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2016 in review: Science gets personal

Science is often portrayed as a distant, sterile task, one reserved for the loneliest geniuses among us. As we reflect on 2016, we see this characterization of science is no longer true (if it ever was).

Today, medical researchers introduce solutions to diseases from epilepsy to cancer — custom made for you. Social media data informs public policies that aim to improve our lives. Ordinary citizen scientists (that's you and me!) collaborate on experiments from the comfort of their couches.  

2016 seems like the year that science got personal.

Customized medicine

We live in an increasingly customized world, one where you can dictate the color and material of your sneakers, tailor a playlist of your favorite music and stream it to your phone, and select a unique blend of ingredients for your dog’s food and have it delivered to your door.

<strong>Going with the flow.</strong> High resolution 3D simulations down to the cellular level have scientists very excited about the potential for precision medicine. Courtesy Amanda Randles.

But what about your health? Even now, when you visit the doctor, you get the exact same flu shot as your neighbor, your boss, and the delivery driver dropping off your custom dog chow. Medicine remains based on generalized standards of care.

Scientists are working hard to change that by developing precision treatments based on each patient’s individual body that will lead to better outcomes and fewer side effects.

— Chemist Rommie Amaro’s atomic level simulation of a protein that helps prevent the formation of cancerous cells may lead to individual therapies that reduce or eliminate cancers of the breast and prostate.

— Biomedical engineering professor Amanda Randles has created a 3D high-resolution model of the human circulatory system which will allow physicians to simulate and analyze each patient’s unique blood flow before ever entering an operating room.

Science in your cell phone

Ask not what science can do for you, but what you can do for science. Or, rather, what you may already be doing.

<strong>Going viral.</strong> Scientists have developed a system that can forecast the outbreak of dengue fever by analyzing the calling behavior of citizens to a public-health hotline. <a href='http://tabletopwhale.com'> Courtesy Eleanor Lutz. </a>

The endless stream of data generated by our constant connection to our phones and social networks is gold to scientists. Every check-in, tweet, and like is a data point that researchers can use to discern large-scale patterns in human behavior and devise ways to improve our lives.

— A new computing platform harvests a city’s realtime social media traffic to analyze land and building use and helps officials make informed decisions in the event of natural and other disasters.

— By evaluating calls received at a public health hotline in Pakistan, scientists can forecast the outbreak of deadly Dengue fever two to three weeks in advance, on a block-by-block level.

No PhD required

Modern breakthroughs don’t flow only in one direction, from scientist to citizen. These days, ordinary citizens can turn that around and contribute to significant scientific discoveries.

Citizen science harnesses the power of individuals around the globe to amass data on a scale no single scientist could gather in a lifetime. Projects include monitoring water quality, counting birds and butterflies, classifying galaxies, collecting weather data, and many more.

<strong>Science: A team sport. </strong>Citizen scientists accelerate discovery because more eyes, hands, and minds are engaged. Courtesy Kevin Bacher. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

— On November 30th, 30,000 citizen scientists collaborated with twelve laboratories around the world in a randomness experiment to test the laws of quantum physics.

— Long before governments began tracking weather data, 15th century Shinto priests and 17th century Finnish merchants kept records of water freeze and thaw dates that help modern scientists substantiate climate change.

There's plenty more where those came from! To read more about how science gets personal, browse the tags smartphone or citizen science in our archives

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