Events & Media

PhD Students and the Web: Crowdsourcing for Science
As participants in the second SciFund Challenge, they seek funds to study water filters for Africa and management solutions for a California abalone fishery

Tal Ben-Horin and Ning Jiang are the latest Bren School PhD students to participate in a web-based crowdsourcing effort to raise funds for doctoral research.  Both are participating in the second SciFund Challenge, which brings scientists together from around the world to raise funds on the RocketHub crowdsourcing platform to support specific aspects of their research. Lindsey Peavey participated in the first SciFund Challenge, raising more than $3,200 for her open-ocean research on olive ridley sea turtles. (See the article on p.9 of the Spring 2012 issue of Bren News.)

The SciFund Challenge was created by a pair of ecologists, Dr. Jai Ranganathan, a researcher at the UCSB National Center for Ecological Analysis and Syntheis (NCEAS), and NCEAS postdoctoral researcher Dr. Jarrett Byrnes.


Tal Ben-Horin

Ben-Horin is seeking to raise $500 for his project, which runs on the SciFund site under the title “Can an abalone in a bag save two on the reef?

California’s one-abundant abalone populations were significantly reduced by decades of overfishing. Then, in the 1980s, the populations were decimated by “withering syndrome” (WS), a bacterial disease that so decimated the already reduced abalone population that the fishery finally had to be closed in 1996. It has remained closed ever since. Withering syndrome affects older and larger abalone, and Ben-Horin is studying whether allowing limited fishing of those larger, older specimens in a small range off San Miguel Island could have the effect of “fishing out” withering syndrome from that population.

He writes on the SciFund site, “My preliminary results suggest that a just a little bit of fishing, managed at the appropriate size limit, reduces the spread of WS and can even enhance the recovery of red abalone at San Miguel Island.”


Ning Jiang

Ben-Horin suggests that this finding could “transform the management of fisheries in the face of disease,” and tells potential contributors that their contributions “will be applied immediately to regulations for the

proposed abalone fishery at San Miguel Island…covering the costs of an expedition to San Miguel Island, where I will sample abalone populations for the bacterial pathogen that causes WS.”

Ning Jang’s research is related to a water-filtration project designed to have an impact on the other side of the planet, in the African nation of Malawi.

Found on the SciFund site under “Save lives, one filter at a time,” her project involves collaborating with the California-based nonprofit Safe Water International (SWI) to develop a water filter that will provide clean drinking water for people in need.

Citing the statistic that 2,500 children die each day because they lack clean drinking water, Jiang is working to a small-scale filter that can be produced and repaired locally, using local materials and a small amount of plastic piping, for which a simple distribution is being established to ensure sustainability of the  project.

“Your contributions will help me buy supplies and rent equipment for lab testing,” she writes on the site. “While my preliminary lab testing showed great promise at filtering and disinfecting dirty water, more experiments are needed to fine-tune the prototype and how best to use it. I also wish to study its effectiveness at removing viruses. In Malawi, your donations will also provide supplies to evaluate the filter’s efficiency with local water sources, while our collaborators in Mzuzu University can provide human resources and equipment. After on-site evaluation, Safe Water International will distribute filters to the families in need.

SciFund Challenge scientists use e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, incentives, and even humor to drive people to sites promoting research about a variety of topics. Participating SciFund forces researchers to leave behind their disciplinary jargon and speak in plain language about their research to engage broad audiences.

Once on the SciFund pages at RocketHub, viewers can browse the various projects, read descriptions the work and see videos of researchers explaining it and why it matters, see how much has been raised by each project and how much time is left in the challenge, and, of course, contribute by clicking the big red “Fuel This Project” button at the top of every project page.

Jiang reached her goal of $2,000 in the first three days of the 45-day crowdsourcing effort, while, at the time this was posted, Ben-Horin was about halfway to his goal. Among his incentives to would-be contributors: for any contribution of $5,000 or more, he will come to your home or any site you prefer and prepare a classic California abalone feast made with sustainable farm-raised Santa Barbara abalone.