Social Media Becomes Research-Fund Source

By Beal, Tom | AZ Daily Star, September 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Social Media Becomes Research-Fund Source


Beal, Tom, AZ Daily Star


Ants are social insects, Why, if they had fingers, they would probably have iPads.

So it's somehow appropriate that at least two researchers at the University of Arizona are raising money through social-media sites to study aspects of ant behavior .

It's a mushrooming phenomenon in these cash-strapped times -- crowd-sourcing to replace dwindling federal dollars for basic research.

It's so new, however, that UA administrators aren't prepared to deal with it and won't allow faculty and staff to take advantage of it until they devise a way to defray the "indirect costs" of supervising research.

For the two graduate researchers in Anna Dornhaus' social-insect lab, the small amounts of money they hope to raise on the Internet site would buy a computer processor for analyzing recorded ant behavior and buy time on the UA's most precise microscopes to examine ant brains.

Nicole Fischer studies the division of labor in colonies of temnothorax rugatulus, an ant she collects at about 7,000 feet in altitude in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Fischer, a second-year graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, wants to explore the link between physiological differences in the neural systems of her ants and their behavior.

She needs a close-up look at "their little, tiny brains."

The UA has the tools in a central research core, but it costs $34 an hour for time on the confocal microscope and $75 an hour for the electron microscope.

"It's frustrating to have these questions that are so interesting and to be held back by something so trivial as money," said Fischer.

Fischer needs to raise $2,120 in the next two months.

Sarah Bengston takes a wider view of the same ant species, seeking to understand behavior at the colony level, to find out why some colonies are risk-taking and aggressive while other ants huddle together in their safe, well-defended colonies, venturing out only when necessary.

Bengston pursues her colonies as far north as Seattle, driving, camping and crawling through leaf litter to watch her ants.

In the lab, she uses digital cameras to record their wanderings. She needs more computer power and specialized software to track her ants' wanderings. She has 40 more days to raise $3,200.

Bengston and Fischer have both sought funding for their research from the National Science Foundation, and both recently received honorable mentions for their proposals.

That's the reason the website microryza invited them to submit their research for crowd-funding, Bengston said. …

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