Featured project: Domesticating algae for the 21st century

Jai Ranganathan


Today’s featured #SciFund Challenge project is Domesticating Algae for the 21st Century by Steve Herbert.

Pond scum

Pond scum: the planet's last hope?

Let me be honest: I love this project. Steve, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Wyoming, wants to better grow algae in a vat. Sounds boring, right? Think again.

The world’s human population just topped 7 billion people.   How are we going to produce enough food and fuel for the earth’s growing population without exploding the planet? The answer might just lie in pond scum. As anyone who has a pool or birdbath knows, pond scum (which is a form of algae) can grow extremely rapidly without any encouragement at all. What if we could genetically engineer this fast-growing algae to produce biofuels? What about protein for us to eat? Suddenly, all of the pressure that we are placing on the earth’s ecosystems might just lift. [Read more...]


Week three of #SciFund: unbelievable momentum

Jai Ranganathan

We are now three weeks into #SciFund Challenge projects going live on RocketHub. Where do we stand?

SciFund contributions

Contributions to #SciFund projects, as of morning of Nov. 16 (click image for larger version).

Astonishingly well! As of this morning, #SciFund projects have together raised  $49,294. Incredible. And if you look at the figure above, you can see that contributions are rising steadily. [Read more...]


On the Complementarity of Crowdfunding and Traditional Grants

Aditya Rao

Note by Jai: Aditya is a #SciFund Challenge participant and he is pursuing his doctorate in cellular and developmental biology at SUNY Upstate Medical University. Check out his great #SciFund project: C-Cilia in Motion! You can find Aditya on Twitter at @nishantaditya.

For a lot of people their early exposure to “science” was through science fiction. This was a great thing for those of us who eventually became scientists because science fiction inspired us to think creatively, imagine fantastic things, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”…  And to have bad grammar.

The vast majority of people, however, only ever got the distorted, dramatized, exaggerated view of science. This view, that ‘science = laboratories filled with glowing lights and colourful, bubbling solutions in complicated looking glassware‘, is very misleading to the general public. It doesn’t give a true account of what a scientist does or how science progresses. This is where initiatives like The #SciFund Challenge would be VERY useful. These initiatives will bring in real scientists with real experiments and will force them to explain their work to a broad audience. This sort of exercise in public communication will help fuel public interest in science and, more importantly, give them an insider’s perspective on the vocation of science. [Read more...]


Featured project: Does the act of looking change what we see?

Jai Ranganathan


Today’s featured #SciFund Challenge project is Does the act of looking change what we see? by Eric Abelson.

Lion's image captured with a camera trap. Why so serious, Ms. Lion?

One of the biggest recent advances in conservation biology and wildlife science is the camera trap. What is a camera trap? It is a motion-sensitive camera that is used to take pictures of animals in the wild. Biologists leave camera traps on their own for days or weeks at a time. And the pictures taken by these camera traps have revolutionized our understanding of many species, from tigers to jaguars to lots more.

But what if the data coming from these camera traps is wrong? Biologists have been assuming that animals in range of camera traps are unaffected by them. But what if they are? What if the flash and noise of a camera shutter change how animals behave?Suddenly, all of the wildlife breakthroughs being achieved with these traps would need to be reconsidered.

Camera trap

Camera trap set up in the wild.

That’s where Eric Abelson comes in. He is an ecologist and is pursuing his doctorate in biology at Stanford University. For his #SciFund project, he is researching whether camera traps affect wildlife behavior. The results of his research will have huge consequence for conservation and wildlife research. Do check out: Does the act of looking change what we see?


Lessons from Ancient Rome: how to make crowdfunding work

Jai Ranganathan

Ancient Roman party

Let's get down - Ancient Roman style - to celebrate a #SciFund success!

One #SciFund Challenge participant has had a very good couple of days! Kristina Killgrove, who is behind the Ancient Roman DNA project, has gotten all sorts of media coverage (like at CNN and Forbes). Even better, she has blown right past her financial target of $6,000 in less than two weeks. She is now at $9,000 and rising fast! How did she do it? I talked with her yesterday to learn her crowdfunding strategies. This is what I learned.

There are two parts to Kristina’s success: success at crafting a compelling science message and success in promoting her project. Let’s deal with message-crafting first.

[Read more...]


Featured project: Ancient Roman DNA

Jai Ranganathan


For this featured #SciFund Challenge project, we have Ancient Roman DNA by Kristina Killgrove.

This project is one of the standout successes of #SciFund. As of this writing, Ancient Roman DNA has blown right through its target of $6000 and has now raised $8616. Incredible. What is it about this research project that is attracting so much attention?

Mosaic of roman slavesIt starts with a great idea. Kristina is an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University. She is using modern biological methods to unlock the secrets of people who died two-millennia ago in Ancient Rome. And not just any people. She is unearthing the voices of those forgotten by history: Roman slaves.

