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TheNAT Showcases Citizen Scientists' Discoveries

The exhibits team at the San Diego Natural History Museum examining rare book illustrations in the museum's research library, in an undated photo.
Michael Field
The exhibits team at the San Diego Natural History Museum examining rare book illustrations in the museum's research library, in an undated photo.

TheNAT Showcases Citizen Scientists’ Discoveries
theNAT Showcases Hobbyists' Scientific Discoveries GUEST: Margi Dykens, research library director, San Diego Natural History Museum

There so much emphasis on getting advanced degrees if you want to be a scientist. But an exhibit at the natural history Museum in Balboa Park focuses on people that have made significant contribution to science just by being passionate observers of nature. The exhibit is called extraordinary ideas from ordinary people, a history of citizen science. KPBS Allison St. John spoke recently with the exhibit curator Margi Dykens. Thank you for being here. What is citizen scientists and why devote an entire exhibit to them? Citizen scientists is a person who has unnatural interest in nature but does not necessarily have a professional degree or formal training in biology. And when you look at history, tell us about the significant citizen scientists we may have heard of your I like to use John James Audubon as an example because almost everyone has heard his name. He still is considered the premier bird artist. He lived back in the 1800s. That is a significant achievement at this point. He was a person who was not at all trained in ornithology, the study of birds. He wasn't even trained as an artist. But he had an avid interest in birds and nature and he spent any hours wandering around woods looking for birds and taking notes and taking sketches. He became a fabulous artist who very accurately portrayed our American birds. And he is one artist in the exhibit. Exactly. What about Henry Thoreau, what he count? Probably, because he documented a lot of plants in his area. People like that. According to the exhibit, the invention of portable microscopes set off a wave of interest in Victorian England. Tell us about that. That is true. Have a wonderful collection of Victorian microscope slides and some of them were professionally created at the time but many were made by normal people who became so interested in this new world that was revealed through the microscope. This was an exciting development that people could suddenly see these tiny objects and see details. This was what people did for entertainment. Instead of watching television, they would sit around and share the slides which are beautiful aesthetic objects in and of themselves and they were so well preserved at the time that they are still in really good shape today. We feature them in one display in the exhibition. You do feature some prominent San Diego citizen scientists. Tell us about a few. One of the first once it comes to mind about that is Lawrence clobber. He was trained as an engineer, he rose through the ranks at San Diego gas and electric to become CEO. But, in addition to this demanding job he had during the day, his night job or his avocation, if you will, was the study of reptiles and amphibians. He became the world's expert on rattlesnakes. And he was not trained. He was trained as an engineer. He learned so much about reptiles and amphibians and did a huge amount of research and collected many rare books in the process. Many of those rare books formed the nucleus of this new exhibition. And then there is Lee Passmore. He was a gentleman who had no formal education, I think he made to the eighth grade, back in the 1920s or 30s he was a professional photographer at one point he traveled throughout San Diego down by the docs taking pictures of people to earn a buck. That kind of thing. But he went out into the desert and he had these wonderful large-format cameras that he used for his photography and he started observing in particular spiders and insects in the desert. And he spent so many hours watching the trapdoor spider in particular that he became fascinated with their behavior and he excavated their burrow and document behavior of the spiders that had never been in before by train scientists. His photographs are some of the things we feature. I could imagine kids love it works I think so, yes. Have a whole area on the mezzanine, the upper floor of the exhibition that is a kid friendly area that is designed for families to come and hang out, we have a giant oversized books, Betty book or they can crawl behind angry and explore. It is wonderful to inspire them with science. And reading. Yes. What kind of opportunities might people discover at the exhibition that would inspire them to go away and practice their own citizen science skills? We have a little handout card that has suggestions of websites that are soliciting data from the public at large. For example, our new herb Atlas we encourage people to go out with smart phones and take pictures and maybe you discover a lizard in a canyon behind house and you wonder what it is but it is beautiful. Take a photo and submit it, it can be added to the data that we are accumulating by the urban ecologist, we have active research group there. It cannot only serve the purposes of the one who is curious but add to the bulk of data about plants and animals in our area. I should add that the whole exhibition is bilingual. We always feature everything in Spanish and English were reaching both members of our audience. Thank you so much for coming in. Thank you.

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An Illustration of an eagle by John James Audubon, part of the upcoming exhibit on "citizen scientists" at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
Michael Field
An Illustration of an eagle by John James Audubon, part of the upcoming exhibit on "citizen scientists" at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

The federal government spends nearly $140 billion a year for scientific research, splitting its funding among professional researchers at universities, companies and government agencies. Billions more come from private industry and foundations. But there's still room for science fans to make their mark.

Citizen scientists don't have advanced degrees but they're passionate about nature, said Margi Dykens, director of the San Diego Natural History Museum's research library.

"They became experts through their own personal obsession," Dykens said. "Maybe they examined all the mushrooms in their area or observed all the local beetles. They didn’t necessarily go to school and get training."

TheNAT is highlighting hobbyists' work in a new permanent exhibit, "Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science," which was curated by Dykens. It will feature drawings from noted citizen scientists, including John James Audubon, along with displays on the technology they use.

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For example, there was a surge in scientific interest in Victorian England once portable microscopes were invented, according to Dykens.

"This was an exciting development that people could see these tiny objects," Dykens said. "This was what people did for entertainment. I mean, instead of watching TV at night, they would sit around and share these slides."

Dykens joins KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday to discuss the contributions of San Diego's citizen scientists to the exhibit.