The joys and hazards of fieldwork

For me as a biologist, the complex authenticity of natural settings complements the controlled precision of lab work.

In films ranging from Jurassic Park to Indiana Jones to Outbreak, pop culture romanticizes the swashbuckling field researcher. Yet more than glamour attracts Hübner and thousands of scientists like her out into the unknown. Plentiful online scientific databases offer terabytes of data for scientists to mine with their desktop computers, while model genera like Drosophila (fruit flies) are available for experiments in increasingly powerful laboratory spaces. But scientists still venture out into the field for a variety of reasons: to collect new data, rare specimens, or interview subjects, or to quench a hunger to work in some of the world’s most beautiful places. Scientists venture to the Arctic from around the world to sample glaciers, study migratory birds, and conduct atmospheric experiments that are impossible to do elsewhere. “The scientists who come here—their careers depend on the data they collect here,” says Sébastien Barrault, research adviser at the Norwegian government-owned base. 


But behavioral biologist Gabriel Miller of San Diego Zoo Global in California, who conducted fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon for three summers during his postdoc at Harvard University, says that fieldwork is worth the hassle. “It’s reinvigorating in a special way to see things in their original context,” Miller says. “Watching an animal in a laboratory or a book isn’t like seeing it outside. Say you’re a chef—you want to leave the kitchen, visit farms, see how corn grows, feel the soil, know your ingredients. For me as a biologist, the complex authenticity of natural settings complements the controlled precision of lab work.”

Journeys into the unknown

Gaining access to remote places is a challenge—insurmountable, many scientists say, without the support of local scientists or logistical staff. To conduct landmark paleoclimate studies from Lake El’gygytgyn in eastern Siberia, geologist Julie Brigham-Grette of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, relied heavily on Russian collaborators she has partnered with for years. The process of planning a field expedition—securing safe passage, getting equipment delivered, arranging local transport and lodging—can take more than a year, experienced scientists say.

And then there’s the paperwork. “In some of the places I work, it’s virtually impossible to get a permit to do research without someone inside the country as a partner,” says Jon Sanders, a Ph.D. student in microbial ecology at Harvard University who has worked in Peru. There are U.S. ecologists who disregard some local regulations in Latin America, Sanders says. But some of the scientists he admires most insist on going by the book, even if it can mean years of delay to receive permits. “The old cowboy mentality is still there,” Sanders says. “But the local scientific knowhow in many areas is considerable, and the collaborations you can create are extraordinary.”

But no one is mistaking Ny-Ålesund for Palo Alto. The day before he said that in July, a polar bear wandered onto the Ny-Ålesund compound, provoking some fear before authorities scared it off. As this facility and other research bases have increased their scientific capacity in recent decades, the scientists who come to remote areas have evolved to include not just hardened outdoorsy veterans “with big, bushy beards,” Cox says, but also mathematicians, software engineers, and statisticians. Some, he says, “are brilliant scientists but not very well equipped for a polar regime. The science has got a lot more sophisticated, but the big outdoors is the same.” Such changes have made risk assessments, safety procedures, and field support all the more important. The point was driven home this summer in the wake of the bear siting: A team of British glaciologists went on a daylong field excursion to dig a trench below a glacier, but Cox instructed them to keep one person on watch with a rifle at all times as the others worked.

Given the chance at adventure, some can rise to the challenge, though it can be arduous. “I’m supposed to be a lab rat, not really trained in the field. I’m a chemist. But I like it because it’s fun to see something new,” says Aurélie Noret, a geochemist exploring the meltwater off a glacier 5 kilometers from Ny-Ålesund. The days can be long and exhausting. One day in July, she and supervisor Christelle Marlin of Université Paris-Sud in France spent 18 hours on the glacier taking measurements. The following day, carrying a heavy pack of sampling equipment over mud and ice, she stumbled a few times during a hike to a stream for measurements. “It’s not my day,” she said, trying to remain cheerful.

