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Team Work Helps Overcome Environmental Challenges

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Understanding our environment is of key importance to conserving it. Monitoring for change, both good and bad, is therefore important to identify existing and developing issues - but what happens when the area you need to monitor is remote and hard to access? A pioneering not-for-profit organization, Adventure Scientists, founded by explorer and conservationist Gregg Treinish, seeks to unite skilled adventurers looking to add purpose to their travels with scientists keen to receive valuable data that can help them address environmental challenges.

We spoke to Andrew Howley (AH), Communications Director for Adventure Scientists and himself a keen outdoor enthusiast, to learn more about the initiative and the impact their projects are having in the scientific community and beyond.

KS: Where did the initial idea come from that adventurers could provide assistance in gathering valuable scientific data and material from the far-flung corners of the globe?

Our founder, Gregg Treinish, had undertaken some epic adventures of his own, hiking the Appalachian Trail, and traversing the length of the Andes. After these treks he was filled with a sense of accomplishment and inspiration, but it was only personal––he felt a yearning for his experiences to be connected to something bigger. He then realized that scientists and conservationists were themselves yearning for access to the remote places he and other adventurous travelers were coming in and out of all the time. He knew that connecting those worlds would give much needed data to researchers, and purpose to adventures, and that together they could have a powerful impact on conservation.

KS: How do you decide which candidates are suitable and what type of training will they be given prior to their expedition?

Candidates fill out an application that asks for past wilderness experiences, and demonstration of the skills to survive and thrive in these remote environments while still being able to follow rigorous scientific protocols for data collection. Once ok'ed they undergo online training and tests which must be passed at 100% accuracy in order to be accepted. The training includes background information on the topic of study as well as detailed descriptions of how to collect the data.

KS: It’s easy to see why scientists might be eager to be involved in an “Adventure Scientists” project, but how do the adventurers benefit from participating in the scheme?

As our founder Gregg Treinish himself experienced, often adventurers feel a deep desire for their accomplishments to have a greater impact than just a personal one. They also get interested in the stories of the places they go and have a desire to get to know and experience them in more dimensions. Often volunteers tell us that by participating they learned to see the world or a particular environment through a whole new lens, or that it opened their eyes to a world that was all around them but which they hadn't perceived before. There's also a growing awareness among outdoor athletes and adventurers that the places they love to play are in danger of disappearing if we do not work to understand and conserve them.

KS: In what ways have past studies benefited from the materials gathered? Are there any achievements that particularly stand out for you that would not have been possible without Adventure Scientists?

There have been many great achievements. A few that really stick out are that our Microplastics Initiative, which involved thousands of volunteers collecting water samples around the world, resulted in the largest and most extensive dataset on microplastic pollution in the world. Our work with Rusty Rodriguez searching for extreme plant life revealed the presence of fungi that help these plants survive and thrive in environments they couldn't on their own. He has been able to use these same fungi to increase the yield of agriculture in marginal environments in India and elsewhere. Another project with Harvard Medical School had volunteers collecting insect and scat samples around the world in the search for the genes responsible for antibiotic resistance. The first phase of the project narrowed the search from thousands of possible genes to just 126. The next phase will take it even further.

KS: What are the main challenges you face from both the scientific and adventuring aspects?

First off, from the scientific side, the most important challenge is to get useable, reliable, research-quality data. We choose our scientific partners carefully and work with them closely to ensure that when volunteers follow our protocols, they will gather data of the highest caliber. Beyond that, our greatest challenge is getting the word out to the right places, so that researchers and conservationists become aware of the data collection possibilities that are available. A small lab, strapped for time, cash, and headcount, often isn't even thinking on the huge scale that we can work at. Another aspect is ensuring that the work we do is necessary and will have a real-world impact for conservation or human health. We don't just want to collect data for data's sake––we want every bit of material gathered or every measurement taken to bring solutions to humanity's greatest challenges closer to our grasp.

For the adventurers, the greatest challenge is patience. On an expedition there will be a time and a place to collect data, and it has to be done right or not at all. The safety of the volunteer is of the highest importance, but then comes the quality of the data. After a trip, there's the patience required to wait for the next opportunity. There are far more volunteers with the skills and passion ready for the training and assignment than we can currently serve, and there may be a pause between projects that require any particular skill, such as skiing or seafaring.

KS: Could you tell us a bit about some of your current projects?

Our two most active current projects involve building a genetic database to identify the source and species of suspicious timber and thus battle illegal logging (the Tracking Timber project), and surveying butterflies in the backcountry to indicate overall biodiversity, and to help guide effective management of forests (the Conserving Biodiversity: Pollinators project). In the coming months we also plan to broaden the search for the genes responsible for antibiotic resistance and for beneficial fungus that can improve agriculture around the world, with several other projects taking shape now.

Andrew Howley was speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.