Prof. Hitchcock (BIOL) is a proponent of public participation in science because it allows non-scientists the opportunity to increase scientific literacy and “learn by doing.” On Tuesday, her Ecology class hosted a “Virtual Herring Count Data Sprint” as the first of many ’Deis Does Citizen Science events, intended to involve the greater Brandeis community in science, advocacy and education. 

Tuesday’s event gave University students a chance to participate in the work done by the Mystic River Watershed Association. MyRWA runs a variety of environmental advocacy projects, including monitoring yearly river herring migrations in the Mystic River. In the past twenty years, populations have decreased by 95 percent due to habitat destruction and pollution. The organization’s executive director, Patrick Herron, explained that the number of fish swimming upstream each year is an indicator of the river’s health; to monitor it, citizens volunteer to count the fish.

MyRWA runs primarily on volunteers: “If they have the data collected by volunteers, that gives them more leeway to do advocacy work,” said Liam Garvey ’18. MyRWA’s advocacy work includes writing letters opposing harmful development proposals and testifying at environmental hearings. 

To collect data, a camera records herring swimming through the fish ladder in the Mystic Lakes Dam, and volunteers count the fish from a viewing area or from videos posted online. According to Herron, about 3,500 unique visitors have counted fish on their website. The videos posted online are less than one minute long, and the fish counts shown range widely. To prevent error, each video is watched three times. 

Brandeis students contributed to a special part of the fish-counting project. MyRWA had noticed a disparity between counts done electronically and counts done in person — in-person viewers continually counted more fish. On Tuesday, student volunteers spent a few hours watching videos to count fish and evaluate biases in the data. 

Though ’Deis Does Citizen Science was a serious research event, it was also structured to be fun for participants. 

Students signed in by filling out a slip of paper, and the papers were regularly entered in a raffle. The studious quiet of the event was continually interrupted by cries of “next winner up!” 

Students helped organize the event. Cristen Weiss ’18 explained that Hitchcock’s Ecology class had been preparing for a few weeks, and each student was designated a shift to set up or clean up. 

Students not in Hitchcock’s class also came to the data sprint. Emily Kutrieb ’21 chose to participate because of the University’s ongoing SaveOhno sustainability competition; she explained that students gain points for attending events and making efforts to be environmentally friendly. 

A total of 55 students, faculty and staff participated in Tuesday’s project, watching an aggregate of 802 herring videos. At the end of the day, 13,681 fish had been counted at Brandeis for MyRWA.

The data sprint was sponsored by the Brandeis Library and the Biology Department.