Research projects

Five chemistry research projects you can get involved in

Sometimes the most powerful tool of research is for people to spend a few minutes recording their observations while going about their daily lives. One of the first examples of this type of “citizen science” is the annual garden bird watching in the United Kingdom, which has existed since 1978 and is organized by the charity for the conservation of nature, RSBP. All you have to do to participate is spend an hour watching wildlife in your local garden or park.

Today, citizen science projects are growing in popularity, with people tracking and monitoring everything from weather events, invasive plant species and ladybugs at planets orbiting stars other than our Sun.

As the field of citizen science has grown, boundaries have blurred and scientists have begun to engage citizens as more active researchers – performing important experiments, collecting environmental measurements and generating data.

Here are five such projects with a distinctly chemical theme.

RiverDip

Our new paper, published in PLOS Onepresents the results of such a project, RiverDipthat enables and encourages citizens to monitor the chemical health of their local waterways.

This is to monitor phosphates and nitrates, essential nutrients, forming the basis of agricultural fertilizers. But if they run off fields and into waterways, they cause significant problems.

Fertilizers promote the rapid growth of algae and weeds, which form dense green carpets on the surface of waterways. These block light to other plants. Also, later, when they rot, they consume some of the dissolved oxygen in the water, resulting in deoxygenation that harms other aquatic plants and animals.

The stages of the RiverDip experience.

RiverDip was developed under the EU-funded project Dirty sediments project as a means of allowing citizens to monitor phosphate levels in waterways. We have provided interested parties with paper-based sensors that change color in the presence of phosphates. The measurement only takes three minutes. Once done, volunteers upload their results via a bespoke mobile app.

Together we collected hundreds of measurements and started to map phosphate levels across the European North Sea region, made up of countries such as the Scandinavian nations, England, the Netherlands and Germany. Having lots of measurements from different seasons will help us understand how nutrient levels change over time, and we are currently looking for groups of interested volunteers to continue this project.

The Big Compost experience

If you love rummaging around in the garden, this is the one for you. A lot of packaging is now labeled as biodegradable or compostable, but what does that really mean and do these products really break down in a home composter? The Big Compost experience explores new ways to reduce plastic waste, asking participants to check how well biodegradable and compostable packaging breaks down.

You can help answer these questions by simply packing materials that claim to be compostable (like tea bags, carrier bags, and disposable cups), placing them in your compost pile, and then observing what happens. . You can save your results via the experience homepage.

Folding at home

If you fancy something easier and less messy, there are some great projects you can contribute to from the comfort of your couch.

Proteins are the molecular machines that govern all the chemical processes and interactions that make up a living organism. And like any machine (whether protein or a motor car), they help understand how all the pieces fit together when designing modifications and upgrades. Thus, understanding the incredibly complex structures of proteins, how they interact with each other, and potential drugs provides pharmaceutical developers with critical information that allows them to design more effective therapies. But modeling this requires large amounts of computing power. One approach would therefore be to use huge sums of money to build a computer dedicated to solving this problem.

But scientists have realized that, alternatively, you could ask people to contribute spare computing power from their home PCs to form a giant global supercomputer. All you have to do is install the Folding at home software on your computer and when you make yourself a cup of tea or tune into the TV, your computer gets to work on protein folding, which could lead to the development of COVID drugs or cancer therapies.

Fold it

If puzzles and computer games are more your cup of tea, you might enjoy Fold it. This project tries to predict the structure of a protein, but this time it needs a little more human intervention. It takes advantage of people’s puzzle-solving intuitions when playing competitive games and challenges them to bend the best proteins.

Screenshot of the game Fold-It.
Screenshot of the Fold-It project.
Animation Research Laboratories, University of Washington

This information helps researchers understand whether human pattern recognition and puzzle-solving abilities are better than current computer programs. This information could be used to develop new computational strategies to predict protein structures even faster. This is really useful because understanding how proteins fold and interact allows scientists to develop new proteins to help fight diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and HIV/AIDS.

Sensor community

the sensor community aims to build a network of small sensors to collect and openly share environmental data such as nitrogen dioxide air pollution generated by internal combustion engines and the combustion of fossil fuels.

Currently, the community has built and deployed nearly 14,000 active sensors in 69 countries, all of which return real-time data. To participate in this project, you build sensors using kits developed by the researchers and place them somewhere. The project includes different communities that focus on different aspects of environmental pollution (including noise).

Getting involved in these types of citizen science projects can be a great way to have a positive impact on the world, collecting large volumes of data that allow us to understand our impact on the planet.