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Ingrid Jordon-Thaden knows how difficult it can be to acquire funding for natural sciences research. Competition for grants from sources such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) is fierce; last year, an NSF grant that could have funded Jordon-Thaden's research was awarded to only 2 percent of applicants.
After years of stitching together small awards of $500 to $1,000 — and even putting one research expedition on a credit card — Jordon-Thaden, a post-doctoral associate in Bucknell University Professor Chris Martine's botany lab, found a novel way of supporting her research: crowdfunding. She and her research partner, Claremont Colleges doctoral candidate Tommy Stoughton, raised more than $7,000 to fund an expedition to Yukon, Canada, through a 30-day campaign on crowdfunding site Experiment.com.
The financial backing — contributed by Jordon-Thaden's colleagues, friends and family in addition to a few philanthropic strangers — will underwrite her travel to Whitehorse, Yukon, and the Rocky Mountains of Idaho and Montana; pay for vehicle rentals, gas and camping supplies while she's in the field; and provide for lab supplies and genetic sequencing fees upon her return.
While crowdfunding commercial ventures like gadgets, software and movies is not uncommon — lead crowdfunding site Kickstarter has collected more than $1 billion in pledges for more than 100,000 projects — it is relatively novel in the research realm. David Foreman, Bucknell's director of corporate and foundation relations, said he has not heard of any other crowdfunding efforts to underwrite research at the University.
Founded in 2012, Experiment.com provides a platform for collecting pledges to limited-time fundraising campaigns. Jordon-Thaden needed to meet her $7,000 campaign goal within 30 days to receive the money; otherwise her backers would not be charged for their pledges and she wouldn't receive a dime. She met that goal with a week to spare.
Jordon-Thaden's Yukon and Rocky Mountain trip will help her gather evidence for an ongoing study of plant evolution during Pleistocene glaciation cycles in North America. By examining DNA fingerprints, Jordon-Thaden and Stoughton can determine when a particular species first inhabited a particular region, providing a clearer picture of how plants and animals responded to advancing and receding glaciers.
"You can tell when a population came about by looking at how many mutations it has compared to its relatives," she said. "It's called phylogeography. It's basically learning how to interpret natural history events from DNA sequences."
The researchers' focus area stretches the length of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico, and they have already collected specimens from the Central Rockies and Great Basin in southern California and Nevada. This summer they will also collect plants in northern Montana and southern Idaho while in the area for an academic conference in Boise, then head to Whitehorse for a two-week excursion. In the Yukon, they will collect plants in the Ogilve and St. Elias alpine ranges.
The expedition also provides an opportunity to learn more about alpine plants, to study the relationships between species and likely discover new ones. Alpine habitats are rich and diverse, Jordon-Thaden said, and they contain countless undiscovered plant species. But they are also threatened by climate change, with some studies suggesting more than 30 percent of alpine plant species could face extinction in the next 50 years.
"As global warming becomes more and more pressing, alpine plants are more likely to go extinct, because they can't move downslope," Jordon-Thaden said. "As the climate gets warmer they just go up, up, up — and there is only so far you can go before you run off the top of the mountain. So we are greatly interested in conservation issues as well."
The team is planning future expeditions to British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, and to Eastern Siberia to collect more alpine plants. On the advice of the site's staff, Jordon-Thaden chose not to include funding for those trips in her first Experiment.com campaign, though doing so went against her professional inclination.
"As a scientist, to not ask for the whole amount is a little bit weird," she said. "To me, it's usually the whole project or nothing. But they've found that the public just doesn't seem to respond to that. I don't know if it's a trust issue, but the public is not as keen on seeing that you're going to have $20,000 cash for your own discretion."
When it comes time to funding the next phase of her study, Jordon-Thaden said she would consider crowdfunding another expedition.
"Some people contacted me and said they missed the deadline, so I know people still want to donate," she said. "I also know people who told me they would donate more, that they were waiting to make sure I reached it. These are often friends and family who have always wanted to support me after watching my career develop since undergrad days."