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10 Ways You Can Use Your Smartphone to Advance Science

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Your iPhone is not living up to its full potential. Sure, everyone loves posting pictures of their cats to Instagram, and the new RadioLab app is awesome. But we're living in the future! Why not use those tiny computers we're all carrying around for something bigger, like helping advance knowledge in a way that would have been impossible just a few years ago?

Scientists have started to use the abilities and prevalence of smartphones to their advantage, creating apps specifically for their studies and crowdsourcing observation and data collection. When almost everyone has an Internet connection, a camera, and a GPS unit right in their phone, almost anyone can gather, organize, and submit data to help move a study along. Here are 10 projects and apps that will turn you into a citizen scientist.

1. Track Bird Populations

EBird, started by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, is the world’s largest (97,987,797 observations as of the morning of July 10, 2012) online database of bird observations. Data gathered by smartphone-toting bird watchers around the world and shared via the BirdLog app is used by biologists, ornithologists, educators, land managers, conservationists and policy makers to track avian distribution, richness and biodiversity trends. They hope that “in time these data will become the foundation for a better understanding of bird distribution across the western hemisphere and beyond.” BirdLog is available for $9.99 iOS and Android devices

2. Map Meteoroids

NASA’s Meteor Counter app lets iOS users gather and share data about cosmic debris they spot in the sky. Using the app’s “piano key” interface, citizen scientists can quickly record the time, magnitude, latitude and longitude, and estimated brightness of shooting stars, and also annotate their observations with voice notes. When they’re done, they can upload everything to NASA so researchers can analyze the data. Don’t know where to look for meteors? The app also has a news feed and event calendar updated by professional astronomers to help you find upcoming meteor showers. Meteor Counter is available for free for iOS devices.

3. Listen in on Bats

The Indicator Bats Program (iBats), a joint project of the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology and The Bat Conservation Trust, got its start with a couple of researchers working in Transylvania (of course) in 2006. The idea of the project is to identify and monitor bat populations around the world by the ultrasonic echo-location calls they use to navigate and find prey. No easy task for the naked ear, but the iBats app can automatically extract key information from the calls, and identify the species from them. From there, the data gets sent to iBats so researchers can track any changes in abundance or distribution of different species. The app itself is free, but users also need an ultrasonic microphone to plug into their phone so the app can “hear” the call. These microphones can cost hundreds of dollars, and the folks behind the project encourage bat lovers to get together and chip in for one to share. iBats is available for free for iOS and Android devices

4. Count Roadkill

The Mammals on Roads project, run by the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), uses surveys of dead mammal sightings along the UK’s roads to get an idea of population and distribution trends. Their Mammals on Roads app logs the travel routes of citizen scientists and lets them easily record which animals they’ve seen and where. Users can see the collected data themselves in the form of maps of their own trips and distribution maps from reports sent in from all over the country. The survey, taken annually since 2001, helped spot a major drop in hedgehog numbers over the course of a few years and led to the PTES launching “Hogwatch” and other hedgehog-focused tracking and conservation projects. Mammals on Roads is available for free for iOS devices, and an Android version will be available soon.

5. Inventory your Local Wildlife

The goal of Project NOAH (Networked Organisms and Habitats) is pretty ambitious: “build the go-to platform for documenting all the world's organisms.” Their app has two modes. “Spottings” lets you take photos of plants and animals you see, categorize and describe them and then submit the data for viewing on NOAH’s website and use by researchers for population and distribution studies.

Don’t know what you’re looking at? Check a box when you submit your photo and other users and scientists can help you identify the species. You can also use the location-based field guides to see other users’ Spottings near your location and learn more about your local wildlife. “Field Missions” let you help out with crowdsourced data collection for specific studies that labs have submitted to NOAH. You might be asked to photograph invasive beetles near your home, or log GPS coordinates when migrating flocks of birds pass over you, and if discovering wildlife and helping scientists isn’t enough motivation, completing missions also earns you cool badges in the app. Project NOAH is available for free for  iOS and Android devices

6. Identify and Track Trees

Leafsnap, developed as a joint project by Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution, is an electronic field guide for trees that uses visual recognition software to identify tree species from photographs of their leaves. User-generated images, species identifications, and geo-tagged stamps of species' locations are automatically shared with the partner institutions and other scientists who can use the data to map and monitor changes in floral density and diversity. Currently, only tree species found in New York City and Washington, D.C., are supported by the recognition software, but the team is “teaching” it other species and the list will continue to grow. Leafsnap is available for free for iOS devices and an Android version will be available soon.

7. Keep Tabs on Temperatures

Communicating Climate Change (C3) is a program run by 12 science centers around the country that introduces citizen scientists to the methods used to study climate change. The Maryland Science Center’s C3 project invites people to help study Baltimore’s Urban Heat Island (a UHI is the phenomenon of a metropolitan area being significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas). Citizen scientists in Baltimore use the Temperature Blast app to collect live and archival Weatherbug data from select points around the city and log it for scientists at the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, who will then use it to create models of temperature patterns so they can mitigate the heat island effect in future urban planning. Temperature Blast is available for free for iOS and Android devices. If you’re not in the Baltimore area, there are other app-based C3 projects going on in other cities.

8. Monitor your local water

Citizen scientists using the Creek Watch app, developed by IBM’s Smarter Planet Project, collect four pieces of data - estimated amount of water, rate of flow, amount of trash and a picture - about waterways they pass and send it to IBM. The technology giant’s researchers aggregate the data and share it with water control boards across the U.S. to help them track pollution and better manage their water resources. Creek Watch is available for free for iOS devices (no word from IBM on an Android version yet).

9. Find Good Homes for Redwoods

Redwood Watch, a partnership between the Save the Redwoods League, iNaturalist.org, Google Earth Outreach, and the California Academy of Sciences, is recruiting citizen scientists to track the location of redwood trees and help find a home for them in the future. Just take a picture of a redwood wherever you see one - in a national park, a botanical garden or even your own yard - with the Redwood Watch app. The app sends the photo and your location to researchers who can use the data to assess which environments are healthiest for the trees, helping them understand where redwoods thrive in a changing climate so they can better focus their conservation efforts. Redwood watch is available for free for iOS devices.

10. Report Invaders

Invasive plants and animals can crowd out natives, compete with them for food sources and alter the fire ecology of an ecosystem, disrupting its natural balance. Researchers and programmers from UCLA, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the University of Georgia have teamed up to create the What’s Invasive citizen science program and smartphone app. Volunteers can use the app to look up lists of the top invasive species in their area, created by National Park Service rangers and biologists. If they spot a plant or animal from the list, they submit a geo-tagged observation, with optional picture and text notes, so that scientists can locate, identify, study try to remove the species. The What’s Invasive app is available for free for iOS and Android devices.
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This is just a drop in the bucket of cool projects that let the average Joe take part in important science. For more projects you can help out with, some app-based, some not, check out the resources at Cornell’s Citizen Science Central, SciStarter and Scientific American. Are you involved in a citizen science project? Tell us all about it.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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