• Citizen scientist helps with ginkgo study

  • After Lauren Noland graduated with a degree in biology from Central Missouri State — now the University of Central Missouri — in Warrensburg, Mo., in 2002, she immediately went to work in research and development in a lab for a local animal health company. When her husband, Capt. Eric Noland, entered the Army in 2009, she became a consultant for the company, telecommuting from each new duty station, but she said she started missing the lab.

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  • Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
    After Lauren Noland graduated with a degree in biology from Central Missouri State — now the University of Central Missouri — in Warrensburg, Mo., in 2002, she immediately went to work in research and development in a lab for a local animal health company. When her husband, Capt. Eric Noland, entered the Army in 2009, she became a consultant for the company, telecommuting from each new duty station, but she said she started missing the lab.
    “I feel like I’ve been so fortunate to have gotten to do this as a military spouse and keep working, but I like puzzles and figuring things out, and when you’re in a lab you’re constantly doing that,” Noland said. “It is just fun and there is more ‘play’ than just sitting behind the computer.”
    The laboratory bug bit again when she was listening to the National Public Radio’s Science Friday podcast and heard about the Fossil Atmospheres research study aimed at collecting leaves of modern ginkgo trees. Funded by the National Science Foundation and based out of the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the project was seeking citizen scientists to help collect data.
    Citizen scientists are public participants who volunteer to help with scientific research, according to the Citizen Science Association.
    “I first learned about (citizen scientists) with the Girl Scouts. My daughter’s troop when she was a daisy, we did a citizen scientist journey,” Noland said. “I thought it would be fun to contribute to a bigger scientific project. That is just the nerd in me.”
    According to the Smithsonian’s official website, the purpose of Fossil Atmospheres is to find out how the atmosphere has changed over time by comparing current ginkgo leaves with fossil leaves already on record.
    “We are using ginkgo trees because they are so ancient. Ginkgo trees evolved before the dinosaurs, over 200 million years ago,” said Heather Killen, Fossil Atmospheres community coordinator. “The genus has survived three mass extinctions, but only one species is still living today (Ginkgo biloba).
    “We can find fossils of ginkgo leaves throughout this huge span of time, and amazingly, they often capture enough detail that, with the right preparation and microscopes, anyone can count the pores all these millions of years later,” she said. “We will be using the samples to answer our research questions about climate conditions now and in the deep past, but we anticipate future research teams will also use the collection to answer research questions that we cannot yet imagine.”
    Over the past several months, more than 300 citizens from across the United States have submitted more than 500 specimens for the study through the iNaturalist app. When submitting samples, there were certain criteria the citizen scientists had to follow.
    Page 2 of 3 - Once a citizen scientist joined the Fossil Atmospheres project on the app, he or she had to find a ginkgo tree at least 10 feet tall with green, unfurled leaves; identify the sex of the tree; collect at least six leaves from a short shoot; submit a photograph of the entire tree and a photograph of the base of the tree; note the exact location of the tree either by GPS coordinates or a street address; and note which side of the tree the sample was collected from. Then, he or she was to mail the sample leaves to the Smithsonian within 24 hours. Each set of leaves had to be packaged in a specific way.
    “All the leaves that citizen scientists sent in will be entered into the permanent Smithsonian collection and kept forever, capturing a geographically diverse moment in time for this interesting and ancient species,” Killen said.
    Noland sent in a sample from a male ginkgo tree near Hancock Avenue. There is a female ginkgo tree growing in her own backyard, but Noland said the leaves were too high to get a decent sample. She said participating in the project sparked more interest in the ginkgo tree and participating in more citizen scientist projects.
    “This project has made me want to learn more about the ginkgo tree. I didn’t know how to tell a male from a female before doing the project,” Noland said. “I definitely think I would (participate in another project) going forward because it is fun to contribute.”
    She also said she encourages others to explore iNaturalist.
    “If anybody has something they are even slightly interested in, they could probably find a citizen science project. I would explore the iNaturalist app and see if there are any that inspire you or particular things about the environment you want to learn more about,” Noland said. “I think if someone has a passion for any part of nature, you’re going to find a project and you just get to learn a little bit more when you explore.”
    All ginkgo leaf samples were due by Aug. 31; however, Killen said volunteers are still needed for the next stage of the study.
    “Our scientists will be comparing the leaf pores found in these modern leaves to fossil ginkgo leaves and living leaves grown under multiple air conditions, which means we need help counting pores,” she said. “This is a particularly great citizen science project because not only can people help with collecting samples, they can also help with the actual analysis of the data. … We need to know how many pores are on all these samples. Computers are not as good at counting as people, and there is no way we could do it all.”
    Page 3 of 3 - For more information on Fossil Atmospheres and how to volunteer for stomatal counts, visit https://www.si.edu/fossil-atmospheres?fbclid=IwAR03O-N1glqBKMgqkiDo1SJj6NjFTRmAbQKGGdf2sVGujH6_1mPpkqvJ46c.
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