Post provided by Ditch Townsend and Robert Colwell
Different Paths to Science
DITCH: Amateur naturalists from the UK have a distinguished pedigree, from Henry Walter Bates and Marianne North, to Alfred Russel Wallace and Mary Anning. But arguably, the rise of post-war academia in the fifties displaced them from mainstream scientific discourse and discovery. Recently, there has been a resurgence of the ‘citizen scientist’, like me, in the UK and elsewhere – although the term may refer to more than one kind of beast.
To me, the ‘citizen scientist’ label feels a little patronising – conveying an image of people co-opted en masse for top-down, scientist-led, large-scale biological surveys. That said, scientist-led surveys can offer valid contributions to conservation and the documentation of the effects of climate change (among other objectives). They also engage the public (not least children) in science, although volunteers usually have an interest in natural history and science already. For me though, the real excitement comes in following a bottom-up path: making my own discoveries and approaching scientists for assistance with my projects.
ROB: I grew up on a working ranch in the Colorado mountains, surrounded on three sides by National Forest and a National Wilderness Area. My mother, an ardent amateur naturalist, taught me and my sister the local native flora and fauna and our father instilled a respect for the land in us. For my doctoral research at the University of Michigan, I studied insect biodiversity in Colorado and Costa Rica at several elevations. The challenges of estimating the number of species (species richness) and understanding why some places are species-rich and others species-poor has fascinated me ever since. Continue reading