The average person, having never met a scientist, has only a vague notion of what scientists do and where they work. Many people, when they hear the term “scientific research”, envision a lab-coated person comfortably seated at a lab bench, pipette in hand. In fact, many scientists spend weeks or even months at remote field stations or temporary field camps in deserts, rainforests, savannas, and ice fields. Conditions at such field sites vary, but many are often challenging in terms of creature comforts such as working toilets, air-conditioning or heating, potable water, hot food, and window screens to keep out disease-carrying insects.
In addition to the typical research challenges such as how to design a rigorous sampling schedule or what statistical program to use, a field project adds a whole new list of hurdles for the researcher. And the more remote and rustic the setting, the greater the challenges. What do you do when your clumsy student drops the spare batteries to the GPS in the ocean, and the nearest store is a day’s boat ride away? Do you have an evacuation plan in the event your colleague puts a dive knife through their hand trying to open a coconut? Are you prepared for a water shortage, limiting you to six cups daily for baths? What do you do upon arrival at the field station to find that the outhouse was blown away by a hurricane? This aspect of the research world is not often talked about and is certainly not discussed in the resultant journal article, except perhaps as a brief statement about the field site location on a remote island in the Caribbean or the use of a dogsled to reach sampling locations in the Arctic.
Field work also can take you to incredibly beautiful and untrammeled environments where you wake up every morning to the sights and sounds of nature in a wondrous terra incognita: the sun rising over the ocean, a night heron patiently poised on a mangrove prop root, an osprey’s hectoring call in the distance, the wind flowing through the window of your thatched-roofed cottage, the rustling of coconut palm leaves, a local fisherman expertly casting a net, a swirling school of fish chased by a barracuda, and a parade of hermit crabs marching across the white sand. The field researcher not only experiences nature firsthand, but she often meets and learns to work with people of different cultures and languages (their common language, of course, is science). There are also opportunities to try a new cuisine: fry jacks, fish head soup, red beans and rice flavored with pig’s tails (yum), conch stew, baked plantains, johnnycakes, fish empanadas, banana fritters, and flour tortillas.
Such insights (about both good and bad experiences) are interesting to the lay audience and can serve to attract students and/or prepare them for research in a particular field.
Scientists are increasingly using video to inform the public about what they do and why they love their work. Do you conduct field research in a unique, remote, challenging, or beautiful setting? At a famous field station? If so, making a brief video about your experiences is a great way to educate students and budding scientists about life in the field. Such videos can also help to bolster the image of scientists in the minds of the general public by showing some of the many challenges that researchers must overcome to succeed.
In the videos embedded below, a long-time research associate at Penn State University, Don Voight, talks about what it’s like to work at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. They are brief (a minute or less) and are illustrated with images from the field. Making such videos is not difficult and can even be accomplished without video footage (see How to Make a Video without Film Footage).