Book Review: Introspection through citizen science

Busch, Akiko. The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science. Yale University Press, 2014. 256 pages. Paperback $US16.00

One evening as she was preparing dinner, Jennifer Doudna’s son noticed her laughing out loud.  The biochemist had been thinking about how bacteria have the ability to protect themselves by finding and clipping a virus’ DNA—CRISPR—a clever mechanism which she realized could be re-purposed.  It shortly after transformed the way gene editing is done and won her the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Delight in discovery is a universal experience treasured and shared by those who partake in science, extending beyond those who practice it as a profession.

Book Cover

Akiko Busch’s The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science explores a dimension of citizen science that deepens and enriches the relationship between people and the natural world.  Busch is pulled into awe and wonder at the complexity of biology. In the text, she also reflects on the diversity of ways humans regard the vulnerability of the environment—often with apathy but at times with an honorable responsibility.  The Incidental Steward carefully advocates for the latter by framing reports about ecological changes as an impetus to fight against the plight of disappearing ecosystems, giving everyone an opportunity to assume a role in their stewardship.

The book moves episodically through eleven research projects. Through each project, Busch shows readers what is at stake by recounting her research efforts, which include, but are not limited to, mapping ecologically important but hard-to-find vernal pools, reporting sightings of coyotes who encroach urban areas, and hanging “Barney traps” that capture invasive species eating New York’s ash trees. Each account allows readers to understand important outcomes of the research. Elusive vernal pools can spark appreciation for what is transient, coyotes can elicit the fear for what is wild, and Barney traps can symbolize hope in the face of relentless loss. Participating in science makes problems threatening the environment come to life and solutions to environmental challenges become easier to picture.

“Eels in the Stream” is an especially stirring chapter.  We learn about the gap of knowledge about glass eels and the urgency for studying their life cycles as their numbers in lotic systems mysteriously dwindle.  Citizen scientists volunteer in counting eels caught by mops set across ten Hudson River tributaries. Their work begins to answer big questions. Do water temperatures, tide cycles, and precipitation affect eel migration?  Why do eel populations vary over time and between sites? Do they migrate steadily or en masse? How large are these populations and in what ways are they changing?

We also get to know the community that formed around the project, from teenaged students who are driven to satisfy their curiosity and express their passion for conservation, to the environmental scientist leading the effort who remarked, “Look at this delicious little thing…If you look closely, you can see what it’s eaten lately, its tiny eyeballs, its little heart.”  In the midst of all these, Busch is moved and wonders:

“How is it possible to hold something so utterly small and transparent in the palm of your hand and still know so little about it?

“…Maybe there is something in the life cycle of the eel that speaks to the way we ourselves work to navigate the wide waters between the unsure, the nearly sure, and the none absolutely certain; and to the unknown we all feel about where we start and where we end, about our origins and our final destination and what forces deliver us from one to the other.”

“Eels in the Stream,” The Incidental Steward by Akiko Busch

As the pages turn, we gain an appreciation for wildlife and ponder what it can teach us about the human experience.

The Incidental Steward reads like a deep conversation with a friend who has come into new insight after an adventure.  Each chapter typically opens with the research task and then reflections unfold, weaving in and out of interesting biology facts, intermittently highlighting issues particular to real-world scientific research, candid opinions from scientists included.  Along the way in this book, citizen science is portrayed as a moral duty and an appeal to get involved becomes its undercurrent.

Discovery, ultimately—whether it is in the context of ground-breaking research or witnessing the translucency of a glass eel as a citizen scientist—will be a permanent motif in the history of science.  We catch a glimpse of how truly clever the world around us is; perhaps, on occasion, we are also inspired to take better care of it. Want to get involved in citizen science yourself to experience such wonders? Akiko Busch concludes The Incidental Steward with a selection of 53 projects you can participate in. SciStarter also has its own handy Project Finder!

This review is part of an ongoing series of book reviews written by members of Dr. Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher’s research team in partnership with SciStarter. If you have a recommendation for a book to review, please contact SciStarter Editor Caroline Nickerson at This work has been partially supported by the Ontario Ministry of Research; Innovation and Science’s Early Research Award program; and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant program. Views expressed are the opinions of the author and not the funding agencies.

Categories: Book Review, Citizen Science, Nature & Outdoors

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About the Author

Patricia Balbon

Patricia Balbon

Patricia Balbon is a B.Sc. student taking the Society, Technology, and Values Option at the University of Waterloo, in Canada. Her research interests involve studying open science, collaboration networks, and community values.