On March 15, several of us from BrightFocus were fortunate to attend a Washington, DC, screening of The Crowd & the Cloud, an epic four-part series on citizen science from the maker of Cosmos, Earth: An Operator’s Manual, and other memorable documentaries. The series starts airing next month on PBS. Its riveting footage criss-crosses the country, following citizen volunteers by land, air, and sea as they engage in projects designed to answer research questions.
One memorable scene shows a family cautiously following written instructions as they test the tap water in their Philadelphia kitchen. Another shows surfers attaching special sensors to their boards before they ride into the waves—because besides “hanging ten,” they’ll be measuring the salinity of coastal waters.
There’s also a segment featuring a retirement community in Florida, where a group of older citizens are nervously learning to play a new video game called Stall Catchers. By doing so, they are helping Cornell researchers Chris Schaffer and Nozomi Nishimura inventory whether blood is moving through tiny vessels in the brain of an Alzheimer’s mouse model. Results will benefit Alzheimer’s research by mapping the brain’s circulatory changes in Alzheimer’s disease and helping us see how that impacts dementia.
Stall Catchers happens to be the brainstorm of EyesOnAlz, a project funded by the BrightFocus Alzheimer’s Disease Research (ADR) program. It’s also the first-ever crowd-sourced effort to assist in Alzheimer’s research. BrightFocus grantee Pietro Michelucci, PhD, and his team are featured prominently in the film, along with collaborators across the country.
Gamers of all ages can enjoy friendly competition when playing Stall Catchers. Their results, after being analyzed, weighted, and validated by Michelucci and his team at the Human Computation Institute, cumulatively rise to the level of trained scientists. Having the crowd assist with identifying blood vessel stalls will shave years off the research timeline. (Read more about the project.)
With EyesOn Alz in the first episode, The Crowd & the Cloud makes the point that citizen science is more than a leisure time hobby, and contributes to “serious” science. While most projects relate to climate change, species loss, and other facets of the environment, a growing number (now estimated at 10 percent) are directed towards public health and the fight against diseases like asthma, cancer, Zika infection, and the growing burden of Alzheimer’s disease.
Another poignant scene in the series features Brooklyn native Deirdre Lovell, who shares insights about her mother, 94-year-old Evadene Lovell, who lives with Alzheimer’s. The elder Lovell once put detonators on bombs for the U.S. Navy, and now herself has to be handled with care. “You have to be very careful about the way you approach her and criticize or offer assistance….She's not giving up gracefully, which makes it even harder because she's proud,” Deirdre rather proudly explains.
“Every single human being that contracts this disease has it in a different way,” Deirdre continues. “They experience something completely different. It just lets us know how broad the human experience can be.”
Indeed, Alzheimer’s both unites us and divides us, as families and as a society. At the disease’s later stages, “it's like watching a person walk away from society,” Deirdre ably describes.
After 100 years of Alzheimer’s, it’s clear we need all hands on deck to solve it. Just as once we depended on Evadene’s work in a wartime munitions factory, and that of other women like her to lift us into space (as the film “Hidden Figures” revealed), we’re now calling on regular citizens to help us fund and find a cure for the disease that has marred Evadene’s 10th decade.
“The health of the citizens of this country is so important, and it's almost diabolical that we're not better at it,” Deirdre says. “There is no healthy economy with unhealthy citizens. It's impossible.”
Episode 1 of The Crowd & the Cloud, “Even Big Data Starts Small,” features the BrightFocus-funded EyesOnAlz project and will premier on the WORLD channel on Thursday, April 6 at 9pm EDT, (to be re-broadcast at 9pm PDT). Both Program 1 premieres will be followed by a live Facebook discussion with producer Geoff Haines-Stiles and host Waleed Abdalati and a deeper dive into the power of Citizen Science! Programs 2, 3 and 4 also will premiere on WORLD on successive Thursdays (April 13, April 20, April 27) at 9 pm.
For additional airtimes on your local PBS stations, or to stream directly from the series’ website, go to crowdandcloud.org.
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