Into the woods

Back in their home offices or labs, scientists often spend 10 or 12-hour days working alongside colleagues. But professional relationships are more intense when colleagues are sharing close working and living quarters—a bunk bed or a tent. “There’s nothing like 24/7 fieldwork to bring collaborators together, or to reveal interpersonal problems,” says glaciologist Nicholas Midgley of Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom.

In such a close environment, far from official institutions and their mechanisms of enforcement, some scientists do bad things. An anthropological study published in July found regular sexual harassment among scientists in the field, with women as the main victims. More than 71% of women respondents in an online poll of field scientists said they had experienced harassment in the field, and 26% reported being assaulted. The scientists who conducted the work called for greater “awareness of mechanisms for direct and oblique reporting of harassment and assault and the implementation of productive response mechanisms when such behaviors are reported.” “Everyone has stories,” says Sanders, the Harvard Ph.D. student. He acknowledges, sadly: “It’s easier as a guy.”

Fieldwork also strains families with one or more scientists out in the field. Geochemist Ken Caldeira of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Stanford, California, and his wife decided that she should shift from a full-time job to a contract position to allow her to serve as a field assistant on some of the field expeditions Caldeira leads. “We have sacrificed a bit financially to be together a bit more,” he says. Dutch ecologist Maarten Loonen of the University of Groningen has conducted summer research studies on birds in and around Ny-Ålesund since 1990, with support from his wife, a trained scientist who has a coordinator position at the school. “My wife has come with me in the past but she now says, when you’re there, I’m a distraction for you,” he says. “So now we have a daily one hour Skype call—that keeps us in each other’s lives.” Loonen’s kids are a different story: He’s managed for several summers to host his son and daughter, 21 and 13, on the base for weeks to help collect data from nests and birds. “It’s great to be here with my dad, and I love to work with the geese,” says his daughter, Willemijn.

Postcards from the edge

The effects of fieldwork on one’s career can be long lasting. Loonen says his work over decades to establish the strong Dutch field-research presence in Svalbard has provided him as much prestige as his published research. Students say fieldwork can be a transformative experience. “At our university you have assignments and course work. I learn so much more by getting hands-on experience, not just reading about it,” says master’s-degree student Julie Huseklepp Tunli of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), who spent this summer in Svalbard doing fieldwork with migratory birds. “People say when they come here they are bitten by this germ, and they find it hard to leave,” says Frode Fossoy of NTNU. “It’s a special place.”

Hübner may have escaped from the true wilderness, but she’s not gone too far and maybe not for long. She moved from the Ny-Ålesund research base to Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s biggest settlement with roughly 2500 people. Her baby is due in October, and even as she prepares to raise it in a land of 24-hour winter darkness and bitter Arctic cold, she dreams of field research. “Maybe I will get a job which gives me the opportunity to visit Ny-Ålesund for shorter periods!” she writes in an email. “I am confident that I will be able to do scientific field work again.”

.  Scientists going on oceanographic cruises often are pleasantly surprised that the daily ship cost they pay covers certain services, but sometimes they’re shocked when other work requires extra payment, says Eric Benway, marine operations coordinator at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “There will be assumptions that will carry through the 8-month planning process,” he says. “I’ll hear, ‘I didn’t know this $12,000 crane bill wouldn’t be included.” So be assiduous in your planning, he advises. “I hear a lot of people say their digestive system has never been the same after spending time doing fieldwork,” Sanders says. Most scientists take precautions, but extended periods in hot, foreign places can take a toll regardless. Given the expense and logistical challenges of getting into the field, scientists work around the clock when they get there. But seasoned managers know to make time for levity and good cheer. A bar is open twice a week at the Ny-Ålesund base, for example, and on Saturday nights researchers and support staff wear their nicest clothing, and the cafeteria staff put tablecloths out. Before a brutal 10-week research cruise in the Southern Ocean in 2009, oceanographer Victor Smetacek, a co-leader of the expedition, encouraged scientists to bring swimsuits for the ship’s sauna and small swimming pool. “Don’t underestimate customs hassles,” warns Sanders, who weathered his share of challenges shipping a microscope to the jungle in Peru. Getting photography equipment and a gas chromatograph in and out also required bureaucratic efforts.

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