Innovative School Citizen Science Project involving over 1000 scientists, 110 schools, 800 samples and UK’s synchrotron published in CrystEngComm

Innovative School Citizen Science Project involving over 1000 scientists, 110 schools, 800 samples and UK’s synchrotron published in CrystEngComm DOI : 10.1039/d3ce01173a 


  • A systematic study of this scale investigating the effect of additives on calcium carbonate crystallisation has never before been conducted at Diamond or anywhere else in the world
  • Being able to easily produce different forms could be very important for manufacturing

Results of a large-scale innovative Citizen Science experiment called Project M which involved over 1000 scientists, 800 samples and 110 UK secondary schools in a huge experiment will be published in the prestigious RSC (Royal Society of Chemistry) journal CrystEngComm on 29 January 2024. The paper is titled: “Project M: Investigating the effect of additives on calcium carbonate crystallisation through a school citizen science program”. The paper shares a giant set of results from the school citizen scientists who collaborated with a team at Diamond to find out how different additives affect the different forms of calcium carbonate produced. These additives affect the type of calcium carbonate that forms, and thus its properties and potential applications. Being able to easily produce different forms of calcium carbonate could be very important for manufacturing.

Lead authors Claire Murray, Visiting Scientist at Diamond and Julia Parker, Diamond Principal Beamline Scientist and expert in calcium carbonate science who conceptualised the project, analysed the data, wrote and edited the manuscript explain that despite nature’s ability to precisely control calcium carbonate formation in shells and skeletons, laboratories around the world are often unable to exact the same level of control over how calcium carbonate forms. Nature uses molecules like amino acids and proteins to direct the formation of calcium carbonate, so we were interested in discovering how some of these molecules affect the calcium carbonate that we make in the lab.

Project M engaged the students and teachers as scientists, making different samples of calcium carbonate under varying conditions with different additives. 800 of these samples were then analysed in just 24 hours in April 2017 using the X-ray powder diffraction technique at on beamline I11 at Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron. This created a giant set of results which form the basis of the publication. A systematic study of this scale has never been completed  anywhere else in the world.

The goal of this project was to find out how using different additives like amino acids affect the structure of the calcium carbonate. The mineral has three main forms called ‘polymorphs’ – vaterite, calcite and aragonite – which can be identified using X-ray powder diffraction at Diamond’s beamline l11. Diamond Light Source produces one of the brightest  X-ray beams on planet Earth, which allow scientists to understand the atomic structure of materials. Scientists come from all over the UK and further afield to use these X-rays – as well as infrared and ultraviolet light – to make better drugs, understand the natural world, and create futuristic materials. Understanding the impact of different additives on the production of polymorphs is of huge interest in industry such as in manufacturing, medical applications such as tissue engineering and the design of drug-delivery systems, and even cosmetics.

However, mapping such a large parameter space, in terms of additive and concentration, requires the synthesis of a large number of samples and the provision of high throughput analysis techniques. It presented an exciting opportunity to collaborate with 110 secondary schools making real samples to showcase the high-throughput capability of the beamline, including rapid robotic changing of samples, which means diffraction patterns can be collected and samples changed in less than 90 seconds.

“The project was led by a scientific question we had,” explained Claire Murray. “The idea to involve school students and teaching staff in the preparation of the samples followed naturally as we know Chemistry projects are underrepresented in the citizen science space.  The contribution that student citizen scientists can make to research should not be underestimated.  These projects can provide a powerful way for researchers to access volumes of data they might struggle to collect otherwise, as well as inspiring future generations of scientists.”

The project was designed with kit and resources to support the schools to learn new techniques and knowledge and to provide them with space to interact and engage with the experiment. After analysis at Diamond, the students had the opportunity to look at their results, see their peaks and determine what sort of polymorphs they had produced, and compare their results with the results obtained by different samples and different schools at different locations in the UK.

Gry E. Christensen, former student and Project M Scientist at Didcot Girls’ School, Didcot commented; “It was an amazing journey and I recommend that if any other schools have a chance to help with a similar project, then jump on board, because it is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the students, and you feel you can make a positive change to the world.”

