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How You (Yes, You!) Can Do Science With NASA

Season 6Episode 3Nov 21, 2023

Anyone can participate in the process of NASA science and engineering through what we call citizen science, regardless of your citizenship. You might have heard it called “participatory science” or “community science.” It all means that thousands of people around the world are helping the professionals make discoveries about our planet, our solar system, and our universe at large, through these projects. Meet three volunteers whose perspectives have changed by participating in citizen science. NASA's Curious Universe is an official NASA podcast. Discover more adventures with NASA astronauts, engineers, scientists, and other experts at

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Episode Description: 

Anyone can participate in the process of NASA science and engineering through what we call citizen science, regardless of your citizenship. You might have heard it called “participatory science” or “community science.” It all means that thousands of people around the world are helping the professionals make discoveries about our planet, our solar system, and our universe at large, through these projects. Meet three volunteers whose perspectives have changed by participating in citizen science.


[Song: “From Seedling to Something” by Norman]  

HOST PADI BOYD: Thank you for listening to NASA’s Curious Universe. If you’re new to the show, and excited to learn more about the universe around us, welcome. You’re in the right place. 


PRODUCER JACOB PINTER: We’re hard at work making new episodes, but we just wanted to stop for a minute and say thank you. 


HOST PADI BOYD: We’re very happy to have you here. And we have some good news for you. We have over 50 episodes exploring all sorts of fun topics, from human spaceflight to astrophysics, and more. 


PRODUCER JACOB PINTER: Whether you’re a total space nerd or a first time space explorer, I’m telling you, there is a Curious Universe episode for you. So find your favorite episode at or wherever you listen to podcasts. 


HOST PADI BOYD: So glad you found us. 


PRODUCER JACOB PINTER: Thanks. Enjoy the show. 


[Song: Dystopian Reality by Mathild Empereur [SACEM]] 


HOST PADI BOYD: We’re lucky to be living at a time when we can learn more about our planet, our solar system, and the universe at large, than ever before. Powerful telescopes, satellites, and far-flung spacecraft are collecting new insights about our world every day. But professional scientists and their computers can only do so much to make sense of it all. 


[SFX: Record scratch] 


HOST PADI BOYD: That’s where you come in. That’s right, you, whoever you are, listening to this podcast.  


[Song: Quasar by Ross Stephen Gilmartin [PRS]] 


No matter where you are or what your background is, you can volunteer to help make discoveries through what we call citizen science projects. Thousands of people worldwide are already participating, and professional scientists are very grateful for their contributions. 


Emily Mason:  


So it’s this fantastic, like, symbiotic relationship, where the citizen scientists get to, like, learn and participate in the science and the scientists get all of these insights. And, and “oh, this thing is interesting. And I don’t know what it is.” 


HOST PADI BOYD: That’s Emily Mason, research scientist at an organization called Predictive Science. She uses NASA data to study the mysteries of the Sun, and runs a citizen science project. 


Emily Mason:  


And a lot of the time the scientists are like, “we don’t know what that is, either. Thank you for finding that!” So it’s, um, it’s really great. And having fresh eyes on a dataset is always useful. And having thousands of fresh eyes on a data set is even better. 


[Theme Song: Curiosity by SYSTEM Sounds] 


HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. I’m your host Padi Boyd and in this podcast, NASA is your tour guide. 


HOST PADI BOYD: In this episode we’re going to hear from three people for whom citizen science has played a big role in their lives: 


…a professional scientist who runs a citizen science project about the Sun. 


 …a military vet who found comfort in looking for disks around other stars.  


And a college student whose love of data science started with trying to catch mosquitoes. 


We’ll find out how each one of them got started with their projects and how they see the world differently because of them. You can find links to all of the citizen science projects we mention in the transcript for this episode at For sensitive listeners, this story includes descriptions of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Emily Mason had been interested in astronomy as a child. But when she got to college, she became interested in completely unrelated topics. In 2011, she earned an undergraduate degree in Asian Studies.   


