Lessons from the Field 4: Science-ing on Rooftops

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Hi! Did you miss me? I missed you!

I know I promised I’d come back months ago, but apparently my life had a different plan for me and everything just got waaaay too busy. You’ll forgive me, right? 😦

So, this blog post is going to be split into two (three?) parts. If you want to get an update on my life (complete with pictures) and know what I’m thinking about the future of this blog, just keep on reading. I even put subtitles for your convenience! However, if you want to just skip to my attempt to make fun of my field experience, you can skip to my fourth edition of Lessons from the Field by clicking here. And if you want to see the previous three posts from this series or anything else about my research, you can check that out here.

Life Update

So, like I said, I had planned to come back after I passed candidacy and write all these great blog posts about science writing and time management, etc, etc. Yeah, that didn’t work out. My boss (and grad school, in general) has other plans in mind.

Essentially right after candidacy, my boss (and our staff scientist) wanted me to almost immediately start on redesigning the instrument we brought to the field last year, because, honestly, this thing gave us so many problems… and that’s not really what you want instruments to do when they’re out in the field. I mean, problems are inevitable, but this instrument gave a whole new definition to the word needy… But anyway, the plan was redesign this thing in a couple of months, and then spend the summer on the roof of a really tall building on campus in order to test this thing in a more casual field environment with the bonus of checking out what kind of atmospheric chemistry was happening in Los Angeles.

Hover over to see captions!

Seemed simple enough at the time. But, of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems and the instrument needed a few more upgrades than I thought…

And, I got busy. So very busy. And honestly, at one point I was so burnt out that even the thought of turning on my laptop when I didn’t absolutely have to gave me such anxiety. But, essentially, that’s the long version of why I disappeared off the face of the planet. Short version: Grad school/field work happened.

On the plus side, by the time you’re reading this we completed the sampling on the roof and are in the process of moving back to lab. So yay! I survived. Field campaign #2 of my career: Complete. Now to run a bunch of lab experiments and process a month’s worth of data… Sigh.

Future blog stuff

So, I’m not going to promise that blog posts will go back to their once a week schedule again, because I feel like I’m going to have a lot going on, especially as I enter my third (holy shit!) year of grad school. I’m hoping to go to a conference in December and also maybe start writing up a draft of a first author paper (Or maybe two of them? Eee!). That said, I really do want to start writing advice posts again, because not only have I been told it’s helpful to you guys (thank you for all the support!), but I personally miss it. It is kind of therapeutic to get my thoughts out into internet land. So, I’m aiming for a post at least once a month, but again, I can’t promise anything. Sorry! I’ll try my best though!

Anyway, enough of me. On to the original point of this post!

Lessons from the Field: Part 4!

1. Expect everything to take twice as long as you expected

Because, honestly, is it really science if you’re not banging your head on a wall trying to figure out why things aren’t working like you thought they would? And is it really science if the solution was staring you right in the face but it took you a week to actually figure it out? Yeah. Science can be a slow and arduous process; field study or not.

2. Expect everything to break at least once

Let me tell you, even if everything worked perfectly fine in lab, instruments really hate leaving their comfort zone and will throw the biggest tantrum imaginable until you’re at the point where you start shouting at it, screaming things like: “I’m the one taking care of you, dammit! Work with me here!”

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Also, even if it’s working fine in the field, sometimes the instrument wants to make sure you’re not getting complacent and likes finding new ways to fuck with you. Like, for example, by breaking something that was working perfectly find the day before, with no indication of why it stopped working! (If you can’t tell, this happened a few times this past month…)

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3.If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

I find that if you try and fix something that isn’t technically broken, you usually end up causing way more problems then you intended to fix, leaving you in a state of confusion and extreme frustration–mostly because you brought this upon yourself. As such, as tempting as it might be to make everything perfect, please refrain from making your life harder than it needs to be. As my boss likes to say, “It’s working! Don’t touch that knob!”

4. Prepare for some on the fly troubleshooting

In case you didn’t figure this out from the first three points, things go wrong in the field all the time. Unfortunately, when you only have a month to sample and every minute the machine is down is a minute less of valuable data, you kind of have to figure out how to fix something in the shortest amount of time. Or, in the worst case scenario, live with whatever went wrong but make sure it doesn’t affect sampling too much. And sometimes, that requires some resourceful and impromptu troubleshooting.

And they say science doesn’t involve creativity. You even learn some crisis management skills!

5. Phone in a friend

Okay, this one might be kind of specific to me, but I hate asking for help. I’m very much one of those people where I think it’s easier just to do it myself. Yeah, character flaw, I know. But I don’t think anyone can sanely get through any field study without asking for help at some point. Whether that’s your boss, or a coworker, or even a friend that you can call just to rant and say “Everything is horrible, why did I ever thing this was a good idea?!” it’s always a good idea to have someone in mind that you can ask for help when the going gets tough or if you get stuck on a problem.

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6. When everything works, it feels like a miracle

Self-explanatory. But, in my opinion, nothing really comes close to that feeling when all your hard work has paid off and you get some really useful data. 🙂 (Bonus if you get compliments from your PI because of how cool this data set is!)

Hope you enjoyed this post! I promise the next one won’t take months to get out and will actually have useful advice! ❤

‘Til next time!

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