Monday, March 26, 2012

What Field Work Is Really Like

A shocking exposé by Mandy

If you read Drew's post, you have an idea of what kind of work he does. His research often requires a bit of field work. For our purposes, I'm going to define field work as the act of hiking to a destination to collect samples or to set up an experiment. Drew defines it as work done away from the office, oftentimes in a natural environment, and with a large component of manual labor. 

Drew's field work has been rather exotic up til now. It has led us to a glacier in Switzerland, to the beautiful alpine flower-laden meadows of Colorado, and to the ruin-filled mountains of Peru. And now it's led us to the Australian bush.

Let me tell you, though. Field work is hard work and not always comfortable.

In February, we headed out to Drew's research site with two other scientists. Our goal was to spend three days in the bush, artfully placing bags filled with leaves for Drew's decomposition study and also opening pit-fall traps for Kika's study. The pit-fall traps are filled with ethanol and antifreeze. The solution is then left there for one week during which time hopefully lots of bugs and lizards fall into it. (Sounds cruel, but the amount of specimens collected is quite small compared to what is actually out there. The collected animals give scientists a good idea of what is living in the forest at that time of the year.)

It poured down rain on the way to the study site. A study site which, I should mention, is 30 miles from the nearest town and down miles and miles of 4-wheel drive roads. Some of which aren't maintained - as we discovered when we drove around a bend and saw a downed tree in the road. We grabbed the hack saw from the back of one of the trucks and proceeded to spend the next three hours slicing through the massive branches. This was a tiny glimpse of the work that we had ahead of us. (Let is be noted that this gal recommended that investing in a chainsaw might be a good use of research funds.)

What followed was three days of carrying around heavy equipment in hot, muggy conditions.  And have I mentioned the funnel web spiders (which can kill you) and the red-bellied black snakes (which can kill you) and the jack jumper ants (which can kill you)? By the end of the trip, I was more scared of the ants than the spiders and snakes. When their colony is disturbed, the ants all swarm out and hunt down the offender. One day, Kika and I riled up a colony that was living right next to a pit-fall trap. We immediately backed up several feet. Kika then picked up a long stick and continued to try to open the trap so we could put solution in it. Meanwhile, I kept an eagle eye out on the ground and warned her every time an ant was trying to climb up her leg. The ants attacked the stick she was using, jumping on to it, and they even climbed the nearest tree and tried to drop on us that way, too. In retrospect, it makes me laugh, thinking about us hopping around and flailing sticks. At the time, though, we were not laughing. :-(

Caution: Scientists at work
In addition to the lethal animals, we had to deal with biting flies. Insects in Australia must be on steroids because these flies were ruthless. Even 100% DEET wasn't enough to keep them off. We also had to contend with the mozzies (mosquitoes) which had thoroughly enjoyed the wet spring and were in feeding frenzy mode.
The Wog Wog Kitchen
Okay, since I'm going back into the field in May, let's take a moment and remind myself why I volunteered for this. 
  • I get to see lots of cool animals. On the February trip, I saw wallabies, lizard eggs, kookaburras, and a goanna.
  • I get to camp under the Australian stars and enjoy the Southern Sky constellations. Orion is upside down here and so is the moon!
  • I get to eat bush tucker. Why is it that food always tastes so much better when you are camping? Field margaritas are the perfect end to a long day, and chocolate is a necessity to replace all of those calories that were burned off while hiking.
  • I get to participate in sometimes serious and oftentimes silly scientific debates. Why are the flies more attracted to this blue tarp?[Commence 40 minute discussion of fly eye morphology and evolution.]
  • I get to spend all day hiking. Not sitting at a desk or staring at a computer.
  • I get to spend my evenings relaxing by a river. It's more of a stream, but the water is deliciously cool and perfect for washing the day's grime off my face and relaxing my tired muscles.  
When all is said and done, most scientists (and this non-scientist) will agree - a day spent in the field with friends is far better than any day spent in an office.

Playing with Kika's fancy camera.  You can just make out my silhouette behind the 'G' - I used a headlamp to write WOG in the air while Kika set her camera to capture it all in one shot.


  1. What fun- I love that picture of you two.

    That story of you and the ants sounds funny- but I am sure it wasn't at the time!

  2. Wow--that "Wog" photo is amazing! And I can't believe you had to cut through that tree! I'd have given up then. :) Guess researchers are pretty hardcore.

  3. This sounds like an incredible experience and I love following it. But I'm fearful of all killer animals. Be careful! What do you mean the moon is upside down? Yesterday the moon looked like a cheshire cat smile here, does that mean it looks like a frown to you?

  4. Love this post!! That's so awesome you get to go out in the field with Andy, minus the road obstacles and killer animals haha. I love the picture of you guys laughing and the WOG one!!


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