The joys of other people’s field work

Photos: Pulling in a gill net in Vatnshlíðarvatn; and a male arctic charr in spawning colour (S. Heard).

I’ve just come back from gill-netting arctic charr in Vatnshlíðarvatn, a small, shallow lake just west of Varmahlíð in northern Iceland. The charr in this lake are a pair of morphs (a diet specialist and a diet generalist), and the aim was to collect fish of each morph for stable isotope and genetic analysis. It was a sunny July morning (about 7 ºC, which isn’t bad for Iceland), the fish were beautiful, and I enjoyed the work thoroughly.

Those of you who know me are, by now, smelling a rat: I don’t work on fish. True enough – this wasn’t my own fieldwork. Instead, I was working with three grad students from the University of Guelph*. Why? Well, I begged to come along, because as much as I enjoy my own fieldwork, what I love most of all is other peoples’ field work.

There are three reasons that other people’s field work is so much fun.

First, it’s always fresh: something I’ve never seen before lies around every corner or comes up in the next pull of the net. Of course, things I’ve never seen before pop up in my own field work, too; that’s part of what makes doing science so much fun. But science rides on replication, which means that my own field work does get repetitive, after a while. Tasks become humdrum, even (sometimes) agonizingly tedious. When I’m doing someone else’s fieldwork, they often apologize for the tedious nature of some task – but it isn’t tedious to me, because I’ve never done it before.

Second (and because of the first), I learn. Other people’s field work shows me new places, new species, new techniques, and new perspectives. Precisely because my own work is specialized (well, perhaps not as much as it should be), it doesn’t let me hold a charr in my hand, or a puffin, or a cactus spine.** Sure, I could read about any of those things (and I do, although perhaps not as much as I should); but that’s not the same thing.

Third, the pressure is off. Doing my own fieldwork always involves some stress, because when something goes wrong (and it will; it always does) there’s the danger that my research will suffer. My thesis (back in the day) might have needed another year, a paper might not have been finished for my tenure file, an experiment I’m doing might need to be redesigned. Plus, there’s responsibility: responsibility for making all the logistical arrangements; for keeping my field assistants busy, safe, and content; and for taking enough data, and the right data in the right way, so I don’t face-palm myself too often when I analyse it later. But with someone else’s fieldwork, problems are just puzzles looking for ingenious solutions; and if something goes wrong that I can’t manage, I can turn to someone else to fix it. That might sound cold; but responsibility can be wearing, and a chance to take a holiday from it (while still doing the biology I love) is special. And fair is fair: I’m happy to have guests join my own field work, where they can feel the pressure lift from them.

I’ve done a fair bit of other people’s field work over my career. I’ve driven the length of Baja California sucking moths*** from senita cactus and eating what we fondly called “tacos de everything” at roadside stands in tiny fishing villages. I’ve set minnow pots in the lakes of coastal British Columbia to catch stickleback, a little fish that pulls way about its weight in teaching us about the ecology of speciation. I’ve shivered in a frosty February morning in Iowa, waiting for juncos to fly into a mist net to have their body fat measured. I’ve stuck my arm down dodgy-looking holes on Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick, to pull out puffins (Alex Bond describes puffins as “one-pound balls of hate”, but I can forgive them for resenting my intrusion; and even seething, they’re pretty darned adorable).

Doing other peoples’ field work has been great fun, but it’s also helped me along in my scientific career (and it can do the same for you). It’s suggested new questions I could ask in my own work, and new approaches I could use to do that. It’s given me common ground to chat about with seminar visitors and during job interviews. It’s given me authority in teaching – because I’m teaching about methods I’ve actually done. It’s forged long-lasting connections with the people I’ve helped in the field (and shared long drives with to get there).   It may even have made me a scientist in the first place: as an undergraduate I spent two happy months being paid to roam the southwestern US collecting asters and goldenrods, and the notion that this was possible certainly helped pull me to academia, and to ecology.

So, are you going in the field? Give me a call.

© Stephen Heard ( July 30, 2015

Related posts:

*Oliver Franklin, Christine Ouellet, and Matt Brachmann, all students of Moira Ferguson, with Icelandic collaborators Skúli Skúlason and Bjarni Kristjánsson (Hólar University College, where I’ve been a visitor this summer) and Sigurður Snorrason (University of Iceland) . Thanks to Oliver, Christine, and Matt for letting me join them, and for letting me blog about it.

**OK, that last one wasn’t actually my hand, and it may have been was definitely a mistake.

***No, really: it’s one way entomologists collect, with a little device called a pooter). You have a tube in your mouth, and a tube you hold near the moth, and with a well-timed intake of air (and a well-designed pooter) the moth ends up in a sample tube, looking distinctly surprised.


One thought on “The joys of other people’s field work

  1. Jeremy Fox

    What if I could use some help with a microcosm experiment? Starting through a microscope at ciliates is more like birdwatching than you’d think!* 🙂

    *Though not much like it in an absolute sense.

    Liked by 1 person


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