Scientist turns to crowd to fund research

Image is a screenshot of a webpage on experiment.com. At the top of the image is the "experiment" logo, a search box, and three links: "Discover," "How It Works," and "Sign up or Login." In the center of the image is a picture of a frozen North American wood frog. Laid over the picture of the wood frog is a screened dark grey box with the words, "Unlock the Secrets of Animals that Survive Freezing! Andor Kiss Miami University." Next to that box is another, white box that shows the progress of the project's funding. "$3,031 Pledged" appears in large type at the top of the box. Underneath that, a green bar stretches from margin to margin. Below the green bar are the following words: "101% Funded $3,000 Goal 0 Days." A smaller grey box appears below the funding "thermometer." The text in it reads, "Success! This project was funded on: 8 November 2014." Below the picture of the frog are navigation links: "Overview," "Abstract" (this is the one highlighted), "Lab Notes (12)," and "Comments (20)." Below that are three columns of text. The heading on the first column is, "What is the context of this research?" Below that heading is the following text: "The North American wood frog is an animal that has adopted a strategy of overwintering by burrowing to the leaf litter and other forest floor material and freezing. The frog can do this by flooding its blood with glucose and urea and other small molecules. The glucose acts in a similar manner to antifreeze, and the urea." The remaining text is cut off. The heading on the second column is: "What is the significance of this project?" Below that heading is the following text: "The wood frog is an example of a vertebrate animal who can undergo freezing and survive. One of the biggest problems with human organ transplants are the incompatibility and unavailability of the correct organ to correct recipient within a critical time frame. If we could freeze and/or chill preserve organs, we could save." The remaining text in this column is cut off. The third column heading is: "What are the goals of the project?" Below that heading is the following text: "I have wood frog tissue and the all the necessary skills and equipment to isolate, sequence, assemble and annotate the wood frog genome. If funded, I will: (1) Isolate the genomic DNA of the North American wood frog." No more text in that column is visible.

Miami University adjunct assistant professor and supervisor of the Center for Bioinformatics & Functional Genomics, Dr. Andor Kiss, received the funding he needed to sequence the genome of the North American wood frog on the crowdfunding site experiment.com

Once the domain of musicians, filmmakers, and tech innovators, crowdfunding is beginning to capture the attention of scientific researchers like Andor Kiss, adjunct assistant professor and supervisor in Miami University’s Center for Bioinformatics & Functional Genomics (CBFG).

When Kiss needed a relatively small amount of money – $3,000 – to purchase some genome sequencing technology, he knew he’d have to think outside the box of federal funding because most of those agencies are limited in their ability to fund a project with such a small budget.

The genome Kiss wants to sequence is that of the North American wood frog (Rana sylvatica). He and other Miami researchers are interested in this organism because of its ability to freeze in winter, and then resume normal function after thawing in the spring.

“Very few vertebrates have the capacity to freeze and survive,” Kiss says.

Past media coverage of Miami researchers’ work on the wood frog (including this post and this episode of PBS’s science program, NOVA), reflected public fascination with the amphibian’s seeming superpower, and that’s what Kiss banked on for funding his genome-sequencing project

“I thought, ‘Well, because of the inherently attractive nature of this particular organism in capturing the public’s imagination, maybe I could crowdfund this and get a significant chunk of people who are interested in science to do this,’” Kiss recalls.

In the end, 41 backers donated a total of $3,031 – 101% of the goal – to Kiss’s project through Experiment, a site that Bill Gates has said “helps close the gap for potential and promising, but unfunded projects.”

The victory was hard-won.

“You have to work at it,” Kiss says of this kind of crowdfunding. “You have to tweet about, it. You have to do an ‘Ask Me Anything’ on Reddit. You have to really work the Internet hard, because a lot of people are not going to find it on their own. You have to contact colleagues, go to meetings, talk to people who are interested.”

The donated funds, coupled with a discount from the manufacturer, have allowed Kiss to purchase an Illumina Tru-Seq Synthetic Long-Read DNA Kit.

With this kit, Kiss hopes to answer two questions about Rana sylvatica:

  • Does this frog have the same genes every other frog has, but expresses them in a unique way?
  • Are there certain genes unique to this frog?

But even if he doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for, Kiss says his crowdfunders’ investment won’t be wasted.

“I would be extremely surprised if we didn’t find novel and unexpected things with the assembly of this wood frog genome,” he says. “But let’s just assume that’s the worst case scenario: we don’t find anything about the wood frog per se. At least we have developed a technology here at the CBFG that we can apply to other projects. Gaining this technical capability is a very good, valuable goal.”

Just the same, it’s the very uncertainty of a project that can make it an ideal candidate for crowdfunding. For some investors, the prospect of funding a project that could one day lead to a major discovery or innovation is thrilling, and since the stakes are usually small – the average donation to Kiss’s project was about $74 – not much is lost if the project hits a dead end.

That’s good news for scientists like Kiss, who can find it difficult to get projects that are risky or exploratory through the peer review process at government funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Miami University’s Associate Provost for Research & Scholarship, Jim Oris, anticipates crowdfunding will play an increasingly important role for scientists, innovators, and creators at universities.

“Social media has broken down and worked around hierarchies in many industries, removing gatekeepers and letting many more voices through,” Oris says. “Crowdfunding has the potential to do the same for research and creative activity at universities.”

To facilitate grassroots investment at Miami, Oris is leading the development of a homegrown crowdfunding platform. The yet-to-be-named system will allow Miami students, faculty, and staff to register projects and set a funding goal.

“We’re still very much in the beginning stages of developing the system, and there are many details to be worked out,” Oris says. “But the goal is to engage Miami alumni, family, and friends from around the world by offering them an opportunity to have a meaningful and measureable impact on work happening at Miami today.”

Kiss agrees that the measurability inherent in crowdfunding campaigns – fundraising “thermometers” are a hallmark of virtually every platform – is part of their appeal.

“People like to donate to a specific target,” he says. “They like being able to point to something concrete and say, ‘I contributed to that.’ And if the goal is to raise $2,500, there’s no question that a $100 donation will make a difference.”

Today, investors in Kiss’s wood frog genome project can point to equipment in the CBFG and say, “I contributed to that.” But Kiss hopes one day they’ll be able to point to more.

“Nature has already solved a lot of the problems. We just have to figure out how nature did it. Once we’ve sequenced the genome of the wood frog, we may eventually be able to read nature’s instructions to improve organ transplants and other medical treatments.”

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

DNA model image by Alfred Hermida, via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

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