Sunday, June 13, 2021

Colleagues that become Friends

Mat Wooller and Marilyn, Artists, Mariposa, CA 2021


My experience has been beer first, friends and family connections next, and let collaborations evolve.


James Ehleringer, Univ. of Utah


Last week, Mat Wooller, a former postdoctoral fellow and current friend, traveled all the way from cool Fairbanks, Alaska, to spend a week in hot Mariposa, California. I was eagerly anticipating his visit as restrictions began to lift from the pandemic and we’d been vaccinated. Our last time together was in summer 2017, when my family traveled to Alaska and our families enjoyed fun times together going on walks, canoeing, sharing meals. Mat and his wife Diane O’Brien are prime examples of people who started out as colleagues and ended up as friends. Not only do we have many funny science stories to share, but also we share in the day-to-day triumphs and challenges of being human in a world where kindness and respect can be elusive.


Friend: one attached to another by affection or esteem She's my best friend.

b : acquaintance

2a : one that is not hostile Is he a friend or an enemy?

b : one that is of the same nation, party, or group showbiz friends

3 : one that favors or promotes something (such as a charity) The friends of the library will host a fund-raiser.

4 : a favored companion


Colleague: an associate or coworker typically in a profession or in a civil or ecclesiastical office and often of similar rank or status : a fellow worker or professional. First recorded in 1515–25; from Middle French collegue, from Latin collēga, equivalent to col- “with, together” + -lēga, derivative of legere “to choose, gather.”


Those who begin as a colleague but end up a friend—let’s call them “Frolleagues”.


Frolleague: a person who began as a colleague and through shared experiences and conversation became a friend.


Wooller and me, Alaska, 2009

Extreme dining, Belize 2005


As I travel along the journey of living with ALS, friends and Frolleagues have become more important to me than ever before. It’s not enough to be born, grow old, suffer, then die—and never has been good enough. Reaching out and sharing life with all of its joys and challenges makes my journey more meaningful. Friends make it, not only tolerable, but actually fun.


When I asked the stable isotope community of scientists to send me stories about their friendly colleagues—no one answered! Usually, this group is eager to contribute stories about their lives. I realized I needed to probe further by writing directly to people I knew had forged special bonds going from colleague to friend. Some basic—and important—themes evolved.


Marilyn and Sue Ziegler, DC, 2016

Sharon Billings (Univ. of Kansas) and Sue Ziegler (Memorial Univ. link) came immediately to mind. Sue and Sharon shared early career life at the Univ. of Arkansas, where they worked as stable isotope biogeoscientists while becoming parents. The bonding over babies, meals, family trips has lasted and bolstered their lives and careers.


Sharon: We [Sue Ziegler and I] have shared the joys and sorrows encountered when designing and implementing tracer experiments in the lab and field, and natural abundance studies using field samples. We’ve shared horribly embarrassing stories of how we’ve messed up in the lab, mistakenly said the opposite of what we knew to be true in front of senior stable isotope-oriented colleagues because of nerves, navigated the treacherous waters of starting careers as women in a male-dominated field, and counseled each other on how to deal with sticky situations in strong, confident ways without being jerks. We have stayed up much of the night painstakingly preparing isotopically labeled pine needles for inclusion in decomposition studies. We have probably caused a redistribution of 13C and 15N on the planet by purchasing many jars of 99.99% 13C-glucose and 15N-nitrate--all while knowing deep in our hearts that any topic worth study must be part of an iso-topic!


Sue: There is something quite special with frolleagues and I feel so very fortunate to have you two [Sharon and me] as such in my life!! The adventures Sharon so nicely described are typically laced with an amazing giddiness that comes with deep-seated mutual interest in the work, work that can seem like play really.  I recall some moments during a first visit to some of the NLBELT (Newfoundland-Labrador) field sites when we just couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. It was an amazing sense of pleasure - like we felt we couldn’t be any more fortunate! We were exploring new sites and setting up field experiments to address question we enjoyed thinking about. You both have enabled me to have so much joy in this work we do!!


Food is often the cornerstone of budding friendships. At Carnegie, I participated in the daily Lunch Club and Friday Beer Hour. In DC and at UC Merced and Riverside, Chris and I often hosted large gatherings of colleagues that revolved around potluck dinners, BBQs, picnics, or restaurants. In the early days, food preparations weren’t as important as just getting together outside of the lab. Add some beer and wine, pass the whiskey bottle, and you’ve got folks who loosen up, talk about their lives and families, and open up to knowing others.