The elites that chronicled the history of Rome didn’t write much about the slaves that kept their Empire running. But the story of those slaves can still be told from their unearthed skeletons. Here’s one basic question to be answered: where did the slaves of Rome come from? There are a lot of possible locations. By the first century AD, the Roman Empire encircled the Mediterranean Sea and stretched out to lands far beyond.

Through her #SciFund project, Kristina will be discovering the origin of these forgotten Roman slaves. She will be extracting DNA from their skeletons and then using that genetic information to determine where they came from. Will you help these long-dead slaves to finally have their voice? Check out Ancient Roman DNA.


Featured project: Dolphinpalooza

Jai Ranganathan


The featured #SciFund Challenge project this time around is Dolphinpalooza by Erin Ashe.

Ready for some dolphins? Dolphinpalooza has some astonishing video of Pacific white-sided dolphins off of the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Dolphins swimming seemingly just yards away from the camera. Dolphins leaping in the air.  Dolphins making the most impressive vocalizations. And it’s all in the service of conservation.

Jumping dolphin

This dolphin is jumping for joy because of the #SciFund Challenge.

Erin is a marine biologist and she in the middle of her doctorate in biology at at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She’s also a co-founder of the Oceans Initiative, which focuses on the research and conservation of marine mammals in Canada. Her research focuses on understanding the population trends in the Pacific white-sided dolphin in British Columbia. Though the species is abundant there now, no one really knows what is happening with their numbers.

That’s where Erin comes in. Using unique identifying marks on the dorsal fins of these dolphins, she is monitoring the fate of the species. And she is determining how isolated these dolphins are,  by comparing the vocalizations of these individuals with the vocal “dialect” used by Pacific white-sided dolphin up and down the Pacific Coast.

So, a really neat project with an important conservation impact. And awesome footage of dolphins leaping in the air. What more could you want? Check out Dolphinpalooza!


How would you fund research? – An Open Science perspective

Cross-posted from Science 3.0/EvoMRI

On Twitter, Mary Canady asked whether there are any blog posts on the relationship between the SciFund Challenge and Open Science. As I had already started drafting this post, I mentioned that there should be one up soon, and I reframed it a bit to match that perspective, pointing out in the meantime that a blog post on the relation between SciFund and Creative Commons already exists. With a bit of delay due to server problems, here we go now.

[Read more...]


Featured project: Pennies instead of petroleum!

Jai Ranganathan


Today’s featured #SciFund Challenge project is Pennies instead of petroleum! by Jeffrey Bodwin.

How do we break our addiction to petroleum? Simple: with uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows.

Wait! it isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Jeffrey Bodwin is an associate professor of chemistry at Minnesota State University Moorhead and he is working on an innovative new way to make ethanol from corn and other crops. Biofuels like corn-based ethanol have taken a big hit in the past few years, partially because they are not nearly as environmentally-friendly as once thought.

But what if we could make the process of turning crops into ethanol more efficient? Right now, the only part of the corn that can be used for ethanol are the kernels on the corncob, wasting almost all of the plant. What if we could use the entire plant? Suddenly the economics and the environmental impact of crop-based ethanol would flip to the extremely positive side of the ledger.

This is, in fact, the point of the good professor’s research. But how do you convey this research in a compelling and understandable way? Organic chemistry isn’t many people’s idea of a fun time, after all.

Stay puft marshmallow man

Who knew marshmallows were the key to breaking our addiction to oil?

That’s where the marshmallows and spaghetti come in. In an absolutely brilliant use of visual analogies, using just marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti, Jeffrey’s SciFund video simply and effectively conveys a lot of information about the organic chemistry behind ethanol production. You absolutely need to watch Jeffrey’s video. It is just a textbook example of how seemingly-impenetrable science can be made interesting and fun

Oh and there is a bonus clip at the end of a marshmallow meeting a grisly end at the fiery hands of a bunsen burner.

What’s not to love here? So do check out Pennies instead of petroleum!


The Food Truck Phenomenon – or, what animal behavior tells us about crowdfunding

Shermin de Silva

Note from Jai: Dr. Shermin de Silva is an elephant researcher and she has a project in the #SciFund Challenge (check out Help Elephants & People in Sri Lanka). She has a doctorate in biology from the University of Pennsylvania and she is the founder of  the Elephant Forest and Environment Conservation Trust.

During my six years in grad school slaving over grants and statistics, I avoided starvation thanks to the lunch trucks hovering around West Philly.  They sell everything from vegan chili to doner kebabs, rescuing hundreds from this predicament each day. I used to be puzzled at why there were TWO Mexican trucks competing side by side.  Everyone seemed to know which one was better –you could tell from the lengths of the lines.  Wouldn’t the other want to move off to some remote corner and claim its poor victims all to itself?  In stark contrast to this was the strategy of the ever-elusive wandering cupcake truck – a beast that was seldom spotted, brightening up random corners on each day.  Well, you couldn’t count on a cupcake for desert, but you could always count on the burritos.

[Read more...]