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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The missing link in the fight against Ebola
Oct21

The missing link in the fight against Ebola

Understanding the challenges of the Ebola crisis through the eyes of anthropologists

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