Lessons from the Field 2: Becoming MacGyver


The field is tough. This whole blog post could probably be summarized by that one sentence. In fact, I might as well stop here. But I won’t. Because I’m mostly stress writing at this point. But anyway, if you haven’t done field work, take my word for it, while it can be a very rewarding adventure, it can also be a giant pain in the ass. (Or, in my case, both at the same time!)

Somehow I’ve managed to survive until now. We’ve reached the half way point of the field campaign and we have some preliminary data, I suppose. But, we also came out here with a brand new, never tested, homemade instrument (designed and built within a year, might I add). Therefore, even when all this is over, there is still tons of work to be done in order to characterize the data, figure out our sensitivity to certain species and, well, figure out what the data we managed to get really means. Nevertheless, I guess by anyone’s standards, we’re actually doing pretty good. After all, at least half of our instrument is working (!!), but I digress.

Of course, just because our instrument is operating enough to get data doesn’t mean that my work here is done. Oooh no. I can go on for hours about all my (and my lab mate’s) adventures of fixing, tuning, tinkering and coding just to get this damn instrument in a semi-functional state. But, alas, I’m not entirely sure that talking about my most recent McGyvered soldering set up is exactly blog worthy. However, I do find it picture worthy! So enjoy the beauty below!

2016-07-14 14.50.03

Beautiful, isn’t it?

In terms of anxiety, I’m pretty proud by how relatively calm I’ve been lately. Not to say that I’m suddenly anxiety free. Anyone who deals with anxiety knows that sometimes it comes and goes but never truly disappears. After all, I still have those hours where staying in bed and hiding from the day’s problems seems like the best choice; where that small voice in the back of my head reminds me that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. But nevertheless, I have managed to keep most of these feelings at bay. Though the words “I quit” have left my mouth many times in the past three weeks, they were never serious, so I guess that’s a small victory.

Anyway, I wrote a post after week 1 about the preliminary observations I made about field work. I still say they ring true so if you’d like to hear my thoughts on field work before it got intense, you can click here. But today, in order to celebrate my three weeks in the field, I thought I’d provide three more lessons that I’ve learned thus far. Hope you enjoy!

You need to have a good sense of humor

The field is tough and it can also be really stressful. Something can be going well in one moment and then something breaks and then all hell essentially breaks lose. Because field data is valuable. And field data is not reproducible. So losing data is never a good thing and you want to avoid it as much as possible. This means in the worst case scenarios you can say goodbye to any free time and hello to hours or even days of frustrating troubleshooting. It gets exhausting real quick and honestly, the only way I’ve managed to get through it on the worst of day sis to laugh at myself. I make jokes about how ridiculous my situation is and my witty sarcasm is at an all-time high. Essentially, the solution is to push all the frustrated thoughts away for a while, make yourself laugh for a second, calm down and then get back to work.

An instrument will work until it doesn’t.

If you’re unlucky enough to have to take an instrument out into the field, there is a high likelihood that it will randomly stop working. There will be no obvious explanation. It will simply be that one day it works and the next day it doesn’t. It’s like instruments don’t like leaving the cushy temperature-controlled environment of the lab and the second they’re forced out of their comfort zone, they throw a tantrum like a two-year-old child. And despite how common this lesson is, no one has apparently been able to explain this phenomenon to me. My conclusion: instruments know when you’re having a good day and their goal in life is to squash your dreams.

Learn to be resourceful

Scientists are known for being precise. Perfectionism simply runs in our blood in some form or another. However, the nice precise handiwork that you can get done in a lab is nowhere near the quality that you’ll get when you do the exact same task in the field. For instance, see McGyvered soldering set up picture above. Or, if you would like another example, imagine two girls on the top of a 100+ ft tower tying old zip ties together due to a lack of useable zip ties or string. Also, on the same note, duct tape is your friend.

So there you have it. Want to know why I’m out in the field? You can click here! Want to know why an atmospheric chemist is stomping through the forest? Click here too!

Also, because Michigan is still a beautiful place, enjoy some pictures from the past two weeks. You can also see some more pictures of my adventure by checking out my Instagram!




One thought on “Lessons from the Field 2: Becoming MacGyver”

  1. Looks like you’re making the best out of your situation. I’ve never been to Michigan but it looks incredible. Hoping for a breakthrough on your part. You can get through this.:)

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s