Sciencing across the US (Lessons from the Field)

…Sorry, I just really wanted to use that title.

Anyway! Hello my Internet friends! I come to you from the land called Michigan while doing some field work with my research lab. I can tell you it’s been quite an adventure for several reasons (which I have conveniently listed in bullet points).

  • For one, this is my first official field experience as a grad student…so just about everything could be considered an adventure at this point.
  • Second, this field experience required me to drive from Pasadena, CA to Pellston, MI in an 18 foot truck…which considering I’ve never driven anything more than a small car… well… it was interesting to say the least.
  • Third, this is the very first time our instrument has ever been out in the field and considering we only had it working three days before we left… well, let’s just say that the troubleshooting might have to be a bit more creative than usual…
  • And fourth, not only did said brand new (and stupidly expensive) instrument had to survive both a 3.5 day road trip on the back of a truck driven by two inexperienced truck drivers, but it also had to be carefully hoisted 100+ feet up in the air by some rope and a simple pulley system in order to be placed in its current position on the research tower…

Let me say again…it’s been quite an adventure.

But we’re here and have been making pretty good progress on the set up from our instrument over the past week. It’s almost working and hopefully by the time this post goes up, we will have our very first chromatograms! That may sound very boring to the majority of you, but I assure you when you’ve cried, bled and sweated over your instrument for months…seeing the data for the first time sounds like heaven.

Also, despite being here for only a week, I feel like I’ve gained years of experience when it comes to field work (perhaps that’s because I’ve felt like I’ve been working here for years already…). So, I thought I’d make this post more interesting by sharing my silly little lessons from field work.

Lesson 1: Bugs will forever be your enemy

Bugs are gross enough as it is…but I have gotten way too many mosquito bites this week, it’s not even funny. Granted, I’m out in the woods, so it makes sense that bugs would be an issue, but even just having to swat flies or run away from giant, unknown, gross looking flying buggies is way too much to deal with, especially when you’re struggling to set up an instrument/experiment. Maybe it’s just me, but unless you’re actually studying said bugs (Why, entomologists? Why?), their just annoying and get in the way.

Lesson 2: The weather will do everything in its power to mess with you

For instance, the day we spent the most time up on the tower, it was cloudy, windy and very cold. This was not only cumbersome in making sure we didn’t drop things from the top of the tower or have something blow away, but it also made us rush our tasks in case a storm hit and we had to weatherproof our then unfinished instrument enclosure. Now, fast forward to the next day when we got significantly less tower time… To quote the project coordinator, “It’s funny how the wind decides to pick up when everybody starts heading to the tower…”

Lesson 3: It is inevitable that you will leave your field site with mysterious cuts and bruises

I have so many scratches on my hand and bruises on my legs, yet I have absolutely no idea how any of them got there.  Maybe it’s just the type of work I’m doing, but even the field work veterans tell me that it’s normal to leave all scratched up, so there must be something to it. I said before, I have bled for this instrument…I would like to clarify that I meant that literally.

Lesson 4: Scientists have the strangest sense of humor

Pretty self-explanatory but man, the amount of stupid science jokes I’ve heard this week is both insane and wonderful.

Lesson 5: Scientists also get really antsy if you don’t give them time to set up their instrument

Because we’re on top of a tower, it requires a certain level of safety. That means only a set amount of people can go up at any time. Unfortunately, when a lot of people need to put instruments and inlets up on the tower, some groups simply have to wait their turn. And let me tell you, you should not deny a researcher the ability to start collecting data asap. It just makes them really cranky.

Lesson 6: It is inevitable that something semi-important will be forgotten back at lab

I believe this was mentioned in my “Packing for Field Work” blog post… but I was hoping when it was our turn to pack that we would be organized enough to not forget anything… But life apparently doesn’t work like that. It turns out the days leading up to our departure from campus were filled with complete chaos (considering our instrument didn’t work till days before leaving) and right after arriving at the site, we find out we’re missing a very important power cable. Of. Freaking. Course. Cue ringing up our other lab members back at Caltech and pleading for them to hurry and ship it for next day delivery. (PS: We have since then discovered other, slightly-less-important things are missing, but we’re hoping they just got misplaced rather than left behind… Fingers crossed!)

Lesson 7: Something will eventually go wrong or need troubleshooting…

Well, this doesn’t really just apply to field work, but science in general. But I added it in order to brag about my impromptu wiring job that I had to do on our GC control box (which essentially is an electronics box that controls all the valves and heating of our GC column). What had happened is while lifting it to the top of the tower, the power switch to its computer got chopped off. Of course, this meant we could no longer turn on the computer (and thereby not send any commands to the GC components), so I had to bypass the switch. It was a really easy fix, to be honest… but it sounds so much cooler when you say you were doing it 100+ feet in the air! Either way, science is never without its trials and tribulations.

Lesson 8: …and/or there will be something that comes up that wasn’t previously considered

Let’s just say that to do field work, you really have to be flexible and good at thinking on your feet. This is especially true when coordinating with many other groups of scientists because, let me tell you, scientists suck at communication and usually some information gets lost along the way. It seems there will usually be some last minute change you need to work around so best to be prepared for the worst. Besides, as I said before the weather (and nature in general) enjoys messing with your field site. So being able to adapt to the situations at hand is just a necessary skill to have.

Lesson 9: Nevertheless, everyone is surprisingly helpful

Though scientists are weird and can get rather cranky, if you’re working at a field site with a lot of groups, someone is bound to always help you out if you need it. Whether it’s to borrow supplies or help lift 200 lbs of instrument up a tower, they’ll willingly give you a helping hand… I mean, you might own them a beer or small favor in return, but that’s only fair.


So there you have it. If any of you reading this have done field work, you should chime in with your lessons in the comments below! 😀 Do you relate to any of these or is this just an Earth Science field experience? I know Earth Science field campaigns tend to be very collaborative, unlike some disciplines, but what do I know? Either way tell me if you do field work and in what subject?

Also, just because I think this blog is wonderful, if you do field research (particularly in biology) you should check out Dispatches from the Field. It is a great blog with some awesome writing and all the fun stories that comes from having to leave the controlled lab settings!

Alas, I could go on about things that have happened, but I’m going to stop here because I’m technically writing this when I should be sleeping…but below are a small handful of pictures from my time here (with captions if you click on them!)

Hopefully I’ll have something fun to talk about next week! Stay tuned!

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