Matching Scientists with Adventurers

Gregg Treinish, a man whose hiking credentials include a stroll along most of the Andes, took part in the Appalachian Trail Days event last weekend with an unusual sense of purpose. On a previous hike, he “felt selfish and … realized that was a shared feeling amongst hikers and mountaineers,” Treinish says.  That feeling, together with a stint studying wildlife biology at Montana State University, gave him an original idea: to offer adventurers the opportunity to share with scientists something that even those who travel light routinely take with them on their adventures: their eyes and ears. Now, wherever he goes, Treinish recruits fellow adventurers for his new organization, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC). Plenty of researchers seek to include helpful citizens in their projects, as I wrote last year for Science Careers (“Collaborating with Citizen Scientists“), but ACS, launched in November 2010, may be the first dedicated matchmaker, removing some of the recruiting burden from scientists.

Treinish, for whom the non-profit ACS is now a full-time gig, has recruited explorers such as mountaineer Conrad Anker, whose expeditions appear in National Geographic Magazine, and scientists such as Beth Holland, a biogeochemist and lead author of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.

For now, Treinish offers a Web site that invites scientists to explain their projects and adventurers to share their trip ideas. Treinish then suggests pairings, after consulting his board of advisors. So far he lists two active scientific projects, but during our conversation he mentioned others ranging from grizzly bear tracking near Yellowstone to glacier monitoring.

Together with his board members, Treinish is fundraising, with the goal of soon distributing around $50,000 a year to a handful of pilot expeditions. This would allow scientists “to collect the data to apply for a [traditional scientific] grant,” says Holland, who works at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado and serves on the advisory board of ACS. “We want to support model expeditions similar to the [Audubon Society’s] Christmas Bird Count but in a more extreme environment,” Treinish says. For example, Jessica Meir, a comparative physiologist at the University of British Columbia, wants Himalayan trekkers to help her count bar-headed geese flights over the world’s highest mountains. Knowing what conditions the birds face in the wild will help her design more accurate simulations for her research with captive birds in wind tunnels.

Chris Lintott told me last year that researchers who use volunteer data collectors need to design protocols that can catch errors or inconsistencies. Treinish agrees and tries to build repeatability into ACS projects: “I’ve talked to 22 groups who are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail” about a pika monitoring project. As a result, “you’re going to have 22 repeated assessments of where the pika[s] are living.”

Holland, who is working on a project in which atmospheric sensors are attached to amateur gliders for better climate datasets, says that an additional advantage of working with the organization is that its diverse members offer inventive ideas. During a recent conference call, she says, someone suggested using gliders to look for wolverine tracks or dens in the mountains, which could enable ecologists to catch a glimpse of an elusive community. “It sounds like a long shot,” Holland says, but “eventually, one of them is going to pay off big.”

First published by Science Careers: [html]

Update: A shorter version appeared as a Random Sample in Science Magazine.