Dr. Sara Paull
Post-Doctoral Fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research
“The mosquito data collected by citizen scientists through GLOBE Observer will be very useful for helping me to gain a more detailed understanding of how temperature and rainfall influence the beginning of the mosquito season and the risk of West Nile Virus transmission.”
Where are you from: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri
What do you do: I am finishing up a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and I will start as an Assistant Professor at the Colorado School of Public Health in the Environmental and Occupational Health Department in the fall of 2017. I will be teaching public health students and conducting research related to how the environment influences the spread of infectious diseases in humans and animals.
What projects are you involved with and how do they relate to GLOBE Observer:
Most of my current projects are focused on better predicting variations in human West Nile virus (WNV) risk across space and over time. West Nile is transmitted between birds and Culex spp. mosquitoes, and humans become infected (and occasionally very sick) when they are bitten by an infectious mosquito. I am primarily studying two of the environmental factors that influence WNV risk: the weather and the bird hosts.
The mosquito data collected by citizen scientists through GLOBE Observer will be very useful for helping me to gain a more detailed understanding of how temperature and rainfall influence the beginning of the mosquito season and the risk of WNV transmission.
I am also collecting mosquitoes and using molecular techniques to determine what species of bird host they recently fed on. I use that information along with bird surveys to determine which bird species are the most important for transmitting WNV and if certain behaviors (like roosting overnight in large groups) make them more or less likely to transmit WNV.
What was your career path:
I did not always want to be a scientist. As a little girl, I loved animals, so I wanted to be a veterinarian. I also loved reading books, and when I got to college, I actually started out as an English major. Then in my second year, I was flipping through the course catalogue trying to decide what classes to take, and I noticed that all of the Ecology classes sounded like a lot of fun. Most of the labs involved canoeing, hiking or fishing, which seemed pretty great to me. I decided to change my major to Ecology and after a lot of hard but fun work, I graduated with a degree in Ecology.
After college, I remembered how I had wanted to be a veterinarian, and I worked in a veterinary clinic for a few years to decide if I wanted to go to vet school. But, I realized that I missed the adventure of doing science, so I decided to combine my interests in Ecology and health, and go to graduate school to become a disease ecologist (someone who studies the interactions between the environment and infectious disease spread). During graduate school, I studied a parasite that is transmitted from snails to frogs to birds, and can cause frogs to grow extra legs when they are infected! After that I worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and then at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, studying the causes of year-to-year variation in West Nile virus risk. I plan to continue that work at the Colorado School of Public Health this fall.
Why is citizen science important to you:
By creating the opportunity for a hands-on connection with science, the process of citizen science encourages a scientifically aware and engaged public that is better equipped to handle the challenges of the future. Citizen science makes science accessible and inspires scientists to make their work understandable to a broader audience. As a scientist, it also allows me to generate datasets that would be either prohibitively expensive or logistically impossible to collect otherwise. I hope that by making scientific discovery an everyday public activity, we will encourage more young people to consider science as the adventurous process that it is, rather than a boring subject to be memorized from a dusty textbook.
What advice do you have for people just getting in to citizen science:
Find projects that spark an interest for you. Citizen science opportunities are increasingly common, and there are a large number of apps and websites for a wide variety of projects. The more excited you are about the topic, the more motivated you will be to contribute.
What do you do for fun:
My favorite hobbies are trail running, rock climbing, traveling and watching my two preschoolers make discoveries of their own.
Who/What inspires you:
I am inspired by the hope that what I do will make a positive change in the world.