Interview the Researchers: What was “Into the Night”?

In the following paragraphs, two PhD students – Gianfranco Gliozzo and Pen-Yuan Hsing – and I will tell you about a project we’ve been doing called “Into the Night”. We also worked with Valentine, Adele, Muki and Emma, who didn’t get a chance to write this with us – you can read Valentine’s post about Into the Night here, though.

Valentine, Pen, Alice and Gianfranco, with Adele taking the picture

We agreed we’d write this post “interview style” following some scicomm sessions in which we examined how science writers use this format for friendly communication. What kind of questions would a layperson ask if they heard of “Into the Night”?

What was the Into the Night project?

A three-month pilot project about excessive artificial light and its effects on glow-worms and human wellbeing. It was arranged by Earthwatch, UCL ExCiteS and North Carolina University, funded by NERC and a few others. It contained five major events, some internal scicomm training, external citizen science training, and a lot of citizen science and public engagement and recruitment. A lot to do in three months!

How did you hear about it? What were you doing before that, and what made you delay your PhD to join it?

Gianfranco: I was involved in citizen science already but I was more analysing citizen science rather than creating science. I participated in the earliest workshops at Earthwatch Europe where the first ideas about light and sound pollution firstly were discussed. I am at the writing stage of my thesis and I wanted to have an hands on the development of a citizen science project.

Pen: I help run a citizen science project as part of my PhD research so Into the Night seemed like a natural application of the skills I’ve been developing. Into the Night also benefits my PhD work because I was able to see through this project from beginning to end which informs how I can evaluate my citizen science project. I am very grateful to Muki for having me on this project and my supervisor Dr Phil Stephens for letting me do this!

Alice: I’m not doing a PhD, so it wasn’t that disruptive for me – though I had to step back a little from the other project I’m working on, and hope my colleagues there weren’t too annoyed. Muki asked me to be involved – in fact, he wrote me into the proposal to NERC – I think because of my background in astronomy and public science.

So the project was focussing on glow-worms and human wellbeing. That’s delightfully random. Why those? Tell me something about them.

Gianfranco: Those two elements are connected to our perception of space and wonder. My research is actually investigating how human well-being and nature are connected, how our identity in space and time is also shaped by the relations we have with the natural world. Therefore even being in touch with nature from far away, thinking about the wonders that make glow worms glowing contributes to our well-being.

Pen: I admit I thought glow-worms were somewhat random as well! However, I learned that they are great for engaging citizen scientists as our Earth Hour activity participants can attest to. It is fun to try and track them down in the night and there is cool glow-worm trivia that get people’s attention. For example, did you know that glow-worm larvae feed by taking small nibbles at snails many times their size, inject a venom that dissolves the snails, and the larvae would then drink the snail juice out of their shells?

glow worm from wildlife trust
A glow-worm, photographed by John Tyler for the Wildlife Trust

Alice: They’re what I’m learning to call “knowledge gaps”, basically – where there’s something not appearing much in the scientific journals yet. The effects of light pollution on birds is are already well studied, but not yet other creatures such as glow-worms. Also, we know that people feel better when connected with nature, and we know that wellbeing is diminished by exposure to excessive artificial light – but what happens between the two, such as nature in the dark?

What did you all do first?

Alice: First we met Adele Powell, our project manager, who commuted in from Earthwatch in Oxford every week. We had a lot of papers to share, proposals to read, planning to do. Also we had to do all the other essential things like setting up Basecamp to talk in, generating forms for expenses and getting Adele’s pass and so on. You forget about these things in the long run, but initially, there’s a lot of planning involved – especially the training day, with less than a month to try and recruit 60 guests.

Gianfranco: I did not join the project until it had already been running for a month, so I skipped all the initial steps. I hit the ground just before the Oxford engagement event helping to sort it out.

Why did you do all that bureaucratic stuff instead of just looking for glow-worms and doing experiments?

Alice: Because working in science doesn’t mean you just put on a lab coat and start playing. People fund us, and we need to give something back and give people the opportunity to get involved in what we’re doing.

Pen: Some stuff did seem like bureaucracy, but some was really useful! For example, using an online collaboration tool like Basecamp is great for moving a project forward at a steady pace and it kept me productive. Though as always I recommend non-proprietary services that better respect our digital freedoms, such as Riot instead.

