For PhD student Joey Hulbert there's more to life than just finishing his doctorate about tiny microbes that could kill fynbos plants. He says he'd be a happy man if in the process he can get members of the public – children included – talking about science, research and nature. That's why he is now taking the crowdfunding route to raise funds to make it possible for a group of children from Kayamandi in Stellenbosch to experience nature first-hand.
His latest endeavour ties into the Cape Citizen Science project, an initiative of which he has been the driving force since 2016. This citizen science project gives hikers and nature lovers the opportunity to become so-called "pathogen hunters". They are asked to send Hulbert photographs of dying plants or to submit soil, water or plant samples they collect while enjoying the outdoors. These efforts will further research to identify new species of microbes that cause plant diseases in natural fynbos areas of the Western Cape.
The Cape Citizen Science project has a strong youth engagement component, and teachers are invited to also get their learners involved.
"Public engagement is an important component of the project, but so far it has been difficult to reach learners that do not already have the privilege of enjoying nature," explains Hulbert. "Our collaboration through the Cape Citizen Science project with the Stellenbosch-based organisation Vision Afrika has opened a new world of possibility, for us and the learners enrolled in their programmes."
Therefore Hulbert and his Cape Citizen Science associates launched a crowdfunding project called Engage Kayamandi Youth in Cape Citizen Science with Vision Afrika in mid-January on the American based science crowdfunding platform Experiment.com.
He says it will give the chance to the Kayamandi learners in the Vision Afrika program to go on excursions to nearby nature areas and to help him collect plants and data in the process.
"The activities will be designed so that the learners will be able to physically contribute to our research," he explains. "Each activity we organize will involve sampling sick plants in an area that we have not collected in previously."
"Spending time with youth is the best part of the project," says Hulbert. "Inspiring young learners and showing them that anyone can become a scientist is important to me."
"I think I will make a greatest positive impact on the planet by serving in the interface between scientists and the public."
Success within a day
The initial funding target of 400 dollars (about R5600) was reached within the first day of the crowdfunding project being launched. It is still ongoing, and Hulbert now hopes to raise even more funds to ensure that as many learners as possible can be accommodated through partner organisations Vision Afrika or the South African Education and Environment Project.
Hulbert knows that crowdfunding works. In 2015, it helped to raise the 5000 American dollars (about R70 000) to get the Cape Citizen Science project off the ground. Its website www.citsci.co.za now provides full instructions about how members of the public and educators can become involved. It also provides information about the research towards which their citizen science efforts are contributing.
"It demonstrated to me that there is public support for this kind of engagement and research," says Hulbert.
Hulbert hails from the Pacific Northwest of the USA, but moved to South Africa in August 2015 to start his plant pathology studies under supervision of among others Prof Mike Wingfield of the University of Pretoria's leading DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Tree Health Biotechnology and the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute.
He is studying the impact and diversity of different Phytopthora microbes found in the Cape Floristic Region. Because he works mainly on fynbos plants, he became a research affiliate of Stellenbosch University's Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology in 2016. Since June he has been using space in the Diversity and Symbiosis laboratory of one of his supervisors, Dr Francois Roets of Stellenbosch University.
More than 150 species of Phytophtora have so far been identified worlwide, but researchers estimate that there are many more yet to be discovered. Depending on the species involved, Phytophtora microbes can cause devastating diseases such as root in among others potatoes, oak trees and vineyards.
"Phytophthora cinnamomi is the cause of root-rot in many plants in my project area, but little is yet known about the impacts and diversity of other Phytophthora species in the Cape Floristic Region," adds Hulbert.
For more information or to support the Kayamandi outreach project, visit http://experiment.com/africa. To become involved in the Cape Citizen Science project, visit www.citsci.co.za.