Volunteers play an important role in all aspects of society, from supporting junior sport to caring for animals and organising cultural and arts events. Volunteers also make a huge contribution to Australian science.
Dr Erin Roger leads citizen science at the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), an online repository of information about Australia’s biodiversity. She said citizen science is a form of volunteering that is all about public participation in scientific research, which can be anything from participating in field work to helping map galaxies.
"Public contribution to biodiversity research is essential to the ALA. The ALA derives more than half its records from citizen science and we’ve seen rapid growth of these records since 2010," Erin said.
"There are many different ways people can volunteer their time beyond submitting biodiversity observations. The ALA also hosts the DigiVol platform run by the Australian Museum. Volunteers for DigiVol can do a range of tasks from helping to transcribe specimen labels to identifying species in camera trap images.”
Annie Lane is Chair of the Australian Citizen Science Association, the peak body for citizen science in Australia. Now retired, she began her career with CSIRO working on biocontrol of weeds in the Northern Territory.
"We know volunteering provides direct benefits to people’s wellbeing. There's a lot of positives in connecting with like-minded people and connecting with your community and with nature. The power of place can’t be underestimated," Annie said.
Annie said volunteers can be part of the whole research process, from identifying research questions and designing a project through to collecting information. Volunteers can also analyse information and contribute to taxonomic studies. The majority of these volunteer opportunities are around observing and recording observations for the natural sciences, and most verified records flow the ALA.
"Health science is also popular. Volunteers can support patients by helping improve the understanding of certain diseases. For example, they can record and share symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and COVID-19. They can help detect health risks such as Zika virus by collecting mosquito eggs and forwarding them for analysis," Annie said.
"Science education volunteering includes working at science festivals, running workshops and serving as mentors, and they can inspire students to follow STEM pathways. There's an insect investigators' project that involves 50 schools in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. In 2022 they even discovered a new parasitic wasp.
"Volunteers can help fill holes in data sets because we need eyes in the community. They can help address biosecurity threats like documenting the spread of an exotic and invasive South African carder bee, Afranthidium Immanthidium repetitum."
Annie reflected on Canberra citizen science volunteer Stuart Harris who discovered a new species of Peacock spider, Maratus calcitrans, which is a whole new genus. Teresa Van Der Heul has the enviable title of discovering a new slime mould, now known as Tubifera vanderheuliae.
Mentoring is a great opportunity
Dr Anna Liu is another CSIRO alumnus who is passionate about giving back. She said she benefited from many good mentors while employed by Australia's national science agency, including Dr Terry Percival, who occupied the office next to hers. Terry led the team that developed high-speed Wi-Fi.
After transitioning into the private sector, Anna now works as Amazon Web Services’ Head of Innovation for Australia and New Zealand. She also has experience in leading a start-up company, Yuruware Pty Ltd.
Anna is a mentor for our ON Prime 12 cohort. Designed to help research teams take their projects to the next level, teams get advice on topics such as creating a new start-up venture.
“I became a volunteer with the ON program because I wanted to give back. I wanted to share what I have learned with a new generation of scientists,” Anna said.
"It’s difficult to find the time to volunteer, but it’s a rewarding experience. It’s an opportunity to make new friends, with aligned values and a strong sense of purpose. Hearing about CSIRO people’s science and discoveries gives me a real thrill.
"The ON program managers have created a flexible and respectful way for us ON mentors to engage with the team. I volunteer one hour per week for the 12-week program and I also answer questions via email. It’s high-quality time and it’s not onerous."
Anna said she feels her experience in the commercialisation process is what her mentees feel most excited to tap into, and the fact that she presents her experience from a scientist’s perspective. She can relate to the challenges our scientists experience through the commercialisation process.
“The team I work with is wonderful. They are curious and they want to build industry for the country. They always have good questions for me, including questions around IP protection and market strategies," she said.
STEM Professionals in Schools
STEM Professionals in Schools is one of CSIRO's core volunteering programs in Education and Outreach. Now in its 16th year, it facilitates flexible, ongoing partnerships between STEM professionals and teachers in primary and secondary schools across Australia.
Our volunteers are not only encouraging the pursuit of knowledge, but they’re actually showing others how to equip young minds with the ability to problem solve and innovate. The STEM program individually matches teachers and STEM professionals, and each partnership is unique.
Our Education Officer, Sabine Schreuder, has worked in the program for 14 years and volunteered in it for six years.
"I am a biologist by training and I am partnered with a Year 1 teacher at East Beechboro Primary School in Western Australia," Sabine said.
"My teacher and I work hard to make really good science lessons. We take the lessons prescribed by the curriculum and we ‘science them up’. We make them more interesting and I think we teach concepts more logically for Year 1 students to grasp.
"I am motivated to volunteer by the impact that I see I have. Professionally, it helps keep in the loop with schools too."