Paul Koch, Matt McCarthy, Seth, 2019

Paul Koch (The Dean of Science @ UC Santa Cruz) has built a lab culture that is revered by his students and others. “A positive sign is that the lab served as an attractor. We have pretty much always had groupies/adopted members."

Justin Yeakel (UC Merced): When I think back to Santa Cruz days, backyard BBQs always seemed to be happening, and talk would range across all sorts of topics, usually non-science related for the first half of the evening, but as the fire burned low, the plates stacked in the sink, and a bottle of scotch passed around, the talk would veer towards giant squids, coyotes, sharks, and mole rats.



When I first arrived in Santa Cruz in 2004, I was really amazed that everyone in the lab spent time together outside of the lab. I think one of the first big get-togethers was at Sora's house - I remember her parents being there as well as Katie Snell's family. It was a big picnic, and having just moved across the country for the first time, it felt a lot like family picnics from home. These grad students were so impressive to me with all of their cool projects covering such a wide range of critters, landscapes, and time periods. It became a pretty easy decision early on to follow that path after 2 years of being the Koch Lab Monkey. I was also drawn to Paul's willingness to allow his students to follow their own interests and ideas. Being able to be part of that group during that period of time was one of the most exciting and formative periods of my life, and I'm thankful that I've been able to stay close to so many friends and colleagues that I met during that time!”


Justin and Paul, 2004

Seth as youngster, 2004

Seth Newsome (Univ. New Mexico): Once in a while the Koch Lab took the show on the road and would hike our goods (and kegs) into the Sierra Nevada forest in the middle of winter to spend a weekend at a cabin. I share one story about a trip to the Dartmouth alumni cabin near Tahoe one winter. Justin and I made a huge pot of inexpensive chili to feed the 20 people that ended up crashing in the ~1200 ft2 cabin that night. Justin mistakenly switched the amount of chili powder and cayenne in the recipe so we ended up with a very spicy, very large, nearly inedible pot of chili for the crowd. This was great going down with copious amounts of beer, but it didn't lie well with our collective gastrointestinal tracts such that when we woke up, we had to open up all the doors and windows on a very cold winter morning to air the place out prior to breakfast.


Getting to know the whole family is an important step. We have always invited the spouses and kids to our social gatherings. Sometimes, it takes awhile for them to get used to the camaraderie of the lab people, but family members have a greater understanding of the people involved in their partners work life. I believe this has a positive impact on work-life balance.


Y2K with Cody, Filley, Tuross, George families

with Shuhei Ono and son, 2005

Sampling party, 2002

Talking about non-science topics is necessary. Sharing books, movies, TV shows, travel adventures, hikes, and restaurant suggestions opens up windows into who a person is outside of their identity as a colleague. Often, politics and religion are topics that are debated, particularly when you get a glimmer of how a person leans (e.g., Left vs. Right). It would be impossible to become a real “friend” without knowing what makes that person tick in a more rounded way.


Sora Kim (UC Merced): “Maybe foundational to wanting to eat food and listen to music together was that we didn’t always talk about work with results, manuscript progress, etc. Those things made it into conversation, but we also talked about a lot of other things, too. Paul was willing to share his time and energy to hang out more casually. This is something I struggle with as a PI with two young kids, especially with the restrictions related to the pandemic. One memory I have from grad school is a time after Paul bought us a nice stainless steel carafe coffee maker. He found a website called and we would spend 10-15 minutes in the morning just looking up the trends of baby names through time. Totally not stable isotope related, but a way to spend some time and laughs together.

Sora Kim, 2005

Seth Newsome: I shared an apartment with several members of the Koch lab (Mark Clementz, Gabe Bowen, Justin Yeakel) so living together certainly helps forge friendships. But more than that I would say casual and consistent socializing was something that the Koch lab was quite fond of (and probably still is). Our socializing revolved around food, which we took very seriously. For one, it was sometimes hard to procure enough sustenance living in Santa Cruz on a TAship wage, so we often pooled our resources and had parties highlighted by Justin’s enormous pan pizzas, delicious and endless amounts of Korean food handcrafted by Sora Kim, or big pots of pasta served up by yours truly. 


Listening and accepting often follow. Anyone’s life can feel isolated; for scientists who keep their heads down and their eyes focused on details, it can feel especially so. We are constantly judged by our peers for our data, our publications, our methodologies, our ideas, our teaching, and our grants. Barely a week goes by without some form of rejection or conflict. Having colleagues to work things out can save a career. Establishing trust takes time—but it’s vital.


