My Natural Laboratory: What (Field) Scientists Really Do

Google the sentence “What do scientists really do?” and you’ll likely get a lot of links to pages describing people working in antiseptic laboratories on molecular biology of the cell, chemistry of iron, optical physics, or human diseases. For those of us who are ecologists, geologists, oceanographers, archeologists, limnologists, or behavioral biologists, however, the image of a lab-coated scientist hunched over a lab bench under bright fluorescent lights does not fit. Yet the latter is most often the image conjured in the public’s mind when they are asked about the work of scientists. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently negative or unexciting about laboratory work. I’ve spent many hours in the lab happily running analyses of plant, soil, and water samples. Some of my most thrilling moments in scientific research happened in a laboratory watching the output of an instrument that revealed an important finding.

My point is that the public’s image of scientists and where we work is skewed toward the laboratory as the primary or only location where science is performed. Always portraying scientists sequestered in a sterile laboratory paints an inaccurate picture of where science is done and what kinds of challenges different types of scientists face. The average person on the street might be surprised to hear that there are thousands of scientists whose laboratory is a mangrove forest, a glacier, a barrier island, a river, a volcano, an alpine meadow, a sea grass bed, or a coral reef. Or that scientists spend weeks or months away from home conducting research in the Caribbean, the North Sea, the Pantanal, the Okavango, or the Antarctic. Students who have no interest in being a laboratory scientist might be attracted by the prospect of field research to discover how overfishing impacts lobster populations in the Caribbean, how salt marsh plants are affected by an oil spill, what causes sand dunes to form, or what damage hurricanes do to coral reefs. Unfortunately, most laypeople are unaware of the mind-boggling variety of settings in which scientific research is carried out.

The scientist videographer can change the public’s perception of scientists and where we work by making short videos of the different habitats, animals, and plants that they study. For example, this recent video shows scientists studying the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on coral reefs in the Caribbean. It not only depicts information about important natural disturbances of coral reefs, the video sends the clear message that the scientists studying the effects of hurricanes carry out (at least part of) their work, not in the traditional laboratory, but in the field. Such work requires additional skills, such as scuba, and time away from home. But the scientists also get to work in a beautiful, living laboratory.

If you conduct research in a “natural laboratory”, make a video about it and explain what you like most about working there. Then share it via social media. #MyNaturalLaboratory

Below is a video tutorial showing how to film underwater with a GoPro: