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Your Adventures Can Help Scientists

At a desk in a lab, a researcher longs for ice samples from a mountaintop. Across an ocean, on top of that mountain, hikers are taking selfies. Could they also be taking the samples?

Picture of Gregg Treinish

Gregg Treinish peers into ice on Lake Khovsgol, Mongolia while conducting wolverine research.

Photograph by Jim Harris

There are two kinds of people who go to hard-to-reach places: adventurers and scientists.

We often wonder about the adventures that scientists might have while getting their work done, but have you ever thought about the science that adventurers could be doing?

Gregg Treinish has.

In 2004, Gregg (now a National Geographic Emerging Explorer) spent a few months hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail. A few years later he spent two years hiking the Andes—the longest mountain chain in the world. He walked, he climbed, he slept under the stars, and when he was done he struggled with the thought that all that experience didn’t necessarily have much impact beyond making memories for him and his companions. He and hiking partner Deia Schlosberg were named National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, but he wanted to do more, and he knew others did too.

“This is one of the flagship efforts in ‘citizen science,’ where anyone can contribute to our scientific understanding of the world around us simply by doing what they like to do.”

Gregg decided to study for a degree in biology at Montana State University, which is basically Grizzly Adams reincarnated as a top-notch establishment for higher education. MSU is renowned for its ability to connect a passion for wilderness with the scientific and artistic skills that can help us better understand and conserve it.

That’s the spirit that he now carries out and spreads through his nonprofit organization, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.

ASC matches outdoor enthusiasts with scientists hungry for samples and observations from hard-to-reach places. This results in climbers coming back with ice samples in addition to mountaintop selfies, boatmen returning with bottles filled with the waters they sailed to test for the prevalence of microplastics, and cross-country skiers arriving home with DNA-rich scat samples from highly elusive wolverines (that project in particular was also supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society).

This is one of the flagship efforts in “citizen science,” where anyone can contribute to our scientific understanding of the world around us simply by doing what they like to do.

And that works in many dimensions. Buddhist monks make a point not of climbing mountains, but of staying in a monastery meditating. While they do that, they’re essentially performing an experiment in harnessing mental focus and attention. They’re sitting still, but they’re going places few others do. Now some have teamed up with scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to investigate brain function and the mind-body connection.

Picture of Gregg Treinish

Knowing he wasn’t the only adventurer interested in putting backcountry travels to constructive use for researchers, Gregg Treinish founded Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, which has now supported dozens of projects around the world.

Photograph by Alexandria Bombach

It’s important to remember that this is nothing new. When you read reports about climate change and strange weather patterns, the historical data that today’s data are compared to were collected over hundreds of years and across countless locations, where sailors, lighthouse keepers, farmers, and others kept detailed daily records of weather conditions useful to themselves and to scientists.

Space observation has similar contributors, and the legacy of amateur naturalists who have added to our knowledge of life on earth by recording the presence of birds and insects allowed migrations to be broadly understood long before miniaturized tracking devices enabled the precise records made today. Before he was president, Thomas Jefferson discovered and described a species of mammoth that disproved European ideas that animals in the New World were all stunted and small. Citizen scientists have successfully filled all roles in the scientific process.

Now even people simply out for a walk are able to contribute to scientific databases through projects like iNaturalist or the National Geographic Society and National Park Service’s annual BioBlitz, a 24-hour effort to get people in urban areas out to their nearest wild environments to identify and record every living species they come across.

Teams of scientists announce interesting and important results every day.

The operative word there is “teams.”

And you—and anyone else—can be a part of one.

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