Sora Kim: “I often tell people that their grad adviser and group are the most crucial elements to their success. There are high points (i.e., results, publishing, graduating) but there are a lot more low and rocky points. I think what is important in the Koch “family” is that we have deep enough relationships and trust that we can weather these low points and even turn to one another for support. I feel very fortunate that my connections to the Koch lab extend so far in time. “


Laughter often seals the deal—frolleagues are born! Allowing yourself to kick back, be in the moment, and celebrate the positive can be powerful. The phrase “what happens in XXX, stays in XXX” often signals a good time.


Brian Popp (Univ. of Hawaii): “Walking to the river at the Organic Geochemistry Gordon conference after Matt McCarthy poured the bottle of wine over your head and jumping into the river with varying bathing costumes.”

with Jolly Chuck Douthitt, Carnegie, 2016

Frolleague map






Continuing to keep in touch and reach out to new people along the way serves to keep things fresh. The Geochem Girls (me, Hilairy Hartnett, Kate Freeman, Liz Sikes, and Liz Canuel) meet at big meetings that can be isolating and impersonal.


Kate Freeman (Penn State): I have attended AGU for many, many years, but found myself increasingly isolated and lacking a peer group. This was compounded by the explosive growth in size of the meeting, which prevented finding friendly companions by chance as the dinner hour approached. I had started to schedule dinners with Liz Canuel. We have known each other from our mutual connections to Stuart Wakeham and sometimes we have shared a room at the Organic Geochemistry Gordon Research Conferences. At some point we linked up with Liz Sikes, who was more of an acquaintance but whose science I have followed since her early work on alkenones. I first got to know the delightful Hilairy Hartnett at a NASA proposal review panel some years ago, although I had long taught her work in my classes, and learned later that she was a close friend of Liz Sikes. I recall we agreed with enthusiasm that Marilyn had to join us for a dinner, which led to the memorable Farm meal.

Our annual meals have completely transformed my AGU experience for the better!”

AGU 2019


Hilairy Hartnett (Arizona State Univ.): The fall of 2015, dinner was planned for a great restaurant that Liz Sikes and I had tried out the year before (I remember a small place with interesting upholstered chairs). Liz always has a reservation for four so it was no problem to spirit you away from the Biogeosciences section meeting. The difficulty was in convincing you that you could leave the meeting you were chairing! Dinner was lovely and as I recall it, the three of you asked me very pointed questions about my research, my career status, and my (then notional) plans for promotion. Desert was single malt scotch.”

Liz Sikes (Rutgers): “One thing I can add to the memory of the dinner with Kate, Marilyn, & Hilairy, that started with the Uber ride to the restaurant (I had barely heard of Uber and there we were with Marilyn rocking it!!)--is that I was struggling with my promotion to full professor at the time.  Marilyn and Kate, the higher ranked professors at the table, volunteered to look at my statement so I sent it.  My favorite line from Marilyn's assessment was "Where's the beef?" She really tore into what was a rather boring statement-- and after that my case flew through with flying colors. The friendship was cemented.”


Liz Canuel (VIMS): Female friendships are incredibly important to me and dinners at meetings as well as our “quarantini” get togethers during the pandemic have been a tremendous joy.

Yosemite with Chris and Mat, 2021


I often sum all of these “Frolleague” characteristics up with the line—“Don’t work with assholes.” Yes, that’s a bit vulgar, but everyone knows what it means. Sometimes, we get drawn into situations or collaborations with people who won’t go that extra step, take themselves too seriously, and don’t respect our human condition.


Are Frolleagues better than mentors? Maybe so. The casual nature of a friendly relationship has, for me, a greater power to fortify and help than any mentorship I have received. I’ll guess it’s the feelings of trust, respect, and acceptance that friends provide, which can transform the human condition to purpose and resilience.


Make new Frolleagues, but keep the Old. One is silver and the other gold.





Saturday, May 22, 2021

A sense of belonging—what keeps a scientist engaged?

Dave Velinsky, Noreen Tuross, Marilyn, busy office, 1989

With a taste of research as an undergraduate student at Penn State University, I knew what I wanted to do with my career—become a scientist delving into how life had unfolded on earth and study its complexities now and in the past. I identified at this age (20 years old) as a scientist, not a stable isotope geochemist—that came later. As I neared graduation in August 1973, I was ready to take on a job as a scientist with a B.S. degree in biology. My first offer was to begin as a plant physiologist working for the Campbell’s Soup Company in Camden, New Jersey. I was offered the position at $5,000 per year. But I’d been bitten by the research bug. Prof. Peter Given, an organic geochemist at Penn State, opened up that science door for me (Penn State). I turned down the Campbell’s Soup offer and pursued