Citizen Scientists Wanted! In the Fight Against the Coronavirus

“I asked myself how I, as a computer scientist, could contribute in a meaningful way to research on the pandemic. […] I have little time, but some unused computing capacity. In light of the severity of the situation, I am willing to bear the temporary significant increase in electricity costs if it means that researchers can work on a drug faster.”[1] While precautionary measures are taken worldwide and solidarity networks are emerging locally, scientists are working day and night to develop medication and especially a vaccine against COVID-19, the new coronavirus that is spreading globally. But this needs time. In order to accelerate the processes some projects reach out to the public for help. By participating in citizen science projects volunteers can now contribute to the research on the virus, both with their resources and with their creativity. Increasing numbers of participants in such projects show that this meets the desire of many people to do more – besides staying at home and washing their hands – to stop the rapid spreading of the virus. Online citizen science describes the practice of involving the general public (a.k.a. “the crowd”) into scientific projects. The aim is to solve a specific scientific problem that scientists and their computers alone are unable to solve at all or in foreseeable time. Oftentimes, the tasks to be solved are time consuming and include a large amount of data to be collected and/or analyzed. One of the unsolved questions scientists around the world currently need the help of the crowd with concerns the protein structure of the coronavirus. The coronavirus detects and infects human cells with the spike proteins on its surface (more information on this). Knowing more about these structures and creating proteins that can bind to the spike protein of the coronavirus to blog it is essential. One general problem in protein structure prediction is that there are numerous ways that a protein may fold. This is where the crowd comes in. Three citizen science projects that try to tackle this problem with the help of the crowd and that have gained increased attention over the last weeks are Folding@home, Rosetta@Home and Foldit ­– and each does it in their own way. Folding@home is a distributed computing project for simulating protein dynamics based at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri.[2] After downloading the software, users help advance research on cures for diseases simply by running the software while they’re not working at their computer, using idle CPU-cycles of their computer. With the announcement of Folding@home in late February to specifically focus on coronavirus, the project has received huge response...

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Ethnographic Research in the Time of Coronavirus
Mar26

Ethnographic Research in the Time of Coronavirus

In Italy we have a proverb, ‘anno bisesto, anno funesto’ which can be translated as something like ‘leap year, fatal year’. I wouldn’t define myself as superstitious and I generally don’t pay too much attention to these kind of sayings. However, 2020 so far has been an adverse, if not disastrous, year. The outbreak of COVID-19, also known as novel coronavirus, has been at the centre of attention worldwide and has been affecting the lives of people all over the world in many different ways. This new, unknown, virus originated in the province of Wuhan in China and very rapidly spread around the world. It seems to be highly contagious, it dangerously affects elderly people and those with underlying health conditions, and hospitals are overall struggling with the capacity of infected people who need respiratory assistance. The WHO (World Health Organisation) has declared it a pandemic, and there is an ongoing state of emergency in several countries in Europe and overseas. Italy has been hit very hard by the virus, being the second country in the list of most confirmed cases and deaths after China. I live and study in Scotland, but I am from Sardinia, an island and region of Italy, which is not just my homeland but also the centre of my PhD research. As an ethnographer, I am familiar with the uncertainty that fieldwork brings about and I thought I was quite prepared (I might even say excited) to face the unforeseen and unexpected. Maybe even crash, less excitedly, into some ‘dead ends’. I can certainly state that I wasn’t prepared at all for a global pandemic that would force people to stay at home and practice social distancing and self-isolation. No, this wasn’t included in my contingency plan. My first personal encounter with the novel coronavirus was a few weeks ago, the day before I was meant to fly to Cagliari (my hometown) and finally begin my ‘proper’ fieldwork which, for the sake of frankness, is also an excuse for me to visit my family and friends. I am in my second year of my PhD path and, as in conventional academic manner, I had planned to undertake my data collection and fieldwork throughout the year. Specifically, between March and May. My research focuses on the socio-cultural aspects of folk and religious festivals. In particular, I am analysing the performance of gender and identity in the Festival of Sant’Efisio in Sardinia, a series of rituals and celebrations including a largely attended four-day procession and a folk parade at the start of May. A social distancing festival, how would that even work? I planned my visit...

