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Individual scientists usually specialize in one particular area. They get very good at knowing a lot about a few things. This is a natural and very normal thing to do, especially when the amount of detail a researcher has to consider in their study is huge! There is no way for any one person to know the ins-and-outs of each and every project.

One of the most important lessons we can learn from a disaster the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is the importance of "thinking big" with science -- really big! We need to ask big questions, such as: “How is this one particular thing connected to that?” or “What influence does something that seems so different and very far away have on my local work?” or “How is this one thing connected to everything?”

Scientists might not have the luxury of working on a whole bunch of different projects at once but, through cooperation in large projects like Gulf Watch, they can see the links, or connections, between what they have been focusing on and what others have been doing. In science, we call this "systems thinking." Systems thinking looks at the web of relationships where individual pieces respond both in their own individual ways and together as a whole. An ecosystem like the Gulf of Alaska is not just a collection of individual animals and plants. It is all living things interacting with each other and with the non-living things around them.

Gulf Watch Alaska scientists combine data from all of their projects to help them better answer their own specific research questions. This gives each of them a better understanding of complicated ecosystem connections. You can think of each project like different pieces to a jigsaw puzzle. As more and more pieces are combined, a clearer and more complete picture emerges.

Click the picture below to solve the jigsaw puzzle!

Gulf of Alaska jigsaw puzzle

Systems thinking allows the modern scientist to step outside of their lab. They connect with fellow researchers and see the importance of their work on a much larger scale. It requires teamwork and communication as they build a network with different specialties, interests, and research subjects.

Watch the video below and listen to the Gulf Watch team as they talk about working together and putting the pieces of this complicated puzzle into place.

VIDEO: Monitoring Connections

Sonia Batten, Heather Coletti, and Dan Esler discuss connections between the four individual monitoring components of Gulf Watch Alaska. (1:55)

Video Transcript

Citizen Science articlesYou too can help with long-term ecosystem monitoring right in your own ecosystem -- through Citizen Science! Citizen science is the collection and analysis of data through partnerships between the general public and professional scientists. This collaborative way of doing science allows anyone with an interest in the natural world to engage in the scientific process.

Many citizen scientist projects benefit from people gathering local monitoring data and contributing to a larger database. The data provided by participating citizen scientists helps professional researchers build a more complete understanding of ecosystems that they only visit once or twice a year.

Recently, the scientific journal "Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment" published an entire issue focused on citizen science! Click the link on the right to access the journal.

Explore some of the links below to find a citizen science opportunity to join!

Citizen Scientists

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Citizen Science Central Projects

National Science Foundation


Scientific American Citizen Science Project List


Journey North




Who is watching the Gulf?

Meet John
Meet Sonia
Meet Dan
Meet Heather

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