Gianfranco: You are right, it is a nice and viable option. But at the end you remain alone and isolated and your learning is even slower if you don’t share. Participation in community efforts are always nicer to do and also enhancing your reach you may find someone likeminded that complements your skills and all together we contribute to change something.

So you had five big events? What were they?

Alice: A Citizen Science Training Day for early career researchers, an induction to Earthwatch for us, a two-day workshop at Earthwatch for citizen scientists to design activities, a glow-worm building workshop and finally a whole host of activities coinciding with Earth Hour – all between 2nd February and 25th March.

So, tell us about the training day …

Alice: You can read about that here, or this post will get even longer!!

Gianfranco: It is great to see how citizen science is evolving. I have been taking part in citizen science focused events in the last six years and I can see how the field is evolving towards maturity.

And then you had an induction to Earthwatch?

Alice: Yes, Adele arranged for us all to spend a day there – the day right after the training day….

Pen: This is a day I really looked forward to since I’ve always wanted to learn more about ecology and conservation work being done outside pure “academia”. Adele was amazing by arranging for us to meet and chat with EarthWatch people working on different projects and playing different roles. It was particularly interesting learning about EarthWatch’s corporate partnerships and getting their employees’ hands dirty doing citizen science. I suppose the biggest challenge is how to make a fundamental difference in the participants’ lifestyles and attitudes so they continue to make positive changes in the world.

Gianfranco: This was amazingly nice. We met people with a lot of enthusiasm and competences but also people with ground experiences in science engagement and working with stakeholders and corporate partners. You had the feeling that working in Earthwatch has to be very exciting once you deal with some project that matches your interests and abilities.

Next, you held a workshop. How was that different from the training day?

Alice: This time we didn’t recruit people in academia such as PhD students but a mixture of researchers and citizen scientists – people who have studied glow-worms or human wellbeing, perhaps in their own time. We spent two days at Earthwatch alternating between giving talks and interacting – there were many discussions and a lot of big pens and paper where everyone put their ideas done. I’m very grateful to Pen for giving my talk for me during this event, as I had laryngitis. (That itself provided ample hilarity for two days, I’ll tell you.) It was so good to get a range of approaches and types of expertise. You end up with so many more ideas that way. Never just listen to one demographic.

One of the many pages of thoughts generated at the Oxford workshop

And your fourth event was making artificial glow-worms ….

Alice learning how to sew with electronic thread

Pen: We wanted to test-run a citizen science glow-worm survey during the Earth Hour network of events. However, glow-worms only do their glowing during the summer, so for Earth Hour we had to use “fake” ones.

At first, I was just going to attach LED lights to batteries and scatter them around the woods for our participants to find. However, Muki suggested going with a more flexible approach where whatever we used for making the glow-worms can be adapted and built upon for other purposes. So I researched ways to build artificial glow-worms with Arduinos and some basic electronics. This is when we thought we might as well hold a Arduino workshop where we get everyone to help make those glow-worms and learn electronics!

For more details,  please look at this post-workshop blog post

Gianfranco: this was so amazing, people came to learn, share, enjoy. People from a wide age range all together to sew circuits and to make them working. I hope there will be more workshops like that. Thanks to Pen!

And finally, Earth Hour!

Alice: Between us, we led three events, while other volunteers with whom we’d made contact led others (thank you very much to all of you) – 8 events attended by 167 members of the public in total! One got into their local newspaper. Valentine and I went to Burgess Park for the Globe at Night app, a listening exercise, a small fire, food and drink and a tour of the sky. Gianfranco and Emma went to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for a guided walk where people learned about light pollution. Pen, Muki and Adele went to Wytham Woods in Oxford with the artificial glow-worms and light pollution apps. And Pen, Valentine, Gianfranco and Adele developed a “wellbeing” questionnaire for people to do in conjunction with Earth Hour.

“In conjunction with”? Do you mean it wasn’t an Earth Hour event?

Alice: Well, we used Earth Hour as an opportunity for a bit more darkness and to help with publicity. But Earth Hour wasn’t created by us at all. It was created by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Singapore to encourage people to switch off their lights for an hour to raise awareness of how many fossil fuels are burned to keep lights on. That’s not the same as light pollution.

Fortunately, they were very supportive of our project. But we had to be respectful. Imagine doing loads of work to get a campaign going, and then after a few years when it’s taking off, someone else piggybacks on all your hard work, takes advantage of all the publicity you’ve generated and then sends out a message that wasn’t yours. So we explained that we were joining Earth Hour for our final public engagement event, but it wasn’t the same thing – and we directed people to their website to check it out, too.

