Counting citizen science, and making citizen scientists count

Physics professor tackles science-laureate-like role at local science centre.

Jennifer Pascoe - 09 March 2018

Gregory Sivakoff believes that to continue moving society forward, scientists need to engage the community to contribute to the cause.

"Our entire civilization is strongly based on the advances of sciences," said Sivakoff, associate professor in the Department of Physics best known for his work exploring black holes. "It's very easy to forget how much work has gone and continues to go into advancing science to develop our future. So to me, it's important to promote science as a way to ensure our civilization continues to make the scientific advances that will benefit the next generation."

Sivakoff was just named the inaugural science fellow at the TELUS World of Science Edmonton (TWoSE). Through this role over the coming year, he will focus on delivering public programming in astronomy and beyond as a way to give people an opportunity to get involved in science projects in the local community and around the world, developing an interest in space beyond a pop culture phenomenon or casual interest.

"Citizen scientists are increasingly involved in astronomical research, and the universe is really a rich environment for discovery. It's the largest stage we have. And there are organizations that enable people with relatively modest equipment--sometimes even just their eyes--to become part of the scientific research scene."

Sivakoff counts the opportunity he had to get involved in research at a young age as key to holding his interest and inspiring his own journey through academia, including a prestigious Fulbright scholarship.

"I've always appreciated the ability to get involved with research earlier or differently than you might normally expect."

As for the initial seed of inspiration that spurred Sivakoff on to taking the chance with research, he credits his home environment as creating fertile ground for a scientific mind, something he sees being made possible by organizations like TWoSE.

"Science has always been a part of my family. I always enjoyed science and math in school, and my dad and I had a conversation when I was about to go to to college. He said, 'You like science, you like math. Space is big. You ought to be able to find your place in it.'"

The senior Sivakoff certainly nailed that prediction. A self-described "acronym fiend"--(in)famous in the field of astronomy for coming up with project names as tantalizing as MAVERICS and JACPOT--Sivakoff is part of roughly a dozen national and international radio telescope research collaborations.

Sivakoff will be sharing his expertise as a guest in the forthcoming Black Holes 101 massive open online course, launching later this year out of the University of Alberta's Faculty of Science, free to anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world.

"Black holes are dominant in popular culture. At the same time, they're just a great vehicle for talking about general aspects of astronomy and physics and getting people further enmeshed in science."