By Eelisa Jones
The field of citizen science breaks down the notion that an academic degree is required in order to be influential in the scientific world.
Citizen science expands throughout numerous fields, placing the power of discovery and collaboration in the hands of anyone who seeks it.
Thanks to our local Urban Ecology Center (UEC) sites, Milwaukee’s nature-loving children, adults, and elderly don’t have far to travel in order to begin their own careers as citizen scientists.
“Citizen Science is a relatively new field embedded in academia, but it has been happening for thousands of years,” said Tim Vargo, manager of research and citizen science at the Urban Ecology Center.
“Even before academics, anyone who was exploring the world was doing what we would call citizen science.”
Vargo noted Charles Darwin and early members of the Catholic Church as examples of historical citizen scientists. We can also add Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx (who independently learned economics), the Wright brothers, and countless present-day individuals to this still-growing list of self-taught and amateur scientists.
This week, The Courier had the opportunity to speak with Vargo to learn a little bit more about his history with citizen science and how the UEC has begun involving Milwaukee residents in the field.
Vargo was born in southwest Milwaukee, near the Zablocki neighborhood. He attended Rufus King High School, was a biology undergrad at Perdue University, and completed his graduate degree at Macalester College.
After receiving his master’s, Vargo participated in research projects outside of the United States. While working abroad, he noticed a strange dynamic between researchers and those who were not involved in academia.
“I found a huge disconnect between research and community,” Vargo said. “We academics were just coming and leaving.” Dissatisfied with this status quo, he soon found a small group of people called citizen scientists.
These individuals consisted of non-professional scientists who performed research and analysis outside of the “ivory towers” of academia.
Vargo spent time in Costa Rica, learning more about citizen science, then moved back to Milwaukee. In 2004, he joined the Urban Ecology Center.
At that time, the citizen science program had been running for about 2 or 3 years.
Today, Vargo continues to work to expand citizen science participation throughout Milwaukee.
He’s also an active participant in the newly-formed Citizen Science Association – an organization aiming to further incorporate citizen scientists into established fields.
“We’ve set up a few workshops internally at the Urban Ecology Center for training. We have been connecting some participants with professionals,” Vargo said.
“If you’re not trained in academia, where would you get that training from? That’s something that we’re working on.”
Vargo said that some the biggest participants in the citizen science program are afterschool students.
“It’s a pretty amazing group of kids,” he said. “They have presented their work all over the country.”
The Urban Ecology Center has locations at Riverside Park (1500 E. Park Pl.), Washington Park (1859 N. 40th St.), and Menomonee Valley (3700 W. Pierce St.). You can reach their Washington Park office by calling (414) 344-5460.
You can also find out more information about the Urban Ecology Center at their website: http://urbanecologycenter.org/.