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Citizen scientists show research has no age limits

In his spare time, Paul Tenczar, right, volunteers to further the bee research conducted by Gene Robinson, the director of the Institute for Genomic Biology. Tenczar, who started out as a biologist and later chose a career in educational computing, is one of a growing number of retirees returning to campus to assist researchers in their work.
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L. Brian Stauffer

Volunteer scientists
In his spare time, Paul Tenczar, right, volunteers to further the bee research conducted by Gene Robinson, the director of the Institute for Genomic Biology. Tenczar, who started out as a biologist and later chose a career in educational computing, is one of a growing number of retirees returning to campus to assist researchers in their work.

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INSIDE ILLINOIS, March 15, 2012  | Mike Helenthal, Assistant Editor | 217-333-5491

Carol Miller, a retired Champaign Unit 4 elementary school teacher, has always been a researcher, but not the scientific-journal kind.

The RFID tagging system that Paul Tenczar helped create through his work with Gene Robinson, the director of the Institute for Genomic Biology, is shown. The tag, smaller than a period at the end of a sentence, is glued on a bee╒s back and tracks the frequency at which it enters and leaves the hive. Robinson said Tenczar's contributions led to the idea of partnering with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute to create the Citizen Scientist program.

Tag team
The RFID tagging system that Paul Tenczar helped create through his work with Gene Robinson, the director of the Institute for Genomic Biology, is shown. The tag, smaller than a period at the end of a sentence, is glued on a bee╒s back and tracks the frequency at which it enters and leaves the hive. Robinson said Tenczar's contributions led to the idea of partnering with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute to create the Citizen Scientist program. | Photo by Tom Newman, Robinson Bee Laboratory

Miller’s research has come almost inadvertently, derived from 40-plus years of direct behavioral observation and countless hours navigating the confines of a classroom.

“When (I was) a grade school teacher, we taught everything all the way through the eighth grade,” she said. “We covered everything.”

Miller’s teaching portfolio also includes a year in Puerto Rico and nine years operating a local private school.

And while her life’s work has never been presented at a conference, it’s turning out to be an invaluable component for scientific work being conducted at the UI.

Comparative biosciences professor Susan Schantz has enlisted the help of Miller and other area retirees who have volunteered to assist in Schantz’s broad-based research monitoring the effects of chemicals in certain plastics on fetal and childhood development.

“We try to judge each person’s skills and direct them into the area they fit best,” Schantz said.

“Their skills have had us direct them into this program.”

Miller volunteers six hours each week, using many of the skills she honed dealing with children and their parents during her classroom days. Now she helps track the 100-plus participants in the study, which includes recruiting mothers and a long series of follow-up surveys.

“I even get to help once in a while with the baby measurements,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in science and I’m getting the chance to actually do it.”

Schantz and Miller were teamed through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a campus program that offers classes, study groups, lectures and other educational opportunities to area residents older than 50. Membership in OLLI enables the students to engage in learning for the joy of it – which can include anything from courses in the arts and humanities to explorations of science and technology.

“I was asked to speak about my research at one of the OLLI events and I was sincerely impressed,” Schantz said. “They were so interactive and full of good questions. I had the thought when I gave the lecture that I wished my undergrads could see how they take a class. It was evident these people were truly lifelong learners.”

Schantz learned of the Citizen Scientist volunteer program through her association with Gene Robinson, the director of the Institute for Genomic Biology, who helped form the program in partnership with OLLI and Arthur Kramer, the director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

Schantz now has four volunteers working on her project.

“It’s been a really good synergy because they are working side by side with the students and it’s turned into a very diverse group,” she said. “I didn’t know at the time I’d get people with such similar academic backgrounds. We try to get (the students) to take advantage of (the volunteers’) skills.”

Linda McEnerney, a retired pediatrician and OLLI member since 2010, attended the talk Schantz presented to members.

“I was amazed by the complex projects and intrigued that OLLI members might get involved in such efforts in a meaningful way,” she said.

McEnerney was so affected she “uncharacteristically” approached Schantz afterward to ask about volunteering.

“I felt I could be useful in helping to explore an important question facing the scientific community,” she said of her reason for stepping forward, “and because it’s fun to work with moms and babies.”

McEnerney’s specialty is her advanced understanding of infant development, ability to read medical charts and aptitude in translating medical jargon (some of which Schantz refers to as “gibberish”).

McEnerney said she’s also learned from the experience.

“I’ve absorbed a lot of background information that allows me to appreciate its potentially far-reaching implications,” McEnerney said. “And I’ve enjoyed relating to the university in a significant way.”

OLLI Director Christine Catanzarite said the institute, which will offer 30 courses this spring, continues to grow in popularity and scope.

There are more than 1,000 members, up from 300 when the institute opened in 2007.

“Our members have a variety of backgrounds, a rich set of experiences to share,” she said. “Some of the Citizen Scientists have science-based experience, but most do not.”

While the citizen scientists, nine in all, are indeed doing important work, Catanzarite said much of their value comes from interactions with students.

“They’ve had careers and life experiences that they can bring into the lab,” she said. “They contribute to the success of a lab’s research and they can serve as a valuable conduit to the outside world, helping students in the lab to frame their materials for non-specialists.”

One OLLI volunteer with a background in editing went so far as to construct and present a paper-writing seminar to help students better present their research for class.

“She saw it was something the students were struggling with,” she said. “She identified an area where her experience could help the students.”

Robinson said the Citizen Scientist program is in its infancy and has already shown great promise. He said he’d eventually like to see it expanded with outside federal or philanthropic funding.

“The fit has to be right, but adding a citizen scientist to the lab can be very enriching for both social and scientific reasons,” he said. “And not only does it enrich an individual lab, but it’s a further opportunity to extend the reach of the campus and fulfill our mandate for outreach and community engagement. Citizen scientists are great ambassadors for the university.”

Robinson said partnering with OLLI for the Citizen Scientist program was the result of a natural progression after he had taught several eight-week classes there.

“I knew the level of enthusiasm that OLLI members have for learning,” he said.

Robinson said there currently are several OLLI volunteers who are working in the sciences.

His first volunteer, Paul Tenczar, predates the OLLI program but turned out to be one of those “right fits” that melded seamlessly into the focus of Robinson’s acclaimed research on the molecular basis of bee behavior.

In fact, having Tenczar in his lab convinced him that citizens could in fact work successfully alongside scientists.

Tenczar is a UI-trained geneticist turned computer software developer, who left a biology career before he had earned his Ph.D. He changed his academic focus after becoming caught up in the early-early days of the computer revolution. Tenczar parlayed his work on the UI’s PLATO computer-assisted instruction system in the 1960s into a successful software company. He retired in 2000.

“I got involved with that to try and teach with it,” he said, citing a long list of educational applications his company developed.

But the biologist in him never left.

“So I got into beekeeping,” he said.

That alone was enough to get Robinson’s attention, and the biology and computer background sealed the deal.

“It’s been a very successful and productive experiment,” Robinson said. “He’s my first citizen scientist and he’s been a great addition to my lab.”

Tenczar, who has volunteered for two years, proved his value early on by developing an RFID tagging system that automatically tracks the frequency at which bees enter and leave the hive. The tag, smaller than a period at the end of a sentence, is glued on a bee’s back.

“Gene was looking to bring in that type of technological background, plus, I was trained as a scientist,” Tenczar said. “Anything for science is worth my time.”

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