Emily Mason:  


I had graduated and was supposed to go to Taiwan to start my master’s degree in cross-strait relations. And Curiosity landed on Mars. 


[Sound from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory from Aug. 6, 2012: “We’re down to 86 meters per second, at an altitude of 4 kilometers and descending”] 


Emily Mason: 


and the six minute, or six or seven minutes of terror, or whatever it we watched it like come down and eject the different parts. And everyone was like, “Oh, God, don’t crash.” 


[Sound from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory from Aug. 6, 2012: “Touchdown confirmed, we’re safe on Mars” and wild cheering] 


Emily Mason: 


And I sat up all night watching that with my mom. And I was like, oh, no, I went into the wrong field.  


[Song: Aquarium Day Pass by Scott Dente [BMI], Kenneth Brian Lewis [BMI], James Matthew Stanfield [ASCAP], Bill Kendall Whittington [BMI]] 


Emily Mason: 


So I cancelled my plane ticket and re-enrolled at the university for astrophysics. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Emily realized she loved space so much, she wanted to go back to school immediately. During her second time around in college, she discovered a citizen science project called Planet Hunters. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Planet Hunters invites members of the public to look for exoplanets, which are planets around other stars. Users see graphs called light curves that show the amount of light coming from a star over time. If the amount of light dips and then comes back up, that could be a sign that a planet has crossed in front of a star, in an event called a transit.  


Emily Mason: 


I was living at home to do the degree program again. And I was just going bonkers. All my friends had gone home, you know, left the dorms for the winter. And, so I was sitting in my house just going stir crazy. And I found this so that I was just like sitting there for days in my pajamas, like frantically categorizing lights curves. 


HOST PADI BOYD: The telescope data for Planet Hunters first came from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which retired in 2018, and then from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which is gathering observations right now. Those missions are both very dear to my heart – since I was  a member of the science teams for both of them. And together they’ve discovered thousands of exoplanets in our galaxy. 


[Song: Aquarium Day Pass by Scott Dente [BMI], Kenneth Brian Lewis [BMI], James Matthew Stanfield [ASCAP], Bill Kendall Whittington [BMI]] 


HOST PADI BOYD: While scientists like me use computers and sophisticated algorithms to look for exoplanets, we can’t catch everything.  Computers are excellent at finding exactly what you tell them to look for, but they aren’t perfect at spotting the signatures of some planet transits that can become hidden in messy stellar data. By looking at individual data plots with their eyes and noting the ones that looked potentially interesting, citizen scientists have helped discover new planets through programs like Planet Hunters. 


Emily Mason: 


I remember them identifying the first confirmed exoplanet and being like, “This is amazing. There’s other planets out there. And during my own like lifetime, we went from, oh, most stars don’t have planets to Okay, some of them might, too, oh my god, they’re everywhere. And getting to participate in that kind of opening up that realization that this is so much more likely that there are other Earth-like planets out there than we thought initially was, was really exciting. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Planet Hunters made science seem fun and relaxing, while Emily’s astrophysics degree program felt challenging and stressful. 


Emily Mason: 


I am not a mathy person at heart 


Emily Mason: 


And I remember the first year, like, debating whether I should give up just because it was, it was so hard. 


HOST PADI BOYD: During that difficult time, Planet Hunters was mostly a diversion. But, Emily says that it also… 


Emily Mason: 


Kind of reminded me of like, why I wanted to go into the field in the first place 


HOST PADI BOYD: So Emily kept at it, earning that degree, and later a Ph.D. She also followed her passion for space to a series of internships at NASA. For two summers, she worked on projects relating to those beautiful displays in the sky called aurorae, and then a third summer looking at predicting solar cycles. 


HOST PADI BOYD: After a postdoctoral research fellowship, Emily’s interest in the inner workings of the sun led her to start a citizen science project of her own, called Solar Active Region Spotter. 


[Song: Aquarium Day Pass by Scott Dente [BMI], Kenneth Brian Lewis [BMI], James Matthew Stanfield [ASCAP], Bill Kendall Whittington [BMI]] 


HOST PADI BOYD: An active region is an area on the sun that has a very strong magnetic field. It’s also associated with sunspots. Because different parts of the sun rotate at different speeds, scientists have a hard time tracking individual active regions over time. 


