and other things that I am sure have been touched upon by other people in other blogs. Remembering good old days and creation of new bright ones are a very important counterweight. So today we celebrate! Congratulations Sven Teurlincx, you did great!

Link to the work of Sven https://nioo.knaw.nl/en/employees/sven-teurlincx

 

The grass is always greener…

As a researcher, you travel a lot. It’s usually a lot of fun, but… Umeå is so far from everything. It’s therefore no surprise that over 90% of the carbon dioxide emissions of Umeå University is caused by traveling employees. With a better world in mind, I therefore spend my last two days in a train, traveling from Umeå-Sundsval-Uppsala-Stockholm-Lund-Copenhagen-Hamburg-Ostnabruck-Hengelo-Zwolle-Leiden. From white to grey to brown to green and greener.

Of course I wanted to take advantage of the undisturbed time in the train and work on proposals, read literature and have great thoughts. So far so good, but after some hours, batteries got low and I realized that my train was not equipped with power outlets. Neither was the next one nor the next and the next, etc.

So I ended up staring out of the window, sticking to ‘having great thoughts’, and doubting about whether I need to take up holidays to compensate for the not being able to work or not. However, soon I found my brain wandering off. It simply can’t stop being a researcher, so it started analyzing the slowly changing landscape: Snow gone after Uppsala, the fist daffodils around Copenhagen and ice-cream-eaters in Hengelo. As the weather changed from snow to rain to sunshine, my hypothesis-addicted brain quickly found an explanation. More difficult to explain was: the stones (flyttblock) being rounder in Lund than in Umeå, and the grass being greener in Amsterdam than around Lund. Because I had nothing better to entertain my brain, I found myself playing the game of thought experiments.

There are three basic designs that underlie most experiments. The first one is based on comparing groups. The second approach extends on that, and looks for relations over a gradient. Instead of comparing two averages (are stones really more round in Lund than in Umeå), one can than draw lines and see trends (As I did along the climate gradient). However, both these approaches encounter problems when your locations differ in too many things. The classic example of this pitfall is that you can find a strong relation between number of crime victims and numbers of hamburgers eaten. Of course there is no causal effect there, but both hamburger consumption and number of crime victims may both be driven by city size. To overcome this ’co-founding’ problem, you can do a ‘manipulative experiment’, and for instance add nutrients to see if it affects the greenness of the grass, or that temperature also is important there.

I assume that many researchers play this game of thought experiments and if you find yourself sitting in a train with low batteries and nothing better to do, you are welcome to contribute.  Overall, I enjoyed my long, long journey south, as it all trains ran smoothly in time and I met many interesting people. But next time, I’ll be better prepared so I can keep my brain entertained with work rather than with stones, the weather and grass.

Back to work at the Advanced Light Source

The holidays are over and 2019 begins – I hope it’ll be a year that brings implementation of the compromises made in Katowice. For me, the coming year brings more work over at the Advanced Light Source (ALS) synchrotron in Berkeley including standard compound measurements, updating sample stage capabilities at the beamline, and applications for beam time for the autumn season. Going to and from work, there are some famous landmarks to look at from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory site up the hills from Berkeley as shown in the image below.

View from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory towards the Bay area. Silhouette of San Francisco is visible to the left of centre, the small island of Alcatraz with Golden Gate bridge behind it is off to its right. The Campanile (bell tower) at the bottom centre is the Sather tower located in University of California, Berkeley campus.

As I was with my family during the holidays and showed some pictures like the one above, I was asked how it is to work abroad as a research scholar. So far, it’s amazing how the common scientific language enables conversation on complex issues. Compared to my earlier stay in Wien, Austria, the work over here in USA provide an added level of complexity through the time zone differences. It hasn’t been uncommon to start with phone meetings during European office hours from around 2-3 in the morning and then continue my work day until I go home from ALS at about 18-19 in the evening. I’m not typically a morning person so this has been a bit of change, fortunately my roommates didn’t complain about early morning discussions.

Other than such things that mostly concern personal situation, I’ve seen significant differences in matters that determine your day-to-day work between the countries, but also between Swedish universities. Seemingly mundane things like purchasing a small piece of equipment isn’t a pain for the individual researcher in Austria or the US in my experience. By comparison, the Swedish system of procurement of seemingly cheap equipment that is required for studies in natural sciences or technology probably does hamper scientific progress in Sweden.

There are other examples, but since I’m looking at equipment upgrades here at ALS has become so clear that the focus here is placed on how science could best benefit from whatever is purchased – not whether a disgruntled manufacturer could challenge the process. The contrasting sluggishness in Sweden is obvious where procedure is seemingly regarded more important than science, and this comes at a huge cost. Staff from all levels are putting in hours to create procurement documents, there is a lack of progress in projects with deadlines that are in need of the equipment, and in the worst cases post-docs or guest researchers are not able to acquire data they need for publication before they have to leave their position. As a researcher who relies heavily on experimental and analytical equipment, I sincerely hope that the scientific outcome will be prioritized in Sweden as well in the future.

This is one of the lessons I’ve learned so far while working abroad, that there should always be room to reflect on whether a procedure benefits the goals or not. With these words, I wish you a great 2019!

Suna Bensch

The story about the two waiting robots

If you read my last blog post and, like I do, love long theater performances during which ”nothing happens, twice” (Vivian Mercier about Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (best play ever)), then you’ll probably enjoy my story about the two waiting robots 🙂