Field Work is neither all Work nor all Play

December 1, 2018

Soren Struckman

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Exhibit A on crouching in a field

A large chunk of the work for my project in June was spent collecting data and doing field work. Often times this meant crouching in a literal field given our particular pant of study, but sometimes this involved more conventionally outdoorsy activities like crossing rivers, hiking dirt trails, and general bushwhacking. Studying and working in the disciplines of biology, environmental science, or other “macro-scale” natural sciences, you hear the term “field work” thrown around a lot… but what does this vague umbrella term actually mean? Now I’m sure this very well may vary considerably depending on what line of work you’re in and what questions you’re actually trying to answer, but I will give you my impressions from a general /plant ecology perspective.

First impressions when people think about field work in biology tend to end up favoring one of two possibilities: A) that it’s all sweaty, dirty work where you get eaten by bugs and covered in poison ivy, or B) that it’s like a bunch of tree-huggers out frolicking in the woods. Neither of these are entirely false (poison ivy and frolicking included), but they aren’t really true either. Going on a semi-extended trip to do field science is a pretty immersive affair that combines outdoor activity, academic rigor, and a genuine sense of camaraderie.

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A PosTex positioning system for collecting spatial data (fondly known as Dexter)

The filed work I have done so far in the course of this project has involved several back-to-back trips at four sites across Virginia. The first was multi-day trips to Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, a protected island in the James River, then week-long trips to Blandy Experimental Farm and Sky Meadows State Park, both near Winchester, and several days of commuting to the local Historic Greenspring run by the NPS. At all the sites, our general purpose and activities were about the same, we were there to collect data (another buzzword for a different post) about just about every aspect of Common Milkweed. We measured these plants in terms of: height, area, diameter, quality, herbivory, reproductive output, position in space, chemical composition, and even genetic information… which all becomes quite a large task when you realize it must be done roughly 800 times. In the process, use two field instruments to collect spectral (chemical) and spatial data. I used a lot of these different measurements in various elements of the statistical population model that is my final project, whether that be incorporating heights to model growth, or using a combination of height and herbivory to predict reproductive output in the form of flowering probability. It was great to be fully involved with the planning and carrying out of several different projects (not just my own) and get to actually do what tends to come out very dry and boring in the Methods section of papers. Other students will be using some of the same data that we all collected (for example, to correlate spatial and genetic information and create a genetic map of the plants), so it really felt like a group effort. Due to the summer heat in VA, we sometimes run on a “siesta schedule,” that brakes up the work to avoid the hottest part of the day. Waking up early to beat the heat, then moving inside to plan and discuss next steps, then going back out in the late afternoon. In my opinion this works out better than a typical nine to five and gave us a continuous stream of activity all day, which carried right through to our communal dinners and evening relaxation and data analysis. I really enjoy these later parts of the day because it allows us to bond and enjoy each other’s company in a way that just doesn’t happen in the lab. Good thing we had such a great team of people this year though, because working and living with the same people could get old very quickly if they don’t mesh well.

I like to think that I had a pretty balanced idea of what to expect going into the field season, but I was still (mostly) pleasantly surprised. I was definitely expecting to work hard and be busy, but I was skeptical about how it might turn out. I learned a ton, got to know some great people and feel more connected and involved with my work than ever. Overall, “field work” is an extremely rewarding experience and I would encourage anyone interested to explore it for themselves.

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