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Lindsay Wancour Helps Hikers Get Their Hands Dirty to Advance Environmental Science

Scientists can dream big, but for climate and environmental science to have a true impact, a lot of groundwork is required – literally. Whether it’s dispersing sensors or collecting genetic samples across the vast expanse of the wilderness, someone needs to be on site. To help with this process, the non-profit organization Adventure Scientists was created.

photo of woman with orange mountain as backdrop
AAAS Member Lindsay Wancour.

The organization recruits outdoor adventurers and community members to participate in citizen science, collecting data in the field. Lindsay Wancour is at the center of this effort as Project Creation Senior Manager. She works with scientists to understand their data needs and whether these can be answered using a citizen science or community-based science model. “If it’s a good fit, we can move things forward and can ultimately get hundreds of volunteers out in the field,” she says.

This approach has resulted in numerous landmark wins and advances in terms of conservation, scientific understanding and environmental policy. Wancour, who has worked with Adventure Scientists since March of 2020, says one of her favorite projects to date has been a timber tracking initiative.

She notes that, although many people aren’t aware of the issue, timber poaching is a real concern in the United States. For example, tree poachers may forge papers saying that their timber was taken from a legally designated area in Washington, when in fact it was illegally taken from a protected area in California.

Adventure Scientists partnered with Dr. Richard Cronn, a research geneticist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to launch the timber tracking project in 2018. To date, more than 900 volunteer hikers throughout the U.S. have been trained to collect genetic and chemical samples of targeted tree species. Using the samples, scientists create datasets to predict the origin of lumber within six to 60 miles of where the tree once grew. So far, six species have been sampled extensively, with the tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) and eastern ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica and F. americana) in the eastern and central U.S. being the most recent focus.

Thanks to thousands of samples collected by volunteers across a huge geographic range of the U.S., scientists are able to confirm with high certainty when timber has been poached illegally. “The quality of the samples is so good that they are being used in court to prosecute poachers,” says Wancour.

Importantly, all volunteers are trained on the necessary protocols for each project’s data collection process, ensuring that high-quality data is attained. As Wancour notes, this is a great opportunity for people to get hands-on exposure to STEM.

“When you’re physically connecting with the ground every day and actually have dirt under your fingernails, it’s different than reading about it in a book or studying it in school,” explains Wancour. “It’s that applied connection.”

Wancour’s own passion for nature and adventure began in her early 20s, when she joined the Montana Conservation Corps and was paid to backpack and do trail work in what she describes as “the most beautiful places.” She had been active in sports up to that point, but had not spent much time in nature. “Being in the Conservation Corps was life-changing,” says Wancour. “I felt like I could backpack forever.”

By her late-20s, she graduated from the University of Montana with a graduate degree in environmental studies, with a focus on community engagement and watershed health. This background, combined with her passion for the outdoors, eventually brought her to Adventure Scientists.

Through this current role, a board member at Adventure Scientists connected her with AAAS' Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues (EPI Center). Wancour says this connection with AAAS has been “instrumental” in providing important connections and resources for project design and has been especially useful for answering questions that had previously been sticking points. Through the EPI Center, for example, she was able to connect with experts to address issues surrounding orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells using citizen science for an upcoming project.

What she loves about her job, Wancour says, is learning something new every day and having the opportunity to collaborate with scientists from diverse areas. But even more importantly, she is helping to identify new ways that the average person can help contribute to environmental science and make a positive impact.

“It’s taking science out of the ivory tower and putting it in our hands,” explains Wancour. “That’s something that’s really exciting to me – helping to expand that education base for more people, so they can advance science too.”

Wancour notes that it is not just extreme outdoor enthusiasts who are contributing as Adventure Scientists, such as weathered mountaineers summitting the highest peaks or climbers scaling sheer rock faces – it’s also folks who are going for a day hike in their neighborhood park. “Anyone who wants to be outdoors can contribute,” she says, emphasizing that the organization strives for as much inclusivity and accessibility in their projects as possible.

This hands-on learning that volunteers get to experience also has a spillover effect into their personal behaviors, Wancour notes. For example, after participating in the timber tracking initiative, participants have expressed more awareness about timber poaching and an interest in finding ethically sourced timber products, which have been certified. “Knowing that this work is not just helping scientists but creating changes in people’s behavior as well is really exciting,” says Wancour.

AAAS Members who want to volunteer with Adventure Scientists can visit their website for more details.

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