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Citizen scientists!

The phenomenon of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes seems to be a prevalent cultural theme in 2011, so why not try it in the science lab too? A dozen older adults took part in a pilot program called Citizen Scientist that placed them in campus research laboratories. And the reaction to the pilot is that the program is a go for another season.

Published on Sept. 27, 2011

It’s become a staple of reality TV: CEOs spend time undercover as a regular employee, celebrities switch places with average Joes bearing the same name, and housewives take a turn at running each other’s households. The phenomenon of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes seems to be a prevalent cultural theme in 2011, so why not try it in the science lab too?

That’s essentially what Beckman Institute Director Art Kramer wondered a couple of years ago, anyway, along with Institute of Genomic Biology Director Gene Robinson, and Kathleen Holden, Director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) the University of Illinois. And now, it looks like their idea just might take off.

A dozen older adults from the Illinois chapter of OLLI, a national organization, took part in a pilot program called Citizen Scientist that placed them in campus research laboratories. And the reaction to the pilot is that the program is a go for another season.

“To our knowledge no one has a program where citizens actually go into the lab,” Holden said. “At OLLI we are always looking at new ways to intellectually stimulate older adults. We started out with courses that grew into study groups, which have been very popular, there are lunchtime lectures, and we’ve had trips with faculty accompanying OLLI members. So this is really an extension of that whole desire to find new and interesting things to make people’s brains more active.”

“I have no doubt that our OLLI members can learn; that is certainly the case, but this gives them something that is challenging and meaningful."
– Art Kramer

Kramer and Robinson are two Illinois faculty members who have been involved with OLLI, and for Kramer the citizen scientist concept dovetails with his work in the area of cognitive aging. But this is no research project. The older adults aren’t being tested for their brain function after exercise or for the effects of social engagement on their cognitive abilities (two areas Kramer and other Beckman researchers investigate); rather they are being trained to work alongside faculty and student researchers doing many of the same tasks they do, including working with older adults in labs like the one Kramer directs.

“I have no doubt that our OLLI members can learn; that is certainly the case, but this gives them something that is challenging and meaningful,” Kramer said. “This isn’t stuffing envelopes in a business or charity; it is actually doing research with human subjects or animals.”

Kramer said the thinking behind starting the Citizen Scientist program is related to his work with older adults and maintaining cognitive health across the lifespan.

“I work with older people so I’m interested in how we can maintain high levels of cognition and brain function among older people,” he said. “One of the ways we know we can do that from the literature is to keep them intellectually stimulated. And what’s more stimulating than trying to learn an area you don’t know about when you are 60- to 70-years-old?”

And, most importantly for this fledgling program, it also dovetails with the mission of OLLI which states that “learning has no age limits. Through a rich array of lifelong learning opportunities, members are inspired to take a fresh look at themselves, their world, and the possibilities that await them.”

What awaited the budding citizen scientists in the labs were everything from clownfish in Beckman researcher Justin Rhodes’ lab to the driving simulator in the Institute’s Illinois Simulator Laboratory. Some also worked with the Neuroscience Program and at the Institute for Genomic Biology. They went through the same types of training, including institutional review board training, that is required of every lab member, and they met right alongside the students and professors in their regular group meetings.

Bringing Citizen Scientists into the Lab

 Kramer and Robinson, who had given talks at the OLLI’s south campus facility in the past, talked over their idea with Holden a couple of years ago and a trial program with two members working in Kramer’s lab was tried.

“I have known Kathleen for many years and she is a great resource,” Kramer said. “Gene and I both thought she would be a great partner and she has been. It is public service we are happy to do.

“Right now it’s community outreach, it’s an attempt to give retired people who have a wealth of experience and knowledge an opportunity to apply that in a meaningful situation. This is one of many meaningful experiences they can apply their knowledge and experience to, and learn something new. That is what OLLI is all about.”

To get the program started, they had to recruit faculty, so a letter was sent out stating that “the experiences of both the senior citizen scientists and lab members at Beckman have been mutually beneficial – with the citizen scientists learning how science works in practice and about substantive research areas and the host lab receiving assistance from the senior scientists in conducting research.”

Next, they set about selecting what they called the “novice research assistants” by publicizing the program to OLLI’s more than 800 members in the community, an effort that drew a large number of responses. A graduate student, Geena Skariah, who works with Beckman researcher Stephanie Ceman, was chosen to run the Citizen Scientist program. Skariah did a presentation that included faculty profiles and their research, and applicants were asked to list their preferences and interests to help match them up with labs. Eventually 14 Citizen Scientists were selected and Skariah said 12 of them stuck it out.

“The funny thing is they’re still working, they wanted to work through summer, so it’s still going on,” Skariah said. “It’s really been a success.”

It wasn’t necessarily a success at first, however, for the newbie lab members.

“It was definitely overwhelming, that was the term that came up when I had my first meeting after they started in the labs,” Skariah said. “It was like ‘Oh my God. There’s a lot of information here and we don’t know how to get around it.’ But at the same time they said the labs were so friendly and receptive, and they were willing to explain things to them.”

