Brief Chat with Dr. Romina King: Uncovering the depths and the power of citizen science
By Louella Losinio Dr. Romina King, an associate professor of geography at the University of Guam and associate director of the NASA Guam Space Grant program, is renowned for her groundbreaking contributions to the NASA Neural Multimodal Observation and Training Network, known as NASA NeMO-Net. This innovative project, honored with the prestigious NASA Group Achievement Award in 2022, is reshaping the understanding and protection of vital coral reef ecosystems. NeMO-Net is far from an ordinary app. It represents a cutting-edge tool employing citizen science to map coral reefs worldwide. King's pivotal role in this project has been instrumental in placing Guam's reefs, including the pristine marine protected areas of Piti and Tumon, on the global conservation map. Her team utilized drones and harnessed advanced sensing technology called "fluid lensing," developed by Dr. Ved Chirayath, who led the NeMO-Net initiative. The concept of citizen science entails the public's participation in providing, collecting, and sometimes analyzing data for various projects, with the extent of participation varying by project. For King, citizen science goes beyond data collection; it embodies community engagement and collaboration. It inspires people from diverse scientific backgrounds to become scientists in their own right. "In science, we collect data, and oftentimes, there is an overwhelming amount to collect and analyze. We can't be everywhere at the same time," King said.
This is where citizen science within the NeMO-Net app plays a crucial role. Upon installing NeMO-Net, users unlock a unique feature: the ability to colorize 2D and 3D scans of the ocean floor. This functionality enables users to distinguish coral from algae and sand, generating valuable data that contributes to understanding coral reef ecosystems. The data collected by app users aren't merely stored; they are transmitted to NASA's formidable supercomputer called “Pleiades.” Thanks to the contributions of citizen scientists, King said the supercomputer learns to distinguish between coral, sand and algae as users colorize these elements within the app. While humans currently excel in identifying coral, she said a higher number of participants results in more data points, enhancing the computer's classification accuracy. The NeMO-Net app serves as a bridge between science and the community. It not only advances our comprehension of coral reefs but also serves as an entry point for individuals to appreciate and support scientific research. King underscores the importance of ocean mapping, stating, "The whole point of the NeMO-Net app is that we have so much coral in this world, and our oceans are among the least mapped places. We've achieved extreme precision in mapping the moon and Mars, but in terms of the ocean, we have not yet reached that level." King said citizen science contributes a unique perspective to scientific endeavors. It extends the reach of monitoring efforts by enlisting the help of the community, who act as additional observation points. These individuals provide invaluable data that may not be accessible through conventional research methods.
"Scientists can have eyes everywhere, all the time. In terms of monitoring efforts, if you have citizen scientists or outdoor enthusiasts who engage in activities such as hiking and diving, they effectively become observation points. I may not be physically present, but if they observe something and report it, that can offer additional information," she noted. She cited the “Eyes on the Reef” initiative as a notable example, a community-based monitoring program where participants are trained to examine the reef and identify phenomena like coral bleaching. "If they notice white coral, they take pictures and submit them," she said. To maintain scientific standards in citizen science, King emphasizes the critical role of quality assurance and quality control. NeMO-Net engages expert marine biologists to review samples submitted by users. Prior to classifying data, participants must successfully complete a test to achieve a minimum accuracy rate of 90 percent, ensuring that their contributions meet scientific requirements. Looking forward, King envisions numerous applications for citizen science beyond coral reef mapping. From monitoring sea-level rise to studying coastal flooding, she foresees limitless possibilities for engaging local communities in addressing urgent environmental challenges.
"For NeMO-Net, this contributes to the goal of creating accurate maps of the world's coral reef ecosystem, benefitting not only Guam but the entire world. This constitutes a valuable contribution to natural resource management because how can you manage your resources if you don't know what you have or where they are, particularly in relation to potential threats?" she emphasized. King underscores the significance of equity in citizen science, urging scientists, research organizations, and groups to compensate participants when feasible and ensure that their contributions are duly recognized. Louella Losinio is a science communicator with the UOG Center for Island Sustainability and Sea Grant. She is also a freelance contributor to various media publications. Follow her on Instagram at @dotinthepacific. firstname.lastname@example.org