Fieldwork in the time of COVID

Life as we knew it came to a screeching halt back in March. Almost a year ago, how is that possible??? Yet, at the same time it feels like several lifetimes have passed …

At a recent editorial meeting, we were talking about TME posts and in the past, I’ve written about fieldwork. I always felt fortunate to be able to travel to far flung places, but I don’t think I truly appreciated how much being out in the field really meant to me. In between bouts of existential dread and complete overwhelmed-ness over the last 9-odd months, I’ve realized how much I took for granted. Fieldwork was one thing that was simply part of the fabric of my life.

Our time in the field entails long days of driving hither and yon, sampling (often in hot, humid weather or the freezing rain – we like extremes I guess), and then processing late into the night. At some point Cher, Céline, or some other guilty pleasure musician make an appearance to get us through the slog – whether in the lab or on the road. Sometimes, we’re processing samples in a nice lab. Other times, we’re sitting backwards on a toilet in a Motel6 using the tank lid as a makeshift bench. We eat too much McDonald’s, go back for more and regret it immediately. Yet, these are the times of the year I find myself anxiously awaiting, counting down the days on my calendar until we are on the road.

Regular readers will know that I am now based at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I had no idea that Alabama is INCREDIBLY biodiverse – the state’s freshwater ecosystems not only are among the most diverse in North America, but on a global scale. Scientists are still describing taxa and we’ve lost many species before we could study them or even name them. Unsurprisingly, our lab is interested in the algae that live in these habitats. We know very little beyond some taxonomic information about these macroalgal constituents. With their weird life cycles they are excellent taxa to study gene flow.

In spring 2020, Sarah Shainker, a fantastic undergrad that worked with me during my post-doc and has written a post for TME, joined my lab. Finally, we could dive into freshwater algae and start exploring Alabama! Frustratingly, lockdown went into effect in mid-March right about the time we’d be heading out into streams – no research, no fieldwork. This past spring was incredibly mild, with little rain. Clear days means easier freshwater algal sampling. I never thought there’d be harder work than timing sampling around tides and then having a limited time on site to do what needs doing. However, when it rains, as occurs regularly in Alabama, working in streams becomes a challenge – seeing little, gooey algae in coffee and cream streams is nigh on impossible. We watched the beautiful days meander by as we were only able to talk about how we could be sampling in an alternate universe. As our freshwater work had yet to spin into high gear, we could look forward to future sampling when it was safe to do so. A silver lining maybe from COVID, Sarah’s had time to dive into the literature at a pace she probably wouldn’t have had had life continued on as ‘normal’. And, most importantly, at the end of the day, everyone in our lab and extended families were healthy.

Some of our marine work was another matter. We’ve been sampling along the Eastern Shore of Virginia on and off since 2014, but in earnest since 2017. Part of this repeated sampling is because we are increasingly finding that temporal sampling is critical for characterizing reproductive modes in partially clonal taxa (e.g., Becheler et al. 2017). More work on properly sampling partially clonal taxa for population genetics is forthcoming from the ANR-funded CLONIX-2D consortium. Some of the species we have been sampling are part of this effort and this sampling is important to test out some of our theoretical predictions. But, the main reason we’ve been doggedly going back to the same sites, is that we need to have basic natural history observations to make sense of all these fancy molecular data we can now generate with relative ease. The only way to amass such intimate knowledge is to be out in nature – observing, jotting down notes, thinking like an anemone or an alga. This isn’t something that can be hurriedly gathered in a single, week-long trip or one-off visits. Our best ideas come from off-hand remarks at the end of a long day in the mud, building on our repository of knowledge. We scribble them down before they disappear in the wind.

Earlier on in the pandemic and during lockdown, our lab read a paper by Joe Travis. In the essay published in American Naturalist, he describes a salamander sampling trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains as a grad student:

At that time,  Joe [Bailey] was a 60-year-old full professor, Henry [Wilbur] a 30-year-old assistant professor, and I a 23-year-old graduate student. Our typical collecting routine was as follows. Joe decided where we would stop to look for whichever species we were seeking, and the three of us would disperse up the slope to turn rocks and logs to find the animals. I would turn 20 objects and collect five salamanders, of which three would be the target species; Henry would turn 10 objects and collect 10 salamanders, of which nine would be the target species; Joe would turn five objects and collect 15 salamanders, all of which were the target species.

No one who knew Joe Bailey would be surprised that he could collect more salamanders with less effort than anyone else. Joe knew from long experience and careful observation where the best habitat was for whichever species we were collecting, and he knew under which rocks and logs we would most readily find that species. He had field notes, of course, but I never saw him consult them; Joe seemed to rely entirely on memory and intuition.

My post-doc, Will Ryan, and I have been making our pilgrimages from Birmingham up to the Eastern Shore several times each year. Our training was very much centered on natural history at Cal State Northridge and in the Dudgeon Lab. (Another thing I didn’t realize was how fortunate I was to land at CSUN and the courses that I was able to take an undergrad!) We both have our search images for where you’re likely to find the anemones and algae we’ve been working on, amassed from years of trudging along documenting where they are and aren’t. As Travis (2020) goes on to say

natural history, sensu lato, is the foundation of the best ecological, evolutionary, and behavioral science.

We were going on year 4 of observing, documenting, and sampling – building that foundation for those ecological and evolutionary questions. Would it be the end of the world if we couldn’t sample? No, but we were nevertheless anxious that we’d be relegated to discussing what if’s over Zoom, imagining what could have been – yet another item to add to the laundry list of bad things of this annus horribilis.