Emily Mason:  


Part of how we define a solar cycle and solar activity is by how many active regions you have or don’t have, at a given time. You get more of them as we head towards solar maximum. And some of them only last, like a week. And some of them can last for months. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Active regions also hold clues about one of the biggest mysteries of our solar system, something scientists call the coronal heating problem. 


Emily Mason: 


The coronal heating problem overall, is basically that the surface of the Sun is much, much cooler than the atmosphere. And that’s the opposite of how it usually works. Where you as you get further away from something hot it gets cooler. 


HOST PADI BOYD: NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, has taken amazing imagery of these active regions in ultraviolet wavelengths that teach scientists about solar activity.  


Emily Mason 


What you see is these big knots, it looks like a cat went at a bunch of yarn or something. (laughs)  


[SFX: Cat meows] 


Emily Mason 


These big bundles of loops that will open almost like the petals on a flower. You can see filaments that are these long, snake-y looking things of really dark, cool plasma that build up over time. 


Emily Mason:  


They’re really beautiful to look at when they’re not doing something. And they’re fascinating when they are doing something. 


HOST PADI BOYD: There’s way more data to comb through than scientists have time to look at by eye, and computers aren’t great at identifying these regions. To help scientists like Emily in their work on this mystery, more than 500 volunteers looked through satellite imagery and magnetic field data from the Sun to see where the active regions were and track them over time. 


Emily Mason 


We showed them a four panel image, two of the panels belonged to the active region when it was first identified. And the other two panels next to it were the active region that we thought was the same one on the next rotation, about a month later. 


Emily Mason 


We showed them the extreme ultraviolet images from SDO on the top that showed the corona, the atmosphere, like, with the big pretty loops. And the bottom panels were the magnetic field data, which is far from intuitive (laughs) and took a lot of explaining. It was much more complex than most of the citizen science projects out there. And, and our volunteers just tackled it head on, they were just so enthusiastic. And they actually went through over 12,000 classifications, in a little under five weeks. 


HOST PADI BOYD: The Solar Active Region Spotters’ project is currently on a break since the volunteers got through the first dataset. Emily and her colleagues are now combing through all of the work that the citizen scientists did to come up with new insights and conclusions about the Sun.  


[Song: Data Cloud by Fritz Doddy [ASCAP] 


HOST PADI BOYD: Emily is still in awe of the Sun and the huge amount of data that we can collect about it. She also appreciates the role that citizen scientists play to help pave the way to new understanding. Even in this age of powerful computers and artificial intelligence, humans are still unique and important. 


Emily Mason 


the human eye is still far and away the best at picking out patterns and picking out which patterns are important. Even if you don’t necessarily understand all the implications of a dataset, you can look at something and, go that doesn’t look like the other ones. And a computer just can’t do that. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Computers can’t do that because, despite all the sophisticated ways scientists can train them, they’re still not perfect at picking out all the patterns in large, complicated data sets. In many circumstances, human intuition still wins out.  


Emily Mason 


I don’t think we’re anywhere near replacing a human’s ability to look at something and go, that’s interesting or that’s important. And citizen science is a great way to honor that. 



HOST PADI BOYD: Some citizen scientists end up becoming super-users, going beyond the casual dip in a project. For them, citizen science is a hobby that connects them not only with the science itself, but with a community of people who are passionate about solving the mysteries of our universe. 


HOST PADI BOYD: We’re going to meet one super-user who found citizen science at a particularly rough point in his life.  


Danny Roylance:  


YeahI’m Danny Roylance, I’m from Salt Lake City, Utah, and I participate in citizen science. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Danny is a U.S. military veteran living in Utah. He has struggled with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition in which people who have experienced traumatic events have distressing thoughts, feelings, and dreams. 


