In this installment of Beyond the Lab, iNaturalist directors Scott Loarie and Ken-ichi Ueda discuss what sparked their passion for nature, and how creating communities of nature-lovers is crucial to global and local conservation efforts. iNaturalist is an app that helps individuals identify plants and species, as well as connect with others who share their passion for the natural world.

What made you want to become a scientist/researcher?

I grew up on the Russian River in Sonoma County, and I’ve had a life-long love of the natural world. A long time ago, the Russian River used to have a big steelhead fishery on it, but by the time I was a kid there were no steelhead left. The fish stock disappeared due to an increasing number of people dumping waste into the river from vineyards and other developments in the area. When I was in high school, local environmental groups started taking small measures to combat problems like this. Projects aimed at decreasing dumping and dam creation during spawning seasons eventually helped the fish, the bald eagles and the frogs return to the area.

Conservation doesn’t have to be complicated, and these types of projects illustrate that. This also helped develop my interest in grassroots environmental movements, as well as learning more about the creatures that inhabit the areas where we live. We share this earth with really cool and interesting creatures; creatures that are the building blocks of our ecosystem.

While I’m not a scientist or researcher, I’ve always been curious about the world outside: what’s there, and how it works. As a child, I explored – looked for salamanders, went fishing, read books. As a young adult, it seemed like the only socially-sanctioned way to continue my explorations of nature was to become a scientist, though becoming a professional scientist seemed to mean limiting myself to an excessively narrow sub-discipline, subjecting myself to the tiny job market and politics of academia, and/or seeing my work applied in morally dubious ways by corporate employers. So, that's why I wanted to be a scientist, and part of why I didn't become one. It was only after working in several science-adjacent jobs while maintaining my avocation in natural history that I came to realize science is a broad endeavor that requires more people than just the folks conducting experiments and writing papers. I think I've found my place in that endeavor, but who knows, maybe it's time for a mid-life career switch.

What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?

I think we’re building a movement here at iNaturalist. There are people on board with us who really share our same values. Having those same values is important in working together to help preserve and protect species. I was always initially concerned that maybe there weren’t enough people out there that cared about nature and animals, but we’ve found out that they are out there! Now, it’s just a question of how to get them engaged and involved.

What excites me more than anything is that we’re building and maybe changing the identity of what a naturalist is – now it looks like fun and people want to help and participate.

I know it's a truism in our circles, but nature is endlessly fascinating, so I start every day by grabbing my phone to check out what creatures people have observed around me while I was asleep. The other morning I saw an observation of a Western Tiger Swallowtail, a species of butterfly I recently saw in my urban Oakland neighborhood. This observation from a fellow nature-lover got me thinking about whether that species is succeeding in Oakland as well as it is in downtown San Francisco, whether we have the same kind of trees and infrastructure that mimic the more natural canyons they evolved in. No joke, that helped me get out of bed.

And, of course, in addition to the organisms, there are the people. Someone else cares about the same butterfly that I care about! And if we care about it, maybe other people care about it too.

Cultivating community is a challenge, but when it works it can be magical. Those moments of connection are hugely motivating.

What limitations or challenges do you face as a scientist?

One concern and challenge we face stems from generating knowledge about species in the natural world. In many ways, it follows that this will lead to good things for species, but the reality is knowledge can also be used for evil, or to hurt species. We want to create knowledge, but we want to ensure that it is used for conservation, and not other purposes. We are part of a great community that is scaling quickly; but as the community becomes more anonymous, there are more opportunities for infiltration by people on the internet who don’t have the same intentions as we do. The question and challenge then becomes how we continue to grow iNaturalist while still maintaining its character. We want to continue to work with and attract people who care about nature and species.

In my work, I think most challenges stem from scale. Technically, the more people use a service, the more resources it takes to maintain it, and solutions that worked in the past just won't work anymore. This is also true socially: the larger and more diverse your community, the greater the potential for conflict. Despite the fact that all iNaturalist users share a common interest in nature, we are not immune to the kinds of bad behavior endemic in other social networks. Our challenge is pretty much the same as that faced by all people. To paraphrase Bill and Ted, how do we be excellent to each other and continue to party on?

What do you think the public should understand about science and scientific research?

We protect what we love and we love what we understand. People have their own personal connections and experiences with nature, and everything about iNaturalist hinges on that connection. The idea of personal connections to nature has really opened the door to science education. Individuals are now developing their own eyes for conservation, and iNaturalist is trying to help provide the basic “training” of how to understand what plants and animals belong in specific areas (i.e. what are invasive species, and what are native). It’s important for novice conservationists to understand different plants and animals, and their role in the ecosystem. What’s fun about this is so far we’ve seen that this exploration feels natural for people – we’re not trying to teach them to do something foreign, it’s already in front of them, we’re just trying to help them understand nature on a different level.

I hope people understand that science is always complicated, and you should never trust an IFLScience headline without digging a little deeper. Good scientists are skeptics to the core, and to understand scientific results, you need to be one too. That doesn't mean you should dismiss things you don't understand, though. Skepticism means you assume everything could be wrong and you should use whatever tests and evidence you have at your disposal to convince yourself of validity (while also being skeptical about your tests and your evidence).

Is there someone you look up to, consider a mentor or who inspires you? Why?

I think a lot about different kinds of media that have had the ability to get people excited about the beauty of nature – National Geographic magazines, and David Attenborough on Planet Earth are great examples. I really look up to the first people who highlighted nature in print and on TV, because now we have this great new opportunity with the internet – the “new media,” to continue to drive excitement and passion about the natural world. With the help of technology and the internet, we’re experiencing a new frontier – similar to the DNA revolution a decade ago.

Part of what’s great about iNaturalist is that it not only provides a photo of a species, but there’s a deep learning behind that photo – it unlocks all sorts of data.

I often find myself thinking back to a moment in my sophomore genetics class where my professor, Wendy Raymond, concluded several lectures with the edict, "question your assumptions." It might be the most simple statement of scientific thought I received in my formal education, and the most revolutionary; not just because of the message but also because of the messenger. At the time, Professor Raymond was an affable, comfortable professor in a small idyllic college. She kind of had it made. But within her, perhaps driving her, was this utterly rebellious thought: this could all be wrong. It might all have to change. Or it might not.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Hopefully iNaturalist is now just at the tip of the iceberg. We hope to be able to continue scaling it at a rapid rate, while still maintaining its original character and intent. I also hope that we are able to find or create tools that help us with conservation on a global scale – we need to continue to engage individuals and collect knowledge on how to conserve ecosystems all over the world.

Hopefully still productively writing code and not just telling other people to write code for me.

What more do you want people to know about you, your team or your work?

We are very excited to have great support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. I feel a little bit of pressure that we’ve been given this fantastic opportunity to do this amazing work – I think the pressure will ultimately help us deliver!

I’d like people to know that iNaturalist is not just a way to help scientists or an app that tells you what plants and animals are. It’s really a community of people who care about nature and help each other learn about it. Yes, joining a community takes time and work, and it’s not for everyone; but it might be for you, and the only way to find out is to give it a try!

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