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AAAS DoSER Program Makes Inroads Into Communities of Faith With Help From Citizen Scientists

Grace Wolf-Chase’s mother, a private duty nurse at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, taught her a lifelong lesson that she still uses to manage contentious debates around science, religion and society. “You can attract more flies with honey than you can with vinegar,” her mother would say. “She meant that you don’t get very far with people just by throwing facts and data at them…the idea is that through conversation we can get to know people a lot better,” Wolf-Chase says.

headshot of Grace Wolf-Chase
Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. Credit: Jose Francisco Salgado

Currently, Wolf-Chase is a Senior Scientist and Senior Education and Communication Specialist at the Planetary Science Institute, a non-profit corporation in Tucson, Arizona. She earned a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Arizona. Her primary research interest looks at how stars and planets continue to form today. For the last two years, Wolf-Chase has been an advisor for the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program’s Science for Seminaries project. The Science for Seminaries project helps a diverse group of seminaries integrate science into their core curricula and provides support and resources to seminary professors to encourage informed dialogue and a positive understanding of science among future religious leaders.

Currently, Wolf-Chase is working with DoSER on a program that engages faith-based communities in citizen science through Zooniverse. The project, funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, helps Wolf-Chase connect with various communities and programs where she gives presentations and leads workshops on how to use Zooniverse in various settings like seminary classrooms, youth groups or adult education programs.

“The Engaging Faith Communities with Zooniverse project aims to engage diverse faith communities in citizen science by inviting people of all ages and from all walks of life to participate in research with professional scientists. It helps us dispel the notion that science is just for people who hold degrees in science,” she says. “Science is really for everyone and citizen science gives people the opportunity to see it as a process rather than a collection of facts.”

A people-powered website, Zooniverse is the world’s largest and most popular online platform for citizen science. Projects are made possible by over two million people around the world who come together to assist professional researchers. “People…don’t need any special skills or background to participate in projects,” she says. Wolf-Chase uses Zooinverse in two different ways. In an outreach capacity, she uses it to engage new audiences, specifically communities of faith, but also for her research that looks at how stars are formed. The portal provides a multitude of benefits.

“There are all sorts of research projects on Zooniverse and citizen scientists are making new discoveries…when something like this happens, they are acknowledged in the resulting academic papers,” she says.

“One of the most common questions the DoSER program receives from both scientists and members of faith communities is ‘how can I get involved [in science engagement activities]?’,” Robert C. O’Malley, Ph.D., Project Director of DoSER, notes. “Community science projects such as those hosted on Zooniverse offer fantastic opportunities for relationship building between individuals and communities, and direct participation in the process of scientific discovery. Our program has been very excited to support this effort.”

Wolf-Chase’s own affiliation with a mainline Christian denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, often helps her earn the trust of religious communities who might be suspicious of science and scientists.

Grace Wolf-Chase at Adler Planetarium
Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. at Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. Credit: Will Nunnally

“I invite people to ask me questions about how I hold science and faith together,” she says. Both audiences—religious and scientific—are mesmerized by what they see in space.  “For astronomy in particular, there is this lure factor…these incredible images we have of the universe and that is something that scientists and so many people of faith have in common.”  

An army of citizen scientists is what it takes to convert monstrous amounts of research material into scientific results. Wolf-Chase’s advanced knowledge of astronomy coupled with her ability to engage with people of faith as a member of a religious institution helps create information that piques the interest of communities of faith in this work. 

Wolf-Chase attributes the success of one of her favorite projects to the dogged pursuit of data which was only possible because of the commitment of citizen scientists. “The Milky Way project asked citizen scientists to identify regions that we knew were associated with very young stars,” she says. “We had all this data [about] our galaxy…[but] we needed a lot of people to look at those images to identify specific regions. [T]hey discovered what turned out to be a new class of very young stars. We could metaphorically call them pre-natal stars.”

Using metaphors to explain complex scientific processes is one way Wolf-Chase interests non-scientists to participate in her work. Another way is by including her life experiences. “I like to start out by sharing a little about myself to give them context of where I am coming from with my experiences and how I got excited about science,” she says. “I am an active member of a traditional religious community…I am a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” 

Besides her mother who influenced her, Wolf-Chase also looks to the Vatican Observatory, an astronomical research and educational institution supported by the Holy See and largely made up of Jesuit priests. She says they were the first people she met that thought about both their science and faith in deeply reflective ways.

“They don’t have any kind of religious agenda behind their science,” she says. “They are part of the scientific community.”

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Owen Kibenge

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