When Sarah joined SEI in 2008, her work focused mostly on the OPAL project, which aimed to engage people from all backgrounds in science and nature through environmental surveys. Whilst working on this project, Sarah completed her Ph.D. in the Department of Environment and Geography on the Evaluation of Environmental Education.

Since then, Sarah has been expanding the topics and locations in which citizen science approaches are used, including through work with Parenting Science Gang, a parent-led citizen science project, and developing methods to monitor air pollution in informal settlements in Nairobi.

Sarah West with the SEI York team

Sarah West (second from right) with the SEI York team. Photo: Open Air Laboratories (OPAL).

  • Q

    You have been working at SEI for over a decade. What’s been your main focus and what are your top highlights from this time?

    A

    I use citizen science approaches to engage ordinary people with scientific research. The reason I’m passionate about citizen science is that it helps make the science that we are doing more relevant to people’s lives, whether that is slum dwellers in Nairobi or mums on Facebook, potentially increasing the uptake of findings. Citizen science can give all sorts of individual and collective social benefits, for example, build capacity in people by improving knowledge, skills, community cohesion, and improve local environments through direct action, although this is often poorly documented.

    Lots more research is needed into who participates in citizen science activities, why they participate, and what benefits they, science and society gain from their participation, bringing much-needed critical reflection to the field. Going forward, I want to embed this approach across all of SEI’s Impact Areas and SEI York’s research groupings, all the while keeping in mind our mission of providing integrative knowledge that bridges science, policy and practice to create a sustainable, prosperous future for all. I am particularly interested in co-created forms of citizen science, as I think that is where the biggest changes can come for participants.

    Particular highlights of this work have been OPAL, where we worked with local community groups in Yorkshire to better understand biodiversity on coal-mining sites, and developed surveys to monitor the state of the environment across the UK, and, more recently, our work in Nairobi where we are working with community members to better understand air pollution and lung health. My colleague Rachel Pateman and I have been scoping out how citizen science can contribute towards monitoring and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and sit on an international working group on citizen science and the SDGs with links to the UN. This is a really important area that SEI can contribute to.

Left: Sarah West Right: Sarah West

Left: Sarah engaged with young learners with the OPAL project. Photo: OPAL. Right: Sarah presenting as part of the AIR Network (Action for Interdisciplinary Air Pollution Research) project. Photo: AIR Network.

  • Q

    What motivated you to move from research to leadership?

    A

    I am passionate about the work that we do at SEI, and have enjoyed interacting with colleagues around the world. Ever since I first walked through the door of SEI York in 2008 for my interview as a Community Scientist I have been inspired by our vision and the action-oriented research we are doing to achieve it.

    I was told when I was first hired that it was because of my enthusiasm and passion. Over a decade later, that passion for the Institute and for the University of York has not diminished, and I have enjoyed being an ambassador for both organisations, communicating our work to collaborators, the general public and funders through channels including local and regional press and radio, national television, conferences and networking events.

    I decided to apply for the Centre Director position because I wanted to shape the direction of our research and practice, facilitate links between SEI and the University of York, and to communicate to the wider world about our amazing research. The timing seemed right, as I’ve just returned from maternity leave with our second child, and I haven’t had the chance to throw myself completely back into project work yet. I will continue to spend around half of my time conducting research around citizen science, so I’m looking forward to continuing that work as well.