Inside the Life of a Field Scientist

Working in the field is a huge part of biologists day to day activities.

Field work is imperative to understand how our chosen species behaves in their natural environment, and for me is my favorite part of doing research. Although field work can take a long time and hopefully produce meaningful scientific results, there are other aspects not talked about in scientific papers.  This is in fact, the pitfalls, site challenges, and obstacles in doing field research. Knowing this, I would like to tell you about a few of my research experiences that won’t ever make it to publication.

In my case, field work involves being around water and outside in the Florida sunshine for hours watching manatees and sometimes alligators. When I began my PhD research, I spent my first summers wearing minimal clothing, used lots of sunscreen, and a visor that covered part of my face (see photo above).  As you can see, I am very light complected with Irish heritage. After many visits to my dermatologist to remove skin cancers he suggested I stay out of the sun (impossible with my passion for manatees). However, I began to dress like the image below.

This is how I cover myself from head to toe which has led to me being called a “manatee ninja”, “terrorist”, and frightening small children on occasion.  (Side note, I have since switched to a baseball cap to protect my scalp from the sun leading to further speculation by observing passersby that I am that crazy manatee lady). During winter months, being fully clothed isn’t so bad, however the summer months in Florida are a much different story as you can well imagine.

There is also the problem with working close to the water and since I work with a lot of electrical equipment keeping those components out of the water. A video camera or two has fallen into the water on occasion which has caused 1) cancelation of any more research for the day and 2) frantic online searches on how to retrieve existing data and dry out cameras to continue to use them. (Side note I have been able to salvage data from freshwater environments and use the camera for two additional years). Colleagues of mine have not been so lucky. One lost a $5000 CTD when the hook using to keep it attached failed sending it to the ocean floor.

There is also at times underestimation of the strength of the animals you are working with.

The backstory of the image below is an attempt to record the vocalizations of alligators at an alligator farm. We enclosed the underwater recording equipment in a protective cage which the alligators proceeded to treat like a chew toy and wound up ripping the cord to the hydrophone into two pieces. (We were able to piece it back together and I still use the equipment to this day)

We also weren’t successful at building the cage the second time around.  This happened only thirty minutes after we arrived and before any recordings started.  Maybe steel next time?

In short, field work is an integral part of science and can be the most enjoyable part of the research experience.  However, one must be prepared for the other challenges that field research brings. Now I have to get back to the hours of post processing of the data I gathered. That aspect is another blog post.

Until next time.