11/07/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Crowdfunding Science That's Near and Dear to My Heart

The Internet has changed many things, creating a virtual landscape that is without the literal boundaries that once hindered our ability to communicate. In addition to bridging social, cultural, and even economic gaps, the Internet has become an incubator for entrepreneurs of all types, increasingly opting to go with the public Internet donation funding model widely known as crowdfunding.

Scientists and science educators have followed suit, and you can currently find any number of science-related projects to sponsor. You can find these projects on some of the general crowdfunding sites, like Kickstarter or Fundly, or on science specific sites like Rockethub, Petridish, or Microryza.

As a scientist who has depended entirely on major grants to fund my projects -- a painstaking process with a low success rate -- I became extremely interested in the concept of crowdfunding for science research and education. If executed correctly, these campaigns were often met with successful outcomes, and usually because they provided a context that was in some way familiar to their funders, including me. Because of my personal life experiences, I am very partial to projects focused on education in low-income neighborhoods, as well as those that study the processes of and treatments for drug addiction.

One of those projects is the recently launched campaign from the BioBus, a state-of-the-art mobile microscopy lab housed in a retrofitted 1974 San Francisco transit bus with a green roof (and it's carbon neutral!). The purpose of this campaign is to raise enough funding to meet daily costs should an underserved and underfunded school wish to have the BioBus visit and enlighten the student body with science.

While I do have a personal preference for designing experiments using cool microscopes, hopefully involving lasers, the BioBus campaign is familiar to me in another way. Having grown up in the Norwood section of the Bronx, I was one of those kids who went to an underserved and underfunded school in a low-income area. Our music curriculum consisted of a weekly sing-a-long with the church organ player in our gymnasium, and the art class was basically coloring and gluing construction paper. As for science, the situation was even bleaker -- we had textbooks, often tattered and outdated, but had little hands-on opportunities. If we wanted more, it was up to us to find it. Obviously that left a lot of kids out of luck. For a kid like me (a purebred science geek), this was so incredibly disappointing.

I don't want any kid to miss out on science because they don't have access to certain academic resources. While I eventually ended up in science, I wonder how many smart kids fell through the cracks because they didn't have the right opportunities (or any opportunity for that matter). The BioBus Fundly campaign is designed to help close the gap when it comes to making sure all kids have a chance to truly experience science. They've designed this campaign to specifically help schools that are in low-income areas by raising a fund to help cover the costs associated with operating and staffing the BioBus.

What's great about this campaign is that individual schools can set up their own funding page, and try to help raise money through their local channels. If a school wants to participate, they are welcome to campaign toward a fundraising goal that is based around what they can conceivably pay for a BioBus visit. The perks for donors include an intense satisfaction as well as a tax deduction, and I highly recommend supporting their cause.

Another crowdfunding campaign that I believe to be worthy lies in a very different area of the space-time continuum. Dubbed Crowdsourcing Discovery on Rockethub, this team of researchers, led by the evolutionary pharmacologist Ethan Perlstein, aims to learn how amphetamine drugs work in the brain. If successfully funded, Perlstein and his colleagues will use a tried and true radiolabeling technique to map exactly where in the brain amphetamines get deposited. This will provide great insight into how these drugs elicit their effects on a cellular level -- a sorely needed concept required to speed up the search for new therapies in brain diseases and drug addiction.

The idea is that, by learning which parts of the brain accumulate amphetamines, we will be able to learn how they do what they do. This will help scientists better understand treating brain disorders where amphetamines are used as a treatment, but also, it could very well help scientists better understand how we become addicted to methamphetamines. And this is where Crowdsourcing Discovery tugs at my heartstrings.

I, myself, have never directly fallen victim to the intense chokehold of drug addiction, but someone very close to me has. I struggle, on a daily basis, to cope with the effects of drug addiction, and have even fallen into a state of depression at times as a result. I've witnessed an individual self-destruct, unfortunately taking down those around them in the process. It has been very painful, and if I can do anything to help better understand how addiction happens, and from that, provide better means by which a person can be treated, I am totally and sincerely game.

Crowdfunding Discovery is more than midway through their campaign, which ends on November 18th, having raised approximately 50 percent of their goal. I am excited to see how this turns out (and hope for their success) for many reasons. For one, this is the first time that a biomedical research project has turned to crowdfunding to help support the costs of an experiment, and is therefore pioneering in some regards. Secondly, the implications for addiction research are there, which I am sure is something that affects so many in our society, our youth in particular.

Overall, I suppose crowdfunding science is not that different from donating to a charity. With these two examples, The Biobus and Crowdfunding Discovery, we see a means by which we can help those in need. Perhaps the difference is that your money is going directly to a cause, and not into a system with little accountability, and that's how I prefer my donations to work. Maybe you will feel the same.

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