“The fact that we didn’t know the answer yet was a motivational factor for the students,” explains Claire Murray. “The teachers told us they took everything more seriously, because this was real science in action – it really meant something. They shared how the students were excited to translate their lab skills to this experiment and that the students were able to contextualise their learning from their prescribed textbooks and lab classes. Teachers also highlighted their own interest and curiosity as many of them have trained as chemists in their education. They appreciated the connection to real science for themselves and the opportunity for continued professional development.”

‘The project offered our pupils a unique opportunity to take part in genuine scientific research and should act as a blueprint for future projects that aim to engage young people in science beyond the classroom.’  Adds Matthew Wainwright, teacher and Project M Scientist at Kettlethorpe High School, Wakefield.

Exploring the role of amino acids in directing crystallisation with the Project M Scientists was an opportunity and an honour for the authors. Julia Parker explained; “In our work we see how we can draw novel scientific conclusions regarding the effect of amino acids on the structure of calcite and vaterite calcium carbonate polymorphs. This ability to explore a wide parameter space in sample conditions, whilst providing continued educational and scientific engagement benefits for the students and teachers involved, can we hope in future be applied to other materials synthesis investigations.”

Project M enabled schools to carry out real research and do an experiment that had never been done before, in their own school laboratory. It was the first ‘citizen science’ project run by Diamond, which transported Diamond science to schools and enabled the production of a considerable set of results, which has now resulted in this successful publication in CrystEngComm.


For more information: please contact Diamond Communications: Lorna Campbell +44 7836 625999 or Isabelle Boscaro-Clarke +44 1235 778130   Diamond Light Source:  Twitter: @DiamondLightSou   Full-size imagery and video can be provided.


Paper Title: DOI: 10.1039/d3ce01173a 29 January, 2024.  CrystEngComm – “Project M: Investigating the effect of additives on calcium carbonate crystallisation through a school citizen science program.”

Authors: Claire A. Murray,*†a Project M Scientists, Laura Holland,b Rebecca O’Brien,c Alice Richards,a Annabelle R. Baker,a Mark Basham,b David Bond,a Leigh Connor,a Sarah J. Day,a Jacob Filik,a Stuart Fisher,d Peter Holloway,a Karl Levik,a Ronaldo Mercado,a Jonathan Potter,a Chiu C. Tang,a Stephen P. Thompsona and Julia E. Parker*† a

Further information: Due to its relevance and impact, the Royal Society of Chemistry presented its Inspiration & Industry Award for 2018 to Project M. The award recognises the originality and impact in chemistry education, among other areas. The award acknowledges the importance of teamwork across the chemical sciences, and teamwork was something that defined the success of Project M. All the aspects that needed to be considered – class length, transporting chemicals through the post, access to the results, the production of teaching materials and experiment protocols – implied a large array of the expertise that can be found at Diamond.

Claire Murray is a chemist who previously worked in the lab for powdered materials called Beamline I11. Claire was the co-project manager for Project M and coordinated the software, hardware and experiments necessary to make Project M happen. She is now a Visiting Scientist at Diamond, freelance science communicator and citizen science researcher.

Julia Parker is the Principal Beamline Scientist and a chemist working in a Diamond lab called Beamline I14 where they use a nanometre sized X-ray beam to look at chemical and biological experiments. Her research expertise in calcium carbonate science was crucial to the success of the project and she co-project managed Project M.

Diamond Light Source provides industrial and academic user communities with access to state-of-the-art analytical tools to enable world-changing science. Shaped like a huge ring, it works like a giant microscope, accelerating electrons to near light speeds, to produce a light 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, which is then directed off into 33 laboratories known as ‘beamlines’. In addition to these, Diamond offers access to several integrated laboratories including the world-class Electron Bio-imaging Centre (eBIC) and the Electron Physical Science Imaging Centre (ePSIC).

Diamond serves as an agent of change, addressing 21st century challenges such as disease, clean energy, food security and more. Since operations started, more than 16,000 researchers from both academia and industry have used Diamond to conduct experiments, with the support of approximately 760 world-class staff. Almost 12,000 scientific articles have been published by our users and scientists.

Funded by the UK Government through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), and by the Wellcome Trust, Diamond is one of the most advanced scientific facilities in the world, and its pioneering capabilities are helping to keep the UK at the forefront of scientific research.

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