Benefits to Researchers and the Public

Skariah said the experience has also helped her as a young scientist, and thinks it will benefit students in the participating labs.

“This was my first experience working with senior citizens and science outreach, and it is going to help me a lot professionally,” she said. “I think you don’t meet just people of your own age as you progress through science and your research. Explaining science in layman terms has been the challenge here. I had to explain my work and the work the lab does. I had to really break it down for the citizen scientists and that’s something I wanted to learn in this experience.”

One of the Citizen Scientists, James Caspary, agreed. 

“They need to be able to express what they’re trying to do, on their own terms to someone who doesn’t necessarily understand,” Caspary said. “It’s not so easy to work with someone like me who just has a curiosity. I’ll ask questions, some of which are good and some of which are probably not very informed. But they have to field those questions regardless of what they are.”

Holden said the program has components that go beyond the benefits to OLLI participants.

“Another element was the intergenerational part: the graduate students learning from the older adults, particularly if they were doing research on older adults. The other was to bring the campus and community closer together. To help people understand the wonderful things that are going on here at this university.

“One of the most important things, besides giving our OLLI members more intellectual stimulation, is helping the public understand the depth and quality of research that goes on at this university. Most people don’t know about that. They hear about it but when they went into the labs and saw the dedication of the faculty and the students, they were all impressed with that.”

Benefits to the Citizen Scientists

Caspary, who might be called the poster boy for the OLLI program, was certainly impressed by his Citizen Scientist experience. A mostly retired bank president, Caspary and his wife tried the retire-to-a-golf course lifestyle before deciding they wanted something more challenging out of their golden years.

“My wife and I actually moved to Champaign a couple years ago with the primary reason being I wanted to check out the University of Illinois, maybe take a few classes,” Caspary said. “Then I came across the OLLI program and just kind of fell in with that. And then they were trying this pilot program, which just seemed like something that would be very interesting. OLLI was just exactly what I was looking for, but I had no idea it existed before I came here.”

Caspary, who doesn’t have a background in science, worked in Kramer’s Human Perception and Performance group with student John Gaspar in experiments testing multitasking among older adults. He helped with experiments in the driving simulator and took part in group meetings at Beckman, where students presented the projects they were working on.

“To me that was probably one of the best parts of the program,” Caspary said. “So not only did I get to get some involvement in the project that John had, but I also then got to listen to probably 15 or 16 other projects and how they were coming along, and then to the comments and questions that the other people in the group had.”

Pat Porter took her involvement in the Citizen Scientists program a step further. She worked in the lab of Beckman researchers Gabriele Gratton and Monica Fabiani but also sat in on a class Fabiani taught on the psychology of aging.

“I was amazed at what I learned in that class and amazed to realize the advances that had been made in brain research,” Porter said. “And all of that was brought out with the MRIs. I was shown an MRI and explained how it works as part of my training, and I thought that was really fascinating.”

Porter is a retired teacher of 40 years who works as a house mother at a sorority on campus. Like Caspary, she said working in a lab and learning about the science practiced there has been an enriching experience.

“I’ve really enjoyed meeting the people, both the nice group of people who work here, and I’ve enjoyed meeting with my subjects and identifying with them in my own way,” she said. “I like having the satisfaction of doing something that in some small way helps others.”

Caspary thinks the program could be improved by letting the citizen scientists have more involvement.

“I think it worked fine for the OLLI participants but it probably wasn’t as involved as we thought it would be,” he said. “But you know, again for people who like me have a curiosity, it’s an absolutely tremendous opportunity.”

Holden said the people who run the program also gained insight from the pilot into how they could improve the experience for everyone involved.

“One of the things we learned was that it’s really important for the citizen scientists to be proactive; they tend to want to hang back and wait for someone to ask them something,” she said. “The ones who said ‘OK, what can I do?’ or ‘let me look at this part of your research and see if I can help’ – those were the ones who did much better. That’s part of the training for us.

“Also, we will be meeting with faculty to talk about how best to use people in their labs. So it’s been a great learning experience for all of us.”

Thanks to what she has learned from the research, Porter is now an advocate for older adults adhering to an exercise schedule.

“I’ve always realized and known that exercise is good for you, and I’ve always exercised. I’m from a very athletic family,” she said. “But now there’s proof that 30 minutes of walking every day helps keep your brain more cognizant.

“I have a line from the textbook I was given: what do you want to do, add years to your life or life to your years? And I thought ‘wow, that’s really profound to me because I’ve known people who are just adding years to their life and they’re leaving out the fun part of adding life to their years.”

Porter also was inspired by what she learned from the Arnold Beckman exhibit in the rotunda of the Institute, and by his “Rules that Govern My Life”.

“I did know about him, but I was fascinated reading that, and I was also given a book about him by Monica,” Porter said. “What a remarkable person. I’ve added him as one of my heroes. He also had his code to live by and I loved that. I put it up on my refrigerator and try to remember it and be honest, and it’s a sure way to a happy life. And I’ve been honored to be a tiny, even insignificant part of the Beckman Institute.”

In this article

  • Art Kramer
    Art Kramer's directory photo.