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High school students collect soil samples to test for valley fever in citizen science program

This spring Kern High School District students took small samples of dust and dirt near their homes and parks and anywhere else around town where they wondered if there might be valley fever spores lurking in the soil.

The goal of this project is to help educate local students and the community about valley fever, but also to ultimately create a digital map available to the public showing where positive or negative samples of valley fever have been found.

Cal State Bakersfield biology professor Antje Lauer has been studying valley fever since 2008, but when the opportunity to bring citizen scientists into her research came up, she jumped at it.

It solved two problems for her. First, having more data points is always a good thing as a researcher.

"I thought it would be great to have lots of people contributing to valley fever research," Lauer said.

Second, and most importantly for Lauer, she said valley fever is still not well-understood even in communities like Kern County where it's prevalent. Asking people to contribute to a research project is also a way of educating them.

That's where Brittney Beck, a CSUB professor of teacher education and director of the Citizen Scientist Project, came in. In 2018, the university was awarded $4.8 million by the U.S. Department of Education to fund citizen science projects.

Citizen science projects are conducted by scientists who collaborate with curious members of the public. Opening up research to the public increases the scale or speed of data collection, and it may also allow the community to give input on data and "democratize" science, Beck said.

"This project was ideal for citizen science, because anyone can collect a soil sample," Beck said.

The benefit for students is that it brings learning to life for students.

"They're collecting real data that real scientists use in order to better understand themselves, the environment and ultimately to advocate for policy change at the classroom, school and community level," Beck said. "In doing so, education becomes real."

CSUB linked up with Kern High School District citizen scientist liaison Rachel Harless to work on what became the Valley Fever Project.

In the pilot phase, two high schools are participating. Students in East Bakersfield High School's Advanced Placement Environmental Science course, and students in Stockdale High School's Project Lead the Way's Biomedical Pathway participated in collecting the first round of data in spring. So far, students have taken 80 soil samples around the county, Harless said.

Those samples are being stored in a freezer, and the next step will be processing those samples to look for signs of the fungus that causes valley fever. It's a two-step process: extracting DNA and then testing it for valley fever.

On Wednesday, Lauer was walking teacher residents through the process of extracting DNA in order to teach them about the citizen science process. Students at Stockdale and East Bakersfield will be able to finish the process in fall. Arvin High School plans to join the program, too.

Ultimately, Harless said she's hoping that the Valley Fever Project will be on every KHSD campus.

Lauer said that to get a project like this published she would have to reinvestigate the data. But she looks forward to seeing any of the positives that come back from the students, and she expects to see fewer positives in spring than any samples that may be in taken in fall. The project will be ongoing.

Harless has a technology background allowing her to display the data in ArcGIS to show the data in different layers. She said this map could model other factors like weather and air quality.

"We don't know what we could learn from a database in this way," she said. "We don't know what we don't know."

Liyana Karim, an incoming senior at Stockdale, said she took samples at a local park and her front yard. She admits it might sound strange that she chose a sample next to her home. But her uncle, who lives down the street, contracted valley fever after being exposed in his own backyard, she said.

Karim and her classmates interviewed a man who contracted valley fever at a work site during a windy day. She said the project has made her more aware of how the spores spread. She said she would like to see warnings about valley fever on windy days, the same way that there are air quality warnings in the Valley.

"I'm definitely grateful to be involved with a project of this scale," Karim said.