Turns out, you don’t have to work in a laboratory, wear a white coat, or have a PhD to be a scientist.
Citizen science projects are one of the beautiful movements for citizens to get involved in the scientific process; by helping professional scientists collect and analyze data for certain projects. Admittedly, at first when I heard the term ‘citizen science’ I was kind of skeptical as to the benefits it would give, but after participating in this project, which wasn’t as simple as I thought it was, I definitely was exposed to many of the benefits.
I participated in Eyewire, an online gaming initiative from the Seung Lab at Princeton, the head being Sebastian Seung. The players can help map the ‘connectome’, Sebastian Seung’s term for the full set of your neurons and the synapses that link them.
The best way to explain Eyewire is a very complex, 3D color-by-number puzzle. The thing is, those numbers are missing. It’s up to the player to scroll through the cube and reconstruct the neuron in segments by coloring the parts of the image that correspond with the original neuron. This is done in conjunction with an artificial intelligence algorithm developed at the Seung Lab. But why get humans to do it as opposed to computers? According to an interview, “the trick to scoring point in the game is to only color the parts of the image that are nerve cells. This is something that’s surprisingly difficult and humans are actually better at it than computers.”
With the ability to construct connectomes, scientists predict they will be able to address questions about how brain physiology and human abilities and behaviour correlate. This can lead to the development of advanced and targeted treatments, like better designer drugs, precise surgical interventions, and custom neural prostheses, as well as focusing on memory storage and retrieval.
Sebastian Seung and his team at the Seung Lab are legitimate organizers, being from Princeton University. Eyewire is free of cost, and the only thing required to play is a valid email address, appropriate for the research being done, as well as a computer/internet access. The game starts off with a tutorial which lays down the basics of Eyewire, as well as increasing in difficulty leading to the actual game. There are also many tutorial videos online, as well as an online chat for help. On the main page, you can actually see what the neuron you’re working on looks like, as well as gaining points for the amount of cubes you complete. You can also unlock achievements as you progress and more experience is gained. That’s the beauty of it; you can participate as much as you want, and the more you participate, the more points and achievements you earn. Even though there isn’t a formal recognition for your contributions besides the achievements and points, I found that when a significant achievement was earned, it would show up on the online chat channel, and the players would actually congratulate you (which actually felt pretty good).
Eyewire main page – Credit: own work, licensed under ‘CC BY-NC-SA 4.0’
Working on Eyewire was a really great experience for me. Though it was quite a bit of a challenge to get the hang of, I learnt a lot, and there were lots of useful resources available to me. The interface was very user-friendly, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the field of neuroscience. It was very much like a game, which I really liked as well. I do wish that there was a chance to look at what mistakes you made when you mapped the neuron incorrectly, though; that way I would’ve been able to learn from my mistakes and not do them in the future.
Personally, neuroscience is a huge passion of mine. I wish to pursue a future career relating to neuroscience, and this game, as well as other supplemental research I did relating to this game, really benefitted me, and will help me for the future. This game was a challenge, and I working through challengers. Taking up Eyewire as a citizen science project was definitely something I am very proud of, and I’m glad I pursued it with the knowledge that it does benefit the field of neuroscience.