MDI Biological Laboratory
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MDI Bio Lab’s Alexis Garretson Wins Data Science Award

  • June 8, 2023

Multi-faceted scientist unlocks new uses for Anecdata citizen-science project

A data specialist with MDI Bio Lab’s Community Health Laboratory, Alexis Garretson has been instrumental in growing usage of its Anecdata.org citizen-science online data portal, which includes hundreds of active projects and more than 100,000 observations uploaded.

The Robert G. Raskin scholarship is awarded annually by Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) to an individual who has an interest in community evolution of Earth science data systems.

“I’m thrilled. I’m really excited and honored,” Garretson says.

ESIP is a professional society that focuses on the stewardship, management and community oversight of data in the earth and environmental sciences. “As a community, ESIP members develop data standards and ensure that the community data and repositories are well curated, which are things that I care about,” Garretson says.

Anecdata is a project of MDI Bio Lab’s Community Health Laboratory, headed by Jane Disney, Ph.D. It provides a ready-made platform to meet data collection, management and sharing needs of citizen science project leaders and participants around the world.

Projects are as varied as human curiosity and concern: monitoring pollution in Viet Nam; documenting roadkill-prone highways in the U.S.; helping Maine teachers and students track residential wells that are being sampled for potential toxins, such as arsenic and PFAS chemicals.

Garretson’s first exposure to Anecdata came in 2020 when she volunteered with an algae sampling project in Frenchman Bay that used Anecdata for recording and analyzing its samples. She joined the Disney Lab in 2021 and most recently has been working to bring Anecdata’s resources into major international public repositories, such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

Garretson says the effort has added to the list of Anecdata’s users a significant number of academic researchers who were not involved in the original data collection (and added to the number of citations the resource is receiving in research publications).

In one recent study in Nature Communications, Anecdata aided a meta-analysis of climate change effects on global species distributions, while another, “Vulnerability of protected areas to future climate change, land use modification, and biological invasions in China” in the journal Ecological Applications, looked at the value of habitat protection for protecting species survival in China under climate change.  The program’s most singular quality, Garretson says, may be the variety of its subjects, which include an array of under-studied taxa.

“Our citizen scientists have on-the-ground information about where those species are,” she says. “And in some cases, we’re really increasing the number of records out there. For instance, there is an endangered whiptail stingray in the Caribbean; our dataset has some of the only photos from the wild that are available to researchers right now.”

Anecdata’s first-ever citation focused on land snail diversity, she notes. “There’s all sorts of amazing stuff that we would never have thought could be done with the data, or that the community collectors were planning to do with the data,” Garretson says. “Anecdata lets these data find a new life, even after the projects that were originally targeting the data collection might have closed or changed shape.”

Disney says Garretson is an invaluable member of the Anecdata team. “Her background spans the fields of citizen science and data science, a powerful combination for advancing and amplifying the impact of projects on the Anecdata platform,” Disney says. “She has enabled many citizen science datasets on Anecdata to be found by professional and citizen scientists alike, who are using the data to advance and publish research.”

And Garretson’s work reaches beyond Anecdata’s citizen-science mission. As a Tufts University Ph.D. candidate embedded at Jackson Laboratories, she is scrutinizing community-level genomic change in mouse populations. The work combines multidisciplinary expertise with high-performance computing to seek insights on the interplay between environmental factors and genetic variations.

Beth Dumont advises Garretson’s doctoral research and works with her as an assistant professor at the Tufts Graduate School of Biological Sciences and an associate professor in The Jackson Laboratory.

“Alexis is the full package: she’s a talented writer and oral communicator; has strong analytical and programming skills; and is incredibly hard-working, productive, and scientifically imaginative,” Dumont says. “To boot, she is incredibly generous with her time, providing instruction and advice in data science to junior colleagues and peers.”

Adding to Garretson’s expanding record of civic-minded accomplishment in the scientific world, she and two other students founded the Tufts Computational Biology Club, a student-led organization dedicated to providing computational and data science resources to students across several Tufts campuses. campuses.

“I repurpose neglected data to investigate how communities change over time, using a combination of genomics and Earth science methods,” she says. “I believe we have a responsibility to the public to maximize data use to understand the natural world and our place in it.”

ESIP’s Executive Director, Susan Shingledecker, says Garretson’s work across disciplines is exemplary.

“Alexis Garretson has an incredible attention to detail but is also able to grasp the bigger picture,” Shingledecker says. “She is a wonderful example of a researcher who bridges Earth science, health, open access, computing and citizen science.”

The Raskin award includes a $5,000 scholarship and an invitation to deliver a talk at ESIP’s meeting in Burlington, Vermont, this summer.