Danny Roylance:  


I was actually afraid to go to sleep. I’d walk into the bedroom and feel fear because of the dreams I would have, because it’d be like being tortured at night. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Danny has also experienced periods of homelessness. 


Danny Roylance:  


I couldn’t stay in a relationship for any length of time.  I couldn’t stay at a job for very long. You know, because there would be days that it was (sigh) the anxiety and straight up panic attacks would hit me so hard, I would, I would be on Trak, you know, the public transportation, and I would get off and get back on, go back home because it would just be growing  and I couldn’t go to work, it just got more magnified, the more I was in public and around crowds. 


[Song: Circles of Life by Todd James Carlin Baker [PRS]] 


HOST PADI BOYD: Danny doesn’t remember exactly how he learned about citizen science. It might have been on TV or on the radio. However it happened, he ended up looking through different projects that use NASA data. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Something called Disk Detective caught his eye.  


HOST PADI BOYD: No, it’s not about looking in your basement for a mix CD your friend made in high school.  


HOST PADI BOYD: Disk Detective volunteers look for excess infrared light from very young stars, which could indicate that there is a disk of material around them. These disks are where planets might someday be born. The data come from NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer or WISE telescope, which now operates under the name NEOWISE , and other surveys. 


Danny Roylance: 


I was reading through them all and I was reading about the Disk Detective, and I clicked on it and then read more and I thought, “oh man, you know, disks around young stars, you know, the birthing of a solar system?” I thought it was awesome. So I started doing it. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Once Danny had classified 200 objects, a moderator for Disk Detective invited him to apply to become a super-user. By this point he had also taught himself how to look at different datasets to cross-reference what he was seeing in the Disk Detective interface. 


Danny Roylance: 


And then I got accepted and got sent the, here’s our weekly meetings. 


HOST PADI BOYD: The first video call with other super-users was scary for Danny. He was dealing with a lot of anxiety around talking to strangers. But soon he looked forward to the next one. 


Danny Roylance: 


Having a time and a place to meet online for a Zoom meeting, you know, to find to discover that what I was doing actually mattered in this world, you know, I mattered, you know, my thoughts, my opinions mattered. So, I, I wasn’t isolated anymore. 


HOST PADI: The super-users go through the list of objects that a lot of the Disk Detective volunteers identified as maybe having a disk around them, to see if it’s worth studying them in more detail.   


Danny Roylance: 


So our calls on that usually are on how complete, how far through the list, are we? 


You know, because we’re working through that list of making sure that this is a candidate, this is not a candidate, this has, we should follow up with this. Maybe we should follow up. And then that gets handed off to the, the science team itself. 


HOST PADI: The professional science leadership of Disk Detective might then decide to write up a proposal to use other telescopes to check out the objects that the volunteers marked as noteworthy. Through following up with professional scientists and other telescopes, Disk Detective participants have discovered something new and interesting. There are some stars and brown dwarfs, called Young Stellar Objects or Y-S-Os, that have a disk of gas and dust around them, even though they should be too old for those disks to still be there. The participants have coined a name for this phenomenon: Peter Pan Disks! 


Danny Roylance: 


You know, the YSOs that just don’t want to grow up.   


HOST PADI: Citizen scientists who made big contributions to this discovery even got their names listed on scientific papers as co-authors. Pretty exciting! 


[Song: Circles of Life by Todd James Carlin Baker [PRS]] 


HOST PADI: Disk Detective speaks to Danny’s curiosity about how planets are born. 


Danny Roylance: 


I’ve always liked high energy astrophysics, you know, like black holes and supernovas. 


Danny Roylance: 


But also just something about the idea of potentially, an entire civilization is going to be born here. You know, I mean, you’re watching dust and gas come together and make a solar system. It’s, it’s really neat. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Danny has been through intensive recovery programs to improve his mental health and wellbeing. But he also credits citizen science with helping him feel more connected with others and less afraid to be around people.  


Earlier this year, Danny presented a poster about a new project called Burst Chaser at a citizen science conference in Phoenix. Participating in the meeting in person was a huge personal milestone for him. 


