Five chemistry research projects that you can get involved in

Five chemistry research projects that you can get involved in

Sometimes the most powerful tool in research is that people spend a few minutes recording their observations as they go about their daily lives. An early example of this type of “civic science” is annual garden bird watching in the United Kingdom, which has existed since 1978 and is organized by the Conservation Organization, RSBP. All you need to do to participate is spend an hour watching wildlife in your garden or local park.

Today, civic science projects are becoming increasingly popular, with people mapping and monitoring everything from weather events, invasive plant species and ladybugs to planets orbiting stars other than our sun.

As the field of civic science has developed, boundaries have been blurred and researchers have begun to involve citizens as more active researchers – conducting important experiments, collecting environmental measurements and generating data.

Here are five just such projects with a distinct chemical theme.


Our new magazine, published in PLOS One, presents the results of such a project, RiverDip, which enables and encourages citizens to monitor the chemical health of their local waterways.

This means monitoring phosphates and nitrates – important nutrients that form the basis of agricultural fertilizers. But if they run off the field and into streams, they cause significant problems.

The fertilizers encourage the rapid growth of algae and weeds, which form dense green carpets on the surface of watercourses. These block the light to other plants. What’s more, later, when they rot, they use some of the dissolved oxygen in the water, resulting in oxygen removal that harms other aquatic plants and animals.

RiverDip was developed as part of the EU-funded Polluted sediments projects as a way to allow citizens to monitor phosphate levels in watercourses. We provided interested people with paper-based sensors that change color in the presence of phosphates. The measurement only takes three minutes. When done, volunteers upload their results via a customized mobile app.

Together we have collected hundreds of measurements and started map phosphate levels throughout Europe’s North Sea region, consisting of countries including the Scandinavian nations, England, the Netherlands and Germany. Having lots of measurements from different seasons will help us understand how nutrient levels change over time, and we are currently looking for interested volunteer groups to continue this project.

The big compost experiment

If you like rooting in the garden, this is for you. Many packages are now labeled as biodegradable or compostable, but what does this really mean and do these products really go down in a household compost bin? The big compost experiment investigates new ways to reduce plastic waste and asks participants to check how well biodegradable and compostable packaging decomposes.

You can help answer these questions by simply packing materials that claim to be compostable (such as certain tea bags, carrier bags, and disposable cups), placing them in your compost pile, and then observing what happens. You can record your results via the experiment’s website.


If you are craving something simpler and less cluttered, there are some great projects that you can contribute to from the comfort of your couch.

Proteins are the molecular machines that control all chemical processes and interactions that make up a living organism. And like any machine (whether it’s a protein or a car), they help you understand how all the parts fit together when designing modifications and upgrades. Understanding the incredibly complex structures of proteins, how they interact with each other and potential drugs provide drug developers with important information that will enable them to design more effective therapies. But modeling this requires enormous amounts of computing power. One approach would therefore be to use huge sums of money to build a computer dedicated to solving this problem.

But researchers have realized that one can alternatively ask people to contribute backup computer power to their home computers to form a giant global supercomputer. All you need to do is install Vik-home software on your computer and when you choke to make a cup of tea or connect to the TV, your computer begins to work on folding proteins, which can lead to the development of covid drugs or cancer therapies.

Fold it

If puzzles and computer games are more your cup of tea, you can enjoy Fold it. This project tries to predict the structure of a protein, but this time it needs a little more human input. It takes advantage of people’s puzzle-solving intuition when playing competitive games and challenges them to fold the best proteins.

This information helps researchers understand if human pattern recognition and puzzle solving are better than current computer programs. Such information could be used to develop new computer strategies to predict protein structures even faster. This is really useful because understanding how proteins fold and interact allows researchers to develop new proteins to help fight diseases such as Alzheimer’s and HIV / AIDS.

Sensor community

The sensor community The project aims to build a network of small sensors to collect and openly share environmental data such as nitrogen dioxide air pollutants generated by internal combustion engines and the combustion of fossil fuels.

Currently, the community has designed and distributed nearly 14,000 active sensors in 69 countries, all of which return data in real time. To take part in this project, you build sensors using kits developed by the researchers and place them somewhere. The project has different communities that focus on different aspects of environmental pollution (including noise).

Engaging in this type of civic science project can be a great way to have a positive impact on the world, by collecting large amounts of data that will enable us to understand our impact on the planet.

Author: Mark Lorch – Professor of Science Communication and Chemistry, University of Hull | Samantha Richardson – Associate Professor of Analytical Chemistry, University of Hull The conversation


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