Cravings for chocolate or ice cream are not uncommon, but Natasha Gownaris, a third-year doctoral candidate at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, craves Africa and is crowdfunding to send herself back to Lake Turkana in Kenya.

Gownaris’ research project called “Saving the Samaki of the World’s Largest Desert Lake” is currently being featured on PetriDish.org, which is the largest crowdfunding site specifically for scientific research.

PetriDish.org was co-founded in January of this year by Matt Salzberg and Ilia Papas and provides a forum for scientists to campaign, or crowdfund, for support of their research. Crowdfunding is the term used to describe an effort made mostly through the Internet to get people to fund a project.

Researchers, after going through an application process, set a specific monetary goal to reach within an allotted time frame.

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“We hand select the most interesting and meaningful projects we find to be featured on our site and then allow you to get involved,” says PetriDish.org.

Projects on PetriDish, like other crowdfunding sites, have various pledge levels and donating within a certain pledge level will garner a reward from the researcher like a Twitter shoutout or a tagged fish with their namesake.

Gownaris said she has been trying a number of methods to raise the funds to continue her research, but PetriDish will assist her in finishing her project.  She has received a Turkana Basin Institute Fellowship Grant, is a National Geographic Young Explorer and has a private donor to match her grants.

“My dissertation research aims to better understand the fish of Lake Turkana, and in particular, which habitats are most important to their survival and what their feeding habits are like,” Gownaris said in the video portion of her PetriDish campaign.

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Gownaris said the application process was not difficult and that she also thought the research on PetriDish.org has “to have something that appeals to the public” like her project in Turkana.

“I think they do like ‘sexy science,’” Gownaris said in regards to the projects that are accepted for PetriDish.  Gownaris explained that ‘sexy science’ has public appeal as opposed to something less tangible or not easily understood.

As of Wednesday evening on Oct. 10, Gownaris has raised $755 of the $6,000 and has 26 days left to raise the money.

However, every project on PetriDish must reach its minimum goal in the time requirement to receive any of the money.  If a project does not reach its goal, none of the money raised will go to the research.

With the $6,000, Gownaris would be able to book flights to and from Kenya and purchase two acoustic receivers and five acoustic tags for Nile tilapia, a type of fish.

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Gownaris has been able to successfully test her tagging technique at Sibiloi National Park on the eastern side of Lake Turkana and would like to be able to go back to test in Ferguson’s Gulf at Turkana.

The fish tagging technique that she has been using had never been done with African tilapia.

“It’s like fish surgery,” Gownaris said about tagging the fish, which all survived during her last visit to Turkana.

Gownaris said her research is important because the fish are a major food source of the region and since Lake Turkana has the highest alkaline levels of any other lake in the world, it makes the ecology very unique.

“I’m trying to get better daily water level data,” Gownaris said regarding her goals for her trip to Kenya.

Gownaris said the hardest part for her with crowdfunding has been “putting it out there for a wider audience.”  First, Gownaris posted about her campaign on Facebook, but she did not want her friends to “carry the burden” for funding her project.

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“The first few donations were from people I knew,” Gownaris said.  But Gownaris said she is staying positive about the crowdfunding process.

“I think it’s a really cool idea even if I don’t get the money, for people to know about the project,” Gownaris said.

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