Danny Roylance: 


I went from not being able to take out my garbage just because I didn’t want to go out my door to flying to Phoenix last month to present that poster. 


Danny Roylance: 


It’s kind of hard to explain I guess, that line to step over when you’re feeling your anxiety really high, but you step across it anyway. You know, it’s kind of like you feel the fear but you do it anyway. And it helps a lot if you have a sense of purpose and a sense of passion. And I can’t imagine I’m the only one. 


HOST PADI BOYD: NASA doesn’t only need help from volunteers to study what’s out there beyond our planet. There are also programs that can get you outside and exploring here on Earth. Like GLOBE, The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment program.  


HOST PADI BOYD: The GLOBE Observer app includes citizen science projects like locating mosquito habitats, identifying types of clouds, and observing land cover and tree height. 


Matteo Kimura: 


Citizen science opens up this door for a wide variety of people across the world to try and give it a crack at like, doing science and, you know, making meaningful contributions to our knowledge base. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Matteo Kimura got involved in GLOBE Observer projects through a high school program called STEM Enhancement in Earth Sciences, run by NASA, The University of Texas at Austin, and the Texas Space Grant Consortium. This was in the summer of 2020, and because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the program itself was all virtual. But because of the citizen science component, Matteo got to spend time outside getting to know his environment in a new way. 


[SFX: nature sounds] 


Matteo Kimura: 


One of the projects that really interested me was this mosquito habitat mapping project. And it was particularly interesting because I grew up in Brazil, mosquitoes were a huge problem there.  


[SFX: mosquito sound] 


Matteo Kimura: 


And for me, it seemed like a very interesting thing to try and contribute to. 


Matteo Kimura: 


Basically, if you identify a body of water that you think is a potential source of mosquitoes, you take pictures of it it records the location of it the time so that researchers can, you know, look at look at that later. And also if you find larvae of mosquitoes, you can usually collect them and then analyze them later. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Even though most people want nothing to do with mosquitoes, it was a little disappointing for Matteo that in high school, he no longer lived in a place where they’re rampant. 


Matteo Kimura: 


Unfortunately, I lived in Texas, so it was very much like, dry there. So there weren’t that much standing water. But I did a lot of traps where you basically, like cut open a water bottle, and you can sort of configure it in a special way where mosquitoes will lay their eggs in it, but the larvae can’t get out. And then you put like, different types of baits like grass or other things, and you leave it out and you check on them, like every day. 


HOST PADI BOYD: He only caught larvae once or twice. In all of his mosquito-related efforts, he didn’t even get bitten. 


Matteo Kimura: 


Fortunately for me, because that means that there aren’t as much of a mosquito problem where I was living. 


[Song: Thoughts on Paper by Jonathan Elias [ASCAP], David Ashok Ramani [ASCAP]] 


HOST PADI BOYD: This project and others taught Matteo a lot about the process of doing science. One thing that surprised him was that when it comes to citizen science observations, even noticing the lack of something – whether it’s mosquitoes, clouds, or exoplanet transits – is noteworthy and useful. 


Matteo Kimura: 


From my point of view of more of like an engineer, it’s like, “oh, if there’s bad data, we might as well just trash it.” But in terms of the citizen science point of view, every data point is really important.  


HOST PADI BOYD: Another citizen science component of his summer program involved land cover observations – in other words, figuring out what type of land is where. Following instructions on the GLOBE Observer app, Matteo explored the area near his house in depth. 


Matteo Kimura:  


You go out there, you take pictures in, like, all the directions, so that someone can later look at that and have a very close up view of what kind of land looks like, at that time and place. 


My area is suburban, but very close to rural.  


It’s fun to just be surrounded by like, grass and like flowers. And there are some areas like little ponds and like, rivers and streams that I just didn’t notice, were there. And then, you know, when I was exploring, I would just come across them. And “I was like, oh, that’s always been there! And I just never noticed.” 


HOST PADI BOYD: Matteo wanted to get even more involved after the summer program ended. 


