How Citizen Science Paved the Way for This Student’s Career

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Brian Fauver, CSU Graduate.

When Brian Fauver set foot on the Colorado State University campus as a new graduate student in 2013, he never expected he’d coauthor a paper in the journal Nature three years later.

His research journey began typically enough but the work that led to that Nature publication gave Brian “an expanded worldview of what science looked like”. And now, he says, he leverages that worldview every day as an Environmental Protection Specialist with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).

So what happened in those three years? How did Brian’s research about citizen science lay the groundwork for a career with transportation? And how did it lead to a paper in a prominent science journal? 

1) Learning from Volunteers

Before coming to CSU, Brian studied Restoration Ecology at the University of Montana. There he learned about the field of citizen science and conducted a small study looking at the accuracy of citizen science data. During this work, he read a paper by CitSci Director Greg Newman that got him thinking about pursuing graduate work in citizen science at CSU. Emails were exchanged and Brian interned for the Denver Zoo’s Front Range Pika Project the summer before coming to CSU as a master’s student in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources.

At that time, the Front Range Pika Project (FRPP) was a newly emerging collaboration between the Denver Zoo, Rocky Mountain Wild, and Dr. Chris Ray, renowned pika researcher with University of Colorado Boulder. The data were entered and supported by a database built by the CitSci.org team. 

Brian spent the next three summers serving as the Volunteer Coordinator for FRPP. He dove deep into the world of pika biology, developing relationships with and learning from the many project volunteers along the way. The dedication of the volunteers to the pika, the land, and to the work they were doing, left a deep impression that Brian would carry into his professional career. 

2) Learning from Citizen Science Economics 

Brian focused his graduate research on investigating the economics of citizen science in natural resources. He wanted to understand the fiscal tradeoffs between hiring technicians and other professionals versus investing resources in volunteers. How do costs differ between citizen science and professional monitoring projects? What do natural resource managers identify as the main benefits and concerns of citizen science monitoring projects?

To get at the answers, Brian interviewed A LOT of people. He listened to their stories of success and their stories of failure. He developed a broader understanding of many kinds of natural resources being monitored. And he learned about the diverse techniques for monitoring them. 

3) Citizen Science Skills at Work with CDOT

During graduate school and after graduating, Brian had the opportunity to try several different career paths – work with a non-profit, work in academia, and work with a private consulting firm. Then he got a job with the Colorado Department of Transportation as an Environmental Protection Specialist and found a good fit. He loves his current position and shared several lessons he says he applies from his citizen science work to his CDOT work.

Learning to Listen

“Working with communities and their involvement in transportation projects is a lot like working with citizen science communities. I learned how to listen to communities doing citizen science and I have to listen to communities with my CDOT work too. A community may be very passionate about a particular issue or place. Their knowledge and opinions are important. Working with citizen science volunteers on the ground gives you first hand experience learning about and hearing from community members.”

Knowing a Little about a Lot

Brian interviewed projects covering many different topics – water, organisms, birds, etc during his masters work with CitSci. He needed to learn a little bit about each one in order to do his research effectively. At CDOT, Brian also needs to know a little bit about a lot. For example, he needs to know a little bit about a lot of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) regulations. Both jobs require a breadth of knowledge rather than depth in just one area. His work with CitSci helped prepare him for that. 

Expanding His Worldview of Science

“Working with CitSci and the wide diversity of projects on the platform helped open my mind and come into science with a much broader and more open perspective than I had previously. It expanded my worldview of what science looked like and allowed me to better understand and recognize the world views of others.” Working with CDOT, Brian has a better understanding of how important people’s sense of place is to them and how connected they feel to place. 

“One of the biggest parts [of my job] is public involvement and making sure to communicate in a way that makes people feel their voices are heard. Place-based knowledge and connection,  working toward community buy-in is really important – not just to meet the law based requirements but also because it means something to the people affected by our decisions. I have a profound sense of respect for the communities and people that care deeply about the places where we work.”

4) On Being Part of a Publication in Nature Climate Change

After graduation, Brian was contacted by the team of researchers working on the Front Range Pika Project about participating in a possible publication. Brian, and sixty other co-authors said yes. The paper was a collaboration to say the least, and at least 5 of the data sets used to conduct the research for this publication were from citizen science projects, including the Front Range Pika Project, which NREL’s CitSci.org helps support. We asked Brian what it felt like to be a part of such a massive research effort. 

“There is a very strong group of people studying pika and a sense among them that all data is useful in some way. With their combined datasets, this paper was able to look at something like 70% of all the data that had ever been collected on pika – it was incredible. It felt good to see the volunteer data and the professionally collected data come together in a paper in such a well-respected journal. It was validating.”

The CitSci team is honored to have been a part of Brian’s academic journey and thrilled to see him thriving in his new career. If you want to read more about Brian’s work at CSU and with the Front Range Pika Project you can access his Master’s Thesis, a link to the Nature Climate Change article abstract, and additional articles about the Front Range Pika Project below.

Fauver, Brian. 2016. Is citizen science worth it? Economic decision making of natural resource managers

Smith et al. 2019. Alternatives to genetic affinity as a context for within-species response to climate. Nature Climate Change. Vol. 9. pp. 787-794

The Front Range Pika Project – Why Pikas? – Part 1

The Front Range Pika Project – Emerging Science – Part 2

Cover Photo: Snowy day at the Ruby Creek pika monitoring site. Credit: Kim Baker, Front Range Pika Project.

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