Sunday, September 11, 2016

From Lab to Field to Lab Again

I'm back from the field! Now that I'm not living in a tent, I may have a bit more time to share some photos and information about the things I saw over the summer.

Me at my fieldwork site with my experimental plants about two weeks ago; this posed shot is rather relaxed for my fieldwork, but the real work is rather sweaty & prickly, and consequently makes a bad photo, so this is what you get
I have been thinking, in the few days since my return from a gruelling (and wonderful!) summer of fieldwork, about the nature of the scientific endeavour. I thought it would be fun today to write a bit about how science happens.


We scientists would like to believe that the first impulse to science is in an observation or an idea. I disagree with this; I think science begins with obsession.

Nerds like me, willing to accept ludicrously long work hours and an income well below the poverty line, out of sheer obsession with their area of research, are the beginning of the research process.

When you expose such a personality to the body of human knowledge in their area of obsession, research is conceived. Through the eyes of the obsessive researcher, every piece of knowledge emphasizes the existence of gaps. And researchers feel compelled to fill them.

("Obsession," declares my husband in a tone which carries an undercurrent of 'duh', "What else could drive somebody to create a fully mobile bull thistle garden, 350 strong, and take it for walkies all summer long?" He's right, of course; my obsession with my research is what inspired me to do it, and what kept me going through all the digging and hauling.)

So about this time last year, I was just embarking on the amazing adventure that is an M.Sc. I read, I taught, I wrote, I drafted, I erased (I erased more than I have ever erased in my life!!!), I rewrote, I redrafted, and of course, I obsessed. Eventually, I produced a design that passed muster with my supervisor and thesis committee (a collection of more senior researchers, generally bona fide ones unlike we 'apprentice' M.Sc. students).

This is the point at which field ecological research takes a turn for the practical. I called, drove, e-mailed, talked, and otherwise explored for the express purpose of getting together the field site, field equipment, and experimental plants that I needed to take my idea from the whiteboard into the field.

Fieldwork itself, though dispassionately described in a few stark paragraphs in the methods section of a research paper, is a distinctly visceral affair. Clean lines on quadruled paper become muddy tracks through scrub brush, and neat numbers are toiled out in days sweating under a blazing sun.

Solitary bee eating salt off of my sweaty skin
The pollinators whose behaviour was my primary research interest, in my plans mere marks on a page, became companions and hitch hikers, inhabiting space not just in my mind but around and even on my body.

And I, obsessive scientist that I am, stood there and let them crawl over me. I observed them, interfering as little as I could, and watching closely as they unfolded their mysterious existences before me.

The road at my field site, no longer a line on a page but a hot, dusty path
I took these pollinators, real, physical creatures, and I transformed them once more into marks on a page. Data. The greatest treasure of the researcher.

At the end of my field season, when all my precious experimental plants had ceased to flower and I had collected all of the data that I could, I packed the pollinators and the plants up into ink on paper in my bags with my field gear and I carted them back to the lab and the dusty road dissolved into pixels of data behind me. Over the coming months the data will take shape again, not as physical things but as beautiful ideas, as lines and curves and points filling theoretical spaces.

Eventually, I will write this all up as a tidy, dispassionate research paper and I will be proud of it. And I will remember the depths, both mental and physical, that lurk beneath those few clean words on white paper.