Matteo Kimura: 


Because I got so much context with working with this data, I decided that I could probably contribute more in terms of the data analysis. And you know, that type of work. And so I reached out to a lot of the people that ran the program. And we began working for, I think two years after that nonstop on like different really fun projects using this citizen science data. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Today, Matteo is an undergraduate student at Caltech in Pasadena, California. He spoke to us from the recording studio at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. How cool is that? 


Matteo Kimura:  


Currently doing applied math which is mainly about modeling, I think is my interest in it, ‘cause it provides us the tools to try and model things. You know, getting to look at the data and seeing certain trends, like, made me want to try and study the tools that I could use to try and figure out what was actually going on. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Matteo may be done with mapping the land in his neighborhood, but citizen science gave him a head start in what it means to make observations and analyze data. Someday, he hopes to use that skillset to work on robotic spacecraft that explore the solar system. 


Matteo Kimura: 


I am an engineer at heart. And I think that the thing that makes me passionate is enabling this kind of science, like by sending, you know, robots to other moons and stuff like that. I think the essence of what excites me and what I find interesting, I certainly will encounter again, in the path that I keep pursuing. 


[Song: Data Cloud by Fritz Doddy [ASCAP] 


HOST PADI BOYD: There’s a huge range of projects that you can check out. You might just get inspired like Emily, Danny, and Matteo did, in ways you never expected. Here are some final thoughts from them.  


Emily Mason 


As more and more missions are returning these huge amounts of data, there’s far more data than there are scientists actually, like, capable of putting eyes on it. 


Danny Roylance 


You don’t have to know a lot about it. You could just be curious about something. 


Danny Roylance 


it could be anything from astrophysics, down to weather type things.  


Matteo Kimura 


Citizen science is really effective because of the diverse set of people that contribute to it. And so if you find the things that, whether it is you have an interesting area to study or, you know, an interesting set of skills that you think can be useful. All those things certainly help move this field forward. And it’s the reason why, you know, Citizen Science is so special. 


[Theme song: Curiosity Outro by SYSTEM Sounds] 




HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. This episode was written and produced by Liz Landau. Our executive producer is Katie Konans. The Curious Universe team includes Christian Elliott, Jacob Pinter, Maddie Olson and Micheala Sosby. 


HOST PADI BOYD: Our theme song was composed by Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of SYSTEM Sounds. Krystofer Kim is our show artist. Special thanks to Marc Kuchner, Tahira Allen, Leslie Mullen, and the GLOBE Project. 


HOST PADI BOYD: If you’d like to try mapping mosquito habitats, land use, and more, You can download the GLOBE Observer app . And for a full list of citizen science projects associated with NASA, including others you’ve heard about in this episode, visit 


HOST PADI BOYD: If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving us a review and sharing NASA’s Curious Universe with a friend. And, remember, you can “follow” NASA’s Curious Universe in your favorite podcast app to get a notification each time we post a new episode. 


[Post credits clip:] 


HOST PADI BOYD: Disk Detective volunteers… Disk Detective volunteers… Disk Detective volunteers. 


[SFX: blooper reel beep] 


HOST PADI BOYD: Something called Disk Detective caught his eye. No, it’s not about looking in your basement. (laughs) 


HOST PADI BOYD: Excuse me.  


[SFX: blooper reel beep] 


[Music: NASA+ promo song – “What it Be” by Nwabisa Innocent Janda]  


PRODUCER JACOB PINTER: Hey Curious Universe listeners, are you interested in more great stories from NASA? Our friends over at NASA TV have a big announcement: NASA is launching an on-demand streaming platform. It’s called NASA+.  


PRODUCER JACOB PINTER: You can watch NASA’s Emmy award-winning live coverage, new original TV shows, and even listen to podcasts… all in one place! The best part? There’s no subscription required and it costs nothing!    


PRODUCER JACOB PINTER: You can find NASA+ on most major platforms through the NASA App on iOS and Android mobile and tablet devices… Also on streaming media players like Roku, Apple TV, and Fire TV… and online on all kinds of desktop and mobile devices. Stay tuned and stay curious!