If you are looking for a last minute holiday gift, you could always boost a research scientist by giving the gift of science. Especially if that person likes zombies.
While crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo gain in popularity, scientists see crowdfunding as an alternate way to raise funds for research projects on sites like Microryza.
Charissa De Bekker is raising funds on Microryza for her research into mind-controlling parasites that create “zombie-like” behavior in their hosts. That’s right, zombies and parasites… how cool is that?
De Bekker recently did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit, reaching over 1000 comments by people interested in her research.
Crowdfunding reaches out to those interested people, allowing the public to take part in the scientific process in a very important way.
You don’t need to hold the keys to a large grant or be a scientists yourself to participate in the process.
In addition, the research is often published open-source, letting you see the results of your funding.
I asked De Bekker a few questions about crowdfunding science and how she got interested in mind-controlling parasites.
What first got you interested in brain-controlling parasites (besides their weird awesomeness)?
At the time when I learned about brain-controlling parasites I was a PhD student in a fungal genetics lab. I was (and still am) fascinated by how complex microbes can be though they are regarded “lower organisms”.
It is so interesting to me how they interact with each other and their environment and as a result do the most remarkable things: one of them being able to manipulate the behavior of a “higher organism” such as an animal!
So, when I learned about Ophiocordyceps, a fungus that can manipulate the behavior of ants it infects
through BBC’s Planet Earth I got obsessed about it. Microbial parasites are pretty complex to begin with, but then there are the ones that establish brain control? It blew my mind.
So when I bumped into the one person working on this fascinating system at a conference, Dr David Hughes, who offered me a postdoc position, I packed my bags and moved across the ocean to go work with him. And here we are today.
How long have you been working in your field?
I have been working on fungi since I started my Master’s in Biomolecular Sciences. I took a brief detour working on bacteria as well, but decided the fungi were more appealing to me.
If you compare what we know about fungi to what we know about bacteria, it’s far less so there are many more interesting mysteries to solve still. I worked on Aspergillus niger for 4 years during my PhD and after that moved to Pennsylvania to apply the skills I gained working on Aspergillus to Ophiocordyceps which I am working on for about 2.5 years now.
What made you chose a crowdfunding platform to fund this study?
From a financial perspective, since this system is still in its early stages, as is the field of parasitic brain manipulation, it is hard to persuade bigger funding programs to fund our projects. With budgets getting tighter, more people are applying for the same bag of money.
Trying to crowdfund a smaller project to get the very valuable first data sets, like the one I am campaigning will prove this system has a wealth of information to offer and thus improve our chances to fund the bigger picture as well. Next to that, this dataset will be immensely informative for future hypotheses and projects.
I have to say crowdfunding is a great way to reach the people out there that are interested in our work. Not only other researchers, but also teachers and general science enthusiasts. You can reach those people by publishing open-access papers, but in those papers the language is more formal.
Science journalists fill in that gap really well by reporting about the research they think is interesting. However, people still don’t get to see to process behind the publication. Microryza provides the possibility to keep your backers up to date through online lab notes so you can tell people about the progress you are making to get to your research goal.
And it can be more interactive because you can make comments and ask questions.
What is your opinion on open-access research vs more traditional journals and methods of disseminating scientific research?
I think the trend of researchers choosing to publish their work open access to make it accessible for anyone who is interested in learning more about it is a great step forward. The internet allows us to disseminate and receive information with the click of a mouse and reach out to people across the globe. So why put our research behind pay walls and hide it for a big portion of the population to see?
I think if we are more open about our work, we will generate more interest in science in general.
Next to that, our work can actually benefit from it since this will stimulate collaborations between research teams that are working on the same thing separately, or that normally work in different fields. More and better discoveries could be made. My crowdfunding campaign has already proven this to me– so many people were engaging in the AMA (on Reddit) I did about my work and I have met so many interesting and motivating researchers across different fields who I otherwise might have never met.
Charissa De Bekker isn’t the only researcher out there trying to advance our scientific knowledge by crowdfunding research projects. Micronyza is full of research projects just waiting for interested people and there are other science crowdfunding platforms, such as PetriDish.org.
Visit De Bekker’s project page (“How does a parasite create zombie-like behavior?”) to learn more about her research into brain-controlling parasites or to help fund her project.