Into the Field

A great migration is soon upon us.  I’m not talking about wildebeest, caribou, bar-headed geese, sandhill cranes, or any other of these amazing migratory feats.


Wildebeest and zebra crossing the Mara River, Kenya. Photo by Flickr user fveronesi1

I’m talking about field season!  The mass emptying of offices and laboratories across universities that follows the end of teaching and other requirements of spring semester.  At least for many of us in the northern hemisphere, the soon-to-be summer brings with it the stress and excitement of planning and executing another round of research in the great outdoors.
Whether this means spending your days in the garden behind your department, packing up for an expedition to the arctic, or driving along rural back roads, field work is a busy time of year.  Stress and fun can both be at a maximum.  The limited window that weather often allows adds for uncontrollable and unpredictable outcomes.  The need for field assistants can result in stellar friendships or painful daily interactions.  And the close contact with nature and/or the public can sometimes become frustrating or dangerous.
Yet fieldwork is often not only necessary in molecular ecology, but also a major draw of the research.  I owe some of my initial pull towards biology to the prospect of being able to work in the field.
So what can be done to get the most out of your field season without breaking the bank, going insane, or worse?  I’d love to hear thoughts and advice from the seasoned and sage field biologists out there.  Add as much as you want in the comments below!
We all want to get the data we need with minimal obstacles along the way.  I am by no means an extensively experienced field biologist, but I’ll share a few things I’ve picked up from both being in the position of field assistant as well as the grad student in charge.  I hope they are of use, and be sure to check back in the comments section as others add more pointers and lessons learned.  With summer soon upon us, the time is ripe to share your knowledge and wisdom!
1.  My first point is more of a personal motto, but I view it as a very important one.  When I am doing my own research in the field, I should be the one that is working the hardest.  Now, I know we all hire or recruit volunteers for the field, but having spent 4 of my 5 previous field seasons as an assistant, it is no fun to be toiling away while someone in charge sits in a lawn chair sipping lemonade.  Your helpers will be happiest, and most likely more motivated to do a good job and really put their all into it, if you show that you’re willing to do the exact same things they are.  You don’t have to always be doing the most difficult or tedious task, but you should not avoid it the entire time either.  Perhaps this is an arguable point, especially if you pay your help well, but I will hold my ground on the fact that the best team morale results from equal input by everyone.
2.  Plan ahead, plan ahead, plan ahead.  If you can do preliminary fieldwork, do it.  Knowing what you are getting yourself into means you can plan accordingly, and things are bound to go smoother down the line.  You don’t want to fly across the globe only to find out you can’t buy that essential piece of equipment you were sure every store would carry. Don’t count on ideal weather when estimating the number of days you will need.  And prepare as much as you can ahead of time, be it labeling tubes and envelopes or booking campsites and other accommodations.
3.  Hire the right assistants.  I’ll have to come back to tips on this one after the summer is out since it is my first time hiring help. But I am sure this is a vital step, so feel free to contribute!
4.  Save money.  Do you really need that top-of-the-line, laser-beam-powered ruler?  If functionality is equal, opt for less fancy.  This is my preference because it usually means no batteries required and a lower probability of breaking.  If something more expensive will save you a significant amount of time in the field, by all means go for it, but there are lots of little spots you can save money when conducting fieldwork on a budget.  I need a lot of silica gel for my samples, and what do you know, florists sell this for much cheaper than any scientific company.  Do you need microcentrifuge tubes, or can coin envelopes work just as well?
5.  Take the proper precautions. I now work in bear country, so safety means multiple people and bear spray.  I once did fieldwork on a naval base where safety meant checking in with headquarters so that we weren’t in a zone undergoing ballistics testing.  If I were studying in the desert or at sea, I am sure it would be a whole different ballpark.  Everyone’s situation is different, so this goes along with planning ahead and knowing what you’re doing.  There is something worse than returning data-less, and that is returning life- or limb-less.
6.  Embrace your new locality. If your work takes you to rural areas, getting to know people who live around there is helpful.  They’re usually curious about what we’re doing, and most of the time pleasant about it.  This may lead to very worthwhile connections down the line, from being allowed on private property, to returning home with locally grown fruits or vegetables, or even to having free housing!
7.  Know what motivates you.  This one is equally good life advice.  When you end up in that awful situation where every field test has failed, elephants have trampled your test site, or you’re miserably eaten by insects and utterly exhausted, remember why you’re there in the first place and that yes, it probably is still worth it to push through.
8.  Enjoy it!  You’re likely to be in a beautiful area, perhaps somewhere most people never have the chance to see.  You are lucky enough to not be sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen.  So forget about those mosquitoes and ticks for a second and the sun beating down on you or the rain drenching you, and soak in your surroundings (no pun intended).
9.  And take duct tape.  Duct tape always comes in handy.

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