Crowdsourcing Science

Crowdsourcing Discovery is a new project being put together by Ethan Perlstein. Ethan and his team are working on an unusual method for getting funding for their research; they’re crowdsourcing it. I spoke with Daniel Korostyshevsky, one of the New York City skeptics and the project’s main experimentalist to learn more about what they’re doing and why they’re using such a non-traditional method for funding this research.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background.

My background is in biotechnology and over the past few years I have been concentrating on electron microscopy. I am also a skeptic and am involved with the New York City Skeptics.  I also run the Jolly Thirteen Club, a monthly gathering where we break superstitions.

Tell me a little about the project itself (what is the science you’ll be doing and why is it important)?

First off, let me introduce us. The team consists of Dr. Ethan Perlstein from Princeton University, Dr. David Sulzer from Columbia University and me, Daniel Korostyshevsky. We all have an interest in psychopharmacology.The Team

Psychoactive drugs in the amphetamine class have been around for a long time now and have been widely used therapeutically since 1930 but our understanding of what these drugs do within the cell is still incomplete. The first step to understanding what is actually happening to these drugs when they enter cells is to determine where they are going. To accomplish this, we are utilizing a method developed in the 80s that was used to study psychoactive drug accumulation in mice and rat brain cells. This involves visualizing radioactively labeled drug in sectioned brain tissue treated with these drugs. We accomplish this by exposing photographic film to these sections. This film is then photographed under a high resolution electron microscope. This method is called autoradiography and will let us see exactly where the drug is going and potentially how much of the drug is going to different parts of many brain cells from different regions of the mouse brain.

The coolest part of this whole experiment is that we don’t really know for certain where the drug will end up. If we ever hope to make drugs that are more targeted and with less side effects, we really need to understand how these drugs interact with all of the complex mechanisms and structures within a cell. This understanding can lead to things like new psychoactive drugs to help treat psychiatric and addiction disorders, and can also lead to better understanding of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. But the application of this research is left to other researchers to discover.

What is your role in this?

I am the researcher that will be performing if not all then most of the actual experiments. Some of the things that this role includes are sample preparation for the microscopy, image acquisition, data analysis and experiment design.

You’re using an unusual method for funding this research – how are you planning on gathering funding?

For this project, we have decided to go with the crowd funding approach to raise seed money for our research proposal. We have launched a campaign on RocketHub to gather funding directly from the general public. RocketHub is similar to Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, and is definitely an experimental, non-traditional funding model for academic scientists working on biomedical research.

What prompted to use this approach vs a traditional method of funding research?

The system of funding science right now needs an overhaul. We are still using archaic and inefficient methods to fund basic research. Last year, only about twenty percent of all grants that were submitted to the NIH (National Institute of Health) and to the NSF (National Science Foundation) were awarded. For new scientists, that award rates from the NIH are even lower at only fifteen percent.  By bypassing these agencies, it allows scientists to fund curiosity-driven research based on the merits of those idea. Another way of looking at it is we are resurrecting the philanthropic funding model of basic research.

Why use this crowdsourced approach? What are the benefits? Do you foresee any potential issues with it?

We went with a crowd funding approach because it leads to direct interaction between the general public and scientists conducting research in real-time. We want all of the aspects of scientific research to be readily accessible to the general public. That includes the finances. When I tell people that I do science for a living, most of them have no idea what that actually means. By using this funding model we are forced to explain in the simplest terms possible, where each dollar is going. This in turn will give the public a close up view into the life of a biomedical research lab.

By funding our research, people are becoming invested directly in the science. They start caring about the project. I hope that this will translate to a more general curiosity about science.

The biggest critique about this model of funding that we have had so far is: how does a nonprofessional know that a given project is worth doing. In plain English: how do you know that we’re not kidding ourselves? That question can be asked about any new endeavor. In an open system, the signal to noise ratio is always lousy. But in science, the robust peer review filtering confers trust and insures that only the best science rises to the top

What are you doing to get public support? I.e. How are you making the science more understandable and relevant to non-scientists who are considering funding this?

In order to gain support for our Crowdsourcing Discovery project we are reaching out through social networks and the media to inform as many people as we can about it. In return for funding, our “citizen scientists” are buying into a unique experience of participating in the process of scientific discovery. We are also incentivizing funding by providing a 3D printed molecule of our drug of interest. This is the only way you can get meth legally without a prescription.

As I mentioned earlier, this project is an exercise in open science. In that spirit all of the lab notes and data will be made available on line for anyone to scrutinize. The final product is going to be a scientific paper that will be published in an Open Access scholarly journal, ensuring free access to anyone with an Internet connection. We will also be using simple language and where appropriate, we will define all terms that might not be clear. The goal is to produce a scientific work that anyone can grasp.

Aren’t you really just asking people to fund your meth lab? Is this a reality show version of Breaking Bad? :)

Not quite. We are trying to give people an experience of what science is actually like. So in a sense, this is more of a How It’s Made for scientific research.

How can we learn more or be part of this?

I hope that I have piqued your interest in our Crowdsourcing Discovery project. Go to our RocketHub page to learn more, and help fuel our project.

Featured image courtesy Surly Amy. All other images courtesy Ethan Perlstein.



Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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