Thanks to all of you who have signed up and submitted data for Earthworm Watch which has seen a surge over the summer period with an increase in the spread of data points. We will be sending out a summary of the Spring/Summer season soon. In the meantime, I’d like to introduce you to the newest member of our team, Vicki Shennan who is the Citizen Science Programme Co-ordinator at The Natural History Museum. I interviewed Vicki to find out more about her role and what her interests her about citizen science and earthworms…

What is your role on the Earthworm Watch team?

I am involved in getting more people to take part in Earthworm Watch and other citizen science projects at The Natural History Museum. As Vicki recently explained in ‘taking research out of the lab’ citizen science is people powered research, as scientists collaborate with members of the public to gather data to answer big questions around issues like climate change that they can’t tackle alone. My job involves finding new ways to get people taking part in real science research. This means I help to run existing projects, from planning events and online communication, to exploring ways to reach new audiences and developing new projects.

How did you become interested in studying Earthworms?

A few years ago I had a long distance collaboration with scientists in America (find out more at that study the human microbiome and how we interact with bacteria around us, including the bacteria of our homes, pets and soil in our garden. I am fascinated by this hidden world around us and discovering the importance of things we take for granted, such as bacteria that help sustain life by digesting our food and synthesising vitamins for the body. Bacteria also have huge potential for scientific exploration from helping to make the next antibiotics to cleaning up toxic waste; some can even produce solid gold!

Earthworms and their bacteria work symbiotically with fungus in the soil to unlock nutrients which form the building blocks of new life, and I find this ecosystem interdependence really interesting. Understanding these systems means that we could learn how to grow more nutritious food and support ecosystems from the ground up, helping to conserve biodiversity.  

What got you into a career in science in the first place and how did this lead to your current role?

I have had quite an unconventional path into science as my background is actually in art and making things. I was fascinated by science as a child, collecting astronomy books, studying cloud formations and making bug hotels, as I was always curious about the world around me and how things worked. Unfortunately science lessons at school didn’t feed this curiosity as we often had to copy experiments from old textbooks and try to get the same outcome, so I lost interest. The art department allowed me freedom to experiment and create new things, studying objects in detail and learning how to make models to design new things.

I loved the alchemy of glass, ceramics and metal, so I trained as a jeweller. Scientific magazines and documentaries gave me stories that I could feed into my work, to connect people with topical scientific issues. This eventually led to collaborations where I worked with scientists to make artwork that could bring their research to life, which is how I came to The Natural History Museum.

What interests you about earthworms and the project Earthworm Watch?

The data from Earthworm Watch feeds into a bigger research project called PREDICTS which studies how local biodiversity responds to human actions, and uses this data to map global models to predict future biodiversity changes. I’m interested in how understanding one species can help us understand the bigger picture of biological communities and how we are affecting them.

What is about science that interests or excites you?

Through science we are continually growing our knowledge of the world around us - I find that really exciting. Understanding how things work, from whole ecosystems down to genetic coding, means that we can improve them and solve problems such as species decline or illness and disease. 

How do you think science and scientists are regarded by the public?

Scientists are part of the public! I think there can be a misconception that science is just something that scientists do rather than something that anyone can be involved with or have an interest in. I think collaborations and debate between scientists and society are the best way to tackle some of the biggest problems we face, such as illness, global food security, pandemics and climate change. Rather than just being a profession, science is something that affects us all on a daily basis.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

I’ve been lucky to be able to do lots of different things, from artistic collaborations with scientists to a research trip to Iceland to study Arctic microbes and having a ‘microbial music’ project featured on the US National Geographic channel. Starting my role in Citizen Science at The Natural History Museum has been a brilliant opportunity to find new ways to get people involved in real science.

If you could choose another career in science, what would it be and why?
That’s a tough call but I would probably work in science exhibition programming as I am interested in experimenting with ways to communicate complex ideas and design experiences. If I were to go down a more scientific path, I’d be a microbiologist as I’m fascinated by microscopic life.

Earthworm Watch has been developed by Earthwatch (Europe)The Natural History Museum and the Earthworm Society of Britain to better understand the ecosystem benefits of earthworms. Earthworm Watch allows the public to help scientists map their abundance, better understand the human impact on their populations and with further research measure the services these ‘ecosystem engineers’ provide.  If you want to get involved, then sign up here, or if you have received a pack, but yet to do it, please complete your survey as soon as possible as the Spring/Summer season is coming to an end. If you haven’t submitted your data, then please submit data here.