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Genome Galaxy Initiative:
Tick Hunter Cory Gall Seeks to Trace the Cause of Acute Febrile Illness

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

We recently introduced our Genome Galaxy Initiative  in partnership with Experiment, through which we’re helping scientists fund genomic research for the benefit of science and society. One of the first explorers of this initiative is Cory Gall, a graduate student at Washington State University who wants to curb the onset of a disease that may be linked to ticks in Africa.

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Gall brings our attention to the rising incidence of acute febrile illness occurring in the Mnisi community in South Africa, where close proximity of community animals (including dogs and cattle) and wild animals in a nearby national park may be contributing to disease dynamics and influencing human health. Some evidence suggests that ticks may play a role in the illness, which is still relatively uncharacterized, and Gall seeks public support on Experiment for an expedition to understand whether ticks are indeed the culprits of disease transmission. He hopes to study the local animals and identify the responsible pathogen by using full-length 16S SMRT Sequencing, among other approaches, which will allow him to identify without ambiguity the microbial species that may be contributing to this disease.

Experiment is like Kickstarter for science: it’s a crowdfunding platform that lets scientists connect directly with the public to raise money for projects that might not fit traditional funding avenues, or ones that will generate the preliminary data needed for larger grant proposals. More than 380 scientific projects have been funded through Experiment so far, with supporters pledging more than $5 million. Contributions of any size, however small, are welcomed and are only accepted when the funding goals are achieved.  Scientists funded this way can publish their results and share them at conferences as usual, but they also engage their crowdfunding community with updates and discussions along the way.

Gall first used crowdfunding for a scientific project two years ago, and he says the benefit was far more than the $3,000 he raised for research into tick-borne disease: he connected directly with a community that was truly passionate about the work he wanted to do, and he got a crash course in communicating complicated science to a lay audience. “As government funding is becoming more difficult to get, scientists are going to need to start exploring alternatives,” he says. By making projects relatable to a general audience, scientists can open the doors to new funding opportunities for their research. While crowdfunding can’t replace large government or charitable grants, it offers flexibility for riskier projects and ultimately makes those big grant proposals more competitive by fleshing them out with preliminary data.

Gall jokes that his research was a great fit for crowdfunding “because everyone hates ticks.” Still, he worked hard on short, accessible explanations of the project and what he hoped to learn — an effort that paid off in the end, and a lesson he has taken into his new project.

Follow Cory (@Bearded_Science) on his tick hunting expedition in South Africa. Make your impact as a science patron to Genome Galaxy and learn more about ticks and the rising cases of acute febrile illness in South Africa.

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