However, in June, UAB began slowly opening up research labs again, complete with detailed SOPs for how to safely get back to work. Hope for fieldwork in the time of COVID was kindled.

Shortly after post-docs and grad students could get back in the lab, we got the word that we’d be able to go in the field – but we had to have an SOP for COVID-era field and lab work. Luckily, I could adapt a lot of the SOP I wrote to the field adding in how we could be socially distant while out digging around in the mud. At most sites on the Eastern Shore, we rarely encounter another human. Will and I hunkered down at home, isolating both before and after fieldwork, and planned out the 10 or so days of fieldwork in a level of detail we’d never bothered with in the past. We have tall tales of walking through Walmart with a magnet for all sorts of things, but wanted to avoid unnecessary shopping.

A sediment-catching contraption made of pool rings and solo cups – that was fun getting those things reimbursed from precedented times in 2018.

We set off one very steamy July morning and stopped as little as possible on the 12 or so hour journey. Mask wearing was too variable for comfort and we would scamper back to the departmental van with alacrity when stops were required. We arrived unscathed, but alas three to four months ensconced in one’s house does not prepare one for July fieldwork. It’s a serious workout extricating a boot from sinky mud, not to mention squatting up and down to sample. Zoom meetings are not good preparation for this!

The first day, sunscreen was applied everywhere but, it turns out, the backs of our hands. I am not sure that I have ever consciously applied sunscreen to the backs of my hands. Yet, they’ve NEVER burned! I guess I’ve always just gotten a base layer from being out in society as we used to do in precedented times. Each of our hands turned a shade crimson that is sacrilegious since we are not Tuscaloosa! Go Blazers! (As a transplant to the Deep South, I still don’t really get the obsession with football) The skin on the back of your hand is surprisingly brittle, burning it is rather painful, and it takes more time than one would think to heal!

4th of July with glow sticks after a long, masked field day.

Our July 2020 fieldwork was definitely a different experience. Normally, we sample a site and then find ourselves at a diner for a late breakfast or an early dinner. This time we wistfully passed our regular haunts. I’d made risotto and spaghetti before we left and that became our staple lunch and dinner for the next 10 days. At one site, there’s a seafood restaurant we’ve always wanted to stop in for food. As the tide waits for no one, we’ve always said next time. Virginia had opened up again by July and the restaurant was serving socially distanced fish and chips. Will and I were salivating while plucking unsuspecting anemones and algae off the marina pontoons. The fish and chips would have to wait yet again … these were small sacrifices considering we were able to venture out to collect critical data.

This was also one of the longest times we’ve been out on the Shore – another silver lining of COVID times? In any case, we did pause and look around. We began discussing patterns and linking observations that can only come from spending years thinking about things and looking at these wee beasties. Not to mention the pure joy of discussing science in person and not two dimensionally on Zoom.

All too soon we were packing up our gear into rolling totes and heading south on the 95 back to Alabama, unsure if we’d be allowed back for our next bout of sampling in October.

Time no longer has meaning. Some days flash by whereas others seem to stretch on and on. In the interim between field trips, I kept thinking that I’ll have time to get some writing done. Or get in the lab and get some bench work done. And, several months flew by in a haze. Only a few small things ticked off the to-do list.

October was upon us and we found ourselves once again trundling along the 95. Everything was planned out with precision. Mask wearing along our route was much better than in July.

We knocked out all our sites in about five, long days – one of them rainy and VERY cold, foreshadowing what our winter work hopefully will be like. Each time a boot got stuck in the mud or eyes grew fuzzy from looking down a scope, I kept thinking that we were still able to collect data and be in the field. Each observation and data point took on new value and importance.

Our final field day in crisp autumn air.

As we packed up to leave, again uncertain if our next trip will be possible, our eyes were drawn to spider webs coating the banister of our home away from home. As two kids from southern California, Will and I both marveled at the intricate webs – a symbol of Halloween. We don’t have webs such as these magnificent creations around our childhood homes and in our memories, except as decorations. Each thread was adorned with dew. Makes sense why Halloween spider webs look like these …

Sure, everything, including fieldwork, in the time of COVID certainly leaves a lot to be desired. Mask wearing isn’t fun whether pipetting clear liquid or picking anemones off an oyster, but it sure is a small price to pay to get to do something normal. Seeing friends in the field is replete with awkward hellos and good-byes, arrested six feet apart, uncertain how to make it less weird. Absent are the handshakes and hugs.

We’ve been unable to celebrate the large (GRFP awarded to Sarah!!) and small victories as a lab (COVID-era fieldwork in the bag!). We are incredibly grateful that we were able to safely collect data, adding to our temporal dataset. Four years may not seem like a lot, but to a fledgling lab, they are as good as gold. Better probably.

A change of scene has been one of the best parts of venturing off into the boonies. Our current spheres are so reduced, even when on campus. I miss the day to day interactions with colleagues and students – even trying to climb the stairs against a flow of undergrads streaming to the next class or picking my way over students sitting outside their next lab class.

Here’s hoping that we all get to plan some field trips or whatever it is you do as a molecular ecologist in the near future …


Becheler R, Masson JP, Arnaud-Haond S, Halkett F, Mariette S, Guillemin ML, Valero M, Destombe C, Stoeckel S (2017) ClonEstiMate, a Bayesian method for quantifying rates of clonality of populations genotyped at two‐time steps. Molecular Ecology Resources 17: e251-e267.

Travis J (2020) Where Is Natural History in Ecological, Evolutionary, and Behavioral Science? American Naturalist 196: 1-8.

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