Combing citizen science, ecology, and computer science: Meet Jessie Cappadonna

Photo of JessieJessie is currently a PhD student at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. Her research is on how to engage people with citizen science, focusing on environmental acoustics using collaborative design strategies. Jessie is also a management committee member of the Australian Citizen Science Association, and is on the BirdLife Australia’s Southern Queensland branch committee. Jessie has a passion for citizen science, ecology and sound, which she looks very forward to sharing with you! Come meet Jessie on August 20th at her soapbox where she will be talking about “Bioacoustic Bonanza: Finding animals through sound”. You will be shown the amazing world of animal acoustics, and you can get involved as a citizen scientist if you like!

SS: Jessie, how did you get to your current position?

JC: In 2014, I had the good fortune of volunteering at a Queensland Ornithological Conference where members of my current computer science research lab were leading a workshop on analysing acoustic recordings of nature. As research involving the study of animal calls is knows bioacoustics. Analysing acoustic data from natural environments is complex, and target calls can’t often be accurately recognised with computer software, so the lab develops strategies to minimise the amount of data that needs manual review. Even with the best current computer science solutions, however, manual review of data is essential to find species of interest. Having a keen interest in citizen science, or research that involves volunteer participation by members of the public, and an ecology background, ideas of integrating citizen science, ecology, and computer science quickly began to take shape in my mind! I arranged a few meetings with Professors Paul Roe and Margot Brereton to discuss these ideas. Much to my surprise and delight I was quickly offered a PhD with the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia!


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

JC: I think I was born with an innate sense of wonder about the natural world, and my parents certainly fostered my curiosities. Classrooms were not terribly compelling to me back then. That all changed, however, when I had an incredibly inspirational biology teacher in 5th grade, who challenged my little brain to learn more than ever before, often in very hands-on ways. After that, the deal was sealed; I loved the sciences from then on! Growing up in the country, I was also incredibly lucky to be surrounded by a menagerie of animals, whether playing with chickens at grandmas, raising bunnies and birds, or caring for wildlife at our local rehabilitation centre. Given all of my experience as a kid, I found Punnett squares to be a breeze when completing my first university genetics course, but my heart always pulled me to the ecological courses that focused on how animals interact with their habitats. My love of birds has led me to some pretty wild places since then, such as Tern Island (a tiny northwest Hawaiian island), the Big Island of Hawai`i, California, New York, and Brisbane.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

JC: I am currently researching how citizen scientists can be included in the design process when working to create a bioacoustics project. While sounds of animals in nature, bioacoustics, can tell us heaps about the secrete lives of animals, acoustic recordings create more data than any single person could possibly go through! Currently, it isn’t possible to automatically identify most animals from recordings with computers either, so citizen scientists can play an absolutely vital role in making discoveries about nature from sound. Before citizens can find the species, citizen scientists and researchers (like me!) need to work together to develop an intriguing way to look at sound virtually through computers and mobile devices. Once the design is right, citizens can have fun making ecological discoveries with ecologists!

Picture of BristlebirdFor example, being involved with BirdLife Australia, I had heard of an exciting effort to find Eastern Bristlebirds (right), which are an ancient, secretive species of bird in South East Queensland that is critically endangered. Conservationists have been looking for the Eastern Bristlebird for several years without much success given the bird’s low numbers and cryptic nature. I seized the opportunity to collaborate with Eastern Bristlebird Recovery Team and SEQ Catchments’ folks in joining the search; by adding acoustic recorders to the surveys, in order to hopefully record sounds of the Eastern Bristlebirds. But first, I need to do research with citizen scientists to design an interesting and fun way to look through the acoustic data. If we can find Eastern Bristlebirds, this will help us know how to better protect their declining population.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

JC: I ABSOLUTELY love sharing information through both science communication and teaching! As soon as I saw the post for the event I knew I needed to be involved. This public event also gives me the fabulous opportunity to invite members of the public to get involved in my research. It will also allow me to find out what kinds of animals are most fascinating to booth visitors (feel free to let me know anytime via my twitter handle @JessCappadonna). Knowing what animals are of interest to folks is very important to plan my next case study!
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

JC: Exhilaration!
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

JC: We are alive in an amazing time when volunteer participation is gradually gaining acceptance by members of the scientific community, though there is still a high level of scepticism towards volunteer contributed research. If I could change one thing about the scientific culture, I would remove the automatic scepticism that some feel towards all citizen science.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

JC: I find persistence rather than brains to be the most important attribute to possess in academia. Persistently follow your passions, ladies!

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