Gianfranco: Yes, Earth Hour was the eclipse that allowed us to investigate the sun’s crown. While ours was not an Earth Hour event Into the night is really close to Earth Hour’s aims. The excessive light is also energy waste, it is disturbing the balanced relation between us and the rest of nature. We are part of nature and when we cross some limits we make a bad service to nature and to ourself. To investigate our connectedness with nocturnal nature and the starry sky we organized a walk along the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park that lit off the Orbit and reduced the lighting of the London Stadium.


Alice’s Globe at Night adaptation – lit up by a portable star projector!

Oh well. What was your favourite thing?

Gianfranco: During the Earth Hour I loved sharing experiences and knowledge with the other participants. It is the blending that makes citizen science so interesting. You share an interest, you meet like minded people that have their specific background and life experiences and then you share, interact, learn and very often have fun.

Valentine and binoculars
Giving binoculars a try in the middle of London

Alice: For me, the marvellous progress – I began the evening by asking “How many people have heard of citizen science?” and one raised their hand. An hour after that, everyone had tried Globe at Night (with varying success and enjoyment, to be fair – I think that site could be made a lot more mobile-friendly, and I might write to them with some suggestions, but it was a great start. And then another hour after that I heard a lady say, “I’ve seen four of Jupiter’s moons! I NEVER thought I’d do something like that!” Everyone was beaming in the firelight. They had had such a great evening, and they all wanted to take a leaflet with more information.

The Shard from Burgess Park
The Shard at night, seen from Burgess Park. They turned off their lights for Earth Hour, 8:30-9:30pm, then switched them back on.

I also had a terrific time one afternoon training my colleagues in how to use Stellarium and giving a quick tour of the sky. Jupiter was going to be in the east and Orion setting in the west. Just for once, all the stuff I usually just chat about became useful!

What was the hardest thing?

Alice: That it was tiring and there was a lot to think about, and sometimes I couldn’t keep track of everything and was afraid of stressing out or letting down my colleagues. You expect when taking part in a research project that you’ll have to study difficult things – turned out I found all the concepts fine, though I wish I’d had time to do some more reading!

Tell me something you’ve learned. Will it apply to your PhD?

Alice: I learned a huge amount more about running events in collaboration with others, and a lot on the side about glow-worms and human wellbeing. Even though I’ve been involved heavily in astronomy for about ten years, I hadn’t really considered these aspects on the side. When I first got into astronomy, Chris Lintott told me, “You can always spot an astronomer because they always look up when they go outside.” Now I’ve started doing this in daytime too. I try to make sure I get some light by day and dark by night. And I think I’ve learned a lot about sharing this with the public and with any students I teach in the future, from the night sky to scicomm. I’ve a wider range of things to share now.

In more academic terms, I’m very excited that I’ll be involved in writing a paper as I haven’t done that yet. And I’m even more in love with working in academia generally. Although I know PhDs are hard, I’m really hoping one comes up in this department that I can do.

Gianfranco: The project is not really connected to my research but it complements greatly my research education. I have seen how to manage and organize events, involve stakeholders, build relations and envisage collaborations. I am now less afraid of public engagement that is a very important part of my disciplinary background. I come from a planning education and I am now investigating the analysis of the territory to elicit people’s connectedness. The most effective way to design policy and to make them effective are always through a well planned and organized stakeholder engagement. After this experience I have now had a first taste of it.

Pen: I agree with Alice that this was a great opportunity to practice collaborating with others on not just event organisation, but putting on a series of events as part of a larger project.

Peek 2017-03-15 17-07
Arduino glow-worm workshop participants in action. Thank you for coming!

As for my PhD, it was a bunch of ecologists (including me) who wanted to start a citizen science project. While I have always been heavily involved in science outreach, none of us on the team have run a citizen science project before and a big missing piece of the puzzle was how to better evaluate our project. My experience with Into the Night will hopefully provide that piece and help us understand how the MammalWeb project (as part of my PhD) is really doing and how to do it better in the future.

I am also grateful for the chance to know everyone from Into the Night, ExCites, and EarthWatch. Everyone has been so nice and encouraging!

Alice: Thank you for reading! It was so good to share everything with you. Do you think my next aim should be to learn to write shorter blogposts?


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