Undergraduates produce usable data for scientists

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The Field Museum in Chicago had a problem: its zoological, geological, botanical and other scientific collections contained somewhere in the order of 40 million objects, much of which were uncataloged. The botanical plant collection alone contained more than 3.5 million specimens and held potential to contribute understanding on global climate change, according to Matt Von Konrat, head of the collection. But without digitization and analysis, the collection sat underused in research that might help science and society.

Roosevelt University in Chicago also had a problem. Many of its bright mathematics students were eager to gain real-world experiences that might introduce them to technology tools and prepare them for careers in industry. But many of the students had jobs or family responsibilities, which made pursuing internship and travel opportunities challenging, according to Melanie Pivarski, a math professor at the university.

In an attempt to solve his problem, Von Konrat called Pivarski to ask if her in-house statistical and math-modeling “brains,” as he referred to the students, could help. Pivarski considered the possibility that helping him could also help solve her problem and said yes.

College and university leaders often trumpet the benefits of undergraduate research programs—and for good reason. Many of these leaders say that students in such programs gain real-life experience in data collection, technology tools, research methods and analysis, while also developing mentoring relationships, changing their perspective on failure and developing transferable skills. Others note that undergraduate researchers gain communication, problem-solving, project management, budgeting and proposal-writing skills. These points are valid but often omit mention of beneficiaries beyond the students.

A new study on Von Konrat’s and Pivarski’s collaboration published in June in Research Ideas and Outcomes highlights that scientists may also benefit from undergraduate research. The student-generated data sets their partnership yielded were reliable and very helpful to the museum’s researchers.

“We’d never be able to accomplish as much as individual researchers,” Von Konrat said of the help his team received from the undergraduates and other community members. “That has enabled us to greatly accelerate our whole process of documentation and discovery.”

“Even though the students were doing our science-y interactions over the computer,” Pivarski said of the collaboration, “it was really clear [to them] this is real data, coming from a real place, and it’s going to help move science forward.”

Here’s the background: using today’s technology tools, Von Konrat made fast work of capturing digitized images of the museum’s liverwort specimens. Liverworts are small, compact, mosslike plants that grow in warm, wet regions of the world. They are descendants of the earliest plants that made the transition from water to land 100 million years ago, according to Von Konrat. Because they are tiny—about the size of an eyelash—they are ecologically sensitive and, as a result, help inform scientists about climate change.

But Von Konrat’s efforts resulted in tens of thousands of images. (Had he continued, he might have had hundreds of thousands of images.) Analyzing the images, however, would take a lot more time and effort. The massive number of images had created a bottleneck. Undaunted, he set up a kiosk at the Field Museum to crowdsource help from museum attendees.

“I wouldn’t have thought people would get excited about liverworts,” Von Konrat said, acknowledging that their name was “not the most attractive.” “But people really want to contribute to science.”

A visitor at the museum kiosk would see an image of a botanical specimen on a screen and be asked to measure it. Each image was displayed to multiple visitors, which resulted in many measurements. For example, a single liverwort image might have 80 different measurements from 80 different guests. Von Konrat understood that guests would have varying levels of success in understanding—or even following—the measurement directions. That meant that some, though not all, of the measurements would be accurate. He needed to figure out how to eliminate inaccurate measurements from his data set.

He turned to Pivarski. Could she and mathematics, actuarial science, data analytics and computer science undergraduates in her Industrial Applications of Mathematics class filter out bad entries from his crowdsourced data set? Field Museum researchers would only be able to use the data set in their research if it was high-quality. Pivarski welcomed the challenge, especially during the isolation of the pandemic.

“Everyone was on Zoom, and … in a strange way, it really pulled us together,” Pivarski said. “We wanted to get it to a publishable state and not just an undergrad-research-day state, which is what had happened in previous years.” Pivarski did not immediately know how to answer Von Konrat’s question, which appeared to motivate her students.

“There’s a certain essentialness to their work,” when the teacher does not know the answer from the outset, she said. “It’s a beautiful thing that you can’t really have in a Calc I class.”

Pivarski’s students wrote their own programs in Powershell (a task automation and configuration management program), Python (a programming language), and Excel (a spreadsheet) to screen and clean the data. Their automated process included multiple phases of throwing out outliers, just as Von Konrat had wanted. In the end, they determined that 40 percent of the crowdsourced data needed to be thrown out. That meant that 60 percent of the data was valid—and usable.

“You can imagine that that’s 60 percent less that we have to do,” Von Konrat said. “We’re actually able to use it for our research.”

The students, Pivarski reported, not only contributed to authentic research, but they thought deeply about the natural world and career opportunities.

“It’s one thing when they google the name of a plant online,” Pivarski said. “They’d be like, ‘Well, this looks very different from these [images of actual samples provided by Field Museum researchers].’” Their dawning realization that plants show up as different varieties in the natural world was palpable.

“They were also very curious about how the samples were collected and the excitement of international travel to get biological samples,” Pivarski said.

In regular Zoom calls with the researchers, they asked questions about the scientists’ work and lives.

“It’s really an experience of being in an internship without having to carve out their entire summer for an internship or travel,” Pivarski said of the opportunity the course provided for students whose work and family schedules would not normally accommodate those experiences. “There’s an equity dimension to it. Everyone can do it.”

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