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“At home, however, I only feel in the van.”* A Story about the Possibilities that a Change of Perspective Entails

„Home is where you feel secure and connected to something. That can be people, but also the landscape or mentality of a country.”*

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Choosing Sides: Doing Interviews in a Divided Field

“You are not going to agree with this, but I voted leave.” A participant in my research told me this early on in an interview. I had not shared with her my personal opinion on the EU, but from my accent (which does not sound Scottish) she discerned I was from continental Europe and decided that I probably did not agree with Brexit. During interviews I am not trying to find out how the interviewee voted in the EU referendum, but it is a difficult topic to avoid when discussing Europe. Navigating a divided field In the past six years, the Scottish people have taken part in two divisive referendums. In 2014 they were asked whether Scotland should become an independent state (55% chose to remain part of the UK) and in 2016 they were asked whether the UK should remain a member of the EU (in Scotland, 62% chose to remain part of the EU). Both referendums left a significant mark on the current political landscape in Scotland. My research focusses on the personal dimension of this: how do Scottish people, in particular supporters of Scottish independence, identify with Europe and what does the concept of Europe mean to them. To do this, it is important for me to get beyond the results of the referendums in my fieldwork, but this is not always straightforward. The problem with discussing politics in Scotland today is that opinions are immediately pigeonholed into the answers of the referendums: participants in my research often identify themselves (and others) first as yes/no or remain/leave. It is of course uncommon that reality is as binary as that: it is a messy and personal calculation of values, beliefs, influences and experiences. Participants are hardly ever completely yes or remain without a conditional but. To get a result which is valuable for my research, I aim to break through the referendum replies as early as possible in the interviews and uncover what is hidden below. Placing myself in the field At the same time as providing us with an opportunity to research beyond the suggested binaries of the referendums, ethnographic fieldwork forces the researcher to reflect on his/her own connection to the communities being researched. In my case, that reflection starts by asking and being asked where I fit on the yes/no, leave/remain spectrum. I have experimented with sharing my own opinions on these matters and keeping them to myself during fieldwork. Sharing my stance can have different effects: if it is in agreement with the participant, the interview feels more at ease, resulting in a form of ‘safe space’ which can be highly beneficial for...

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Wanted: A Mother of Cultural Studies

As a cultural anthropologist with a historical perspective, I really wonder: where are all the women in the history of our critical, self-reflective discipline?

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Lost in Malmö. Or: The Ever-changing Imaginations of a City
Jan30

Lost in Malmö. Or: The Ever-changing Imaginations of a City

There are different things you notice about a city. They depend on your starting point or your destination, on the purpose of you being there, and of course on yourself – your experiences and prehistory with and of the city itself and other places, your anticipations and imaginations.[1] Sometimes, we just like to dream of other places and try to imagine what it would be like to live or at least go there. The first time I ever went to Malmö was in 2015. I was visiting Sweden as a tourist and I was just amazed by how quiet this city was, how less traffic there seemed to be compared to what I’m used to. Malmö gave me the impression of a cosy, little city. Over the time, this perspective, the feeling of walking through the city, changed. Imagining cities Fantasy and imagination are important parts of every modern society and they have an even more significant effect in the present social life, because of the process of deterritorialization of persons and ideas. Mass media, for example, made it easier for people not only to look at different possible lifestyles, but also to imagine living somewhere else. Fantasy and imagination are social practice, they are an inspirational force for the social lives of people.[2] We make up our own imaginations of different places, and of course those imaginations are not static, they change overtime and through experiences. With each visit to Malmö, I started recognizing the size of the city: not as big as a metropolis like the nearby Copenhagen, but also not a small town. It felt like a middle-sized city. When I started to explore the whole city – by train, bus, and foot – I suddenly felt lost and not cosy at all. I did not feel the same way about Malmö as I did before. View over Malmö I always travel to Malmö via airplane to Copenhagen for certain reasons, one of them being the Öresund bridge; driving over the bridge from Copenhagen to Malmö is always a nice experience. During my last flight to Copenhagen, the wind and weather of that day forced the plane to fly over the coast of Malmö. The sky above the east sea was clear, so I was able to see what was going on at the ground. It took me a while to realize that the city I was looking at was Malmö – one can always identify the Turning Torso. As I was watching the city from above, it reminded me of Orvar Löfgren’s description of different perceptions of landscapes depending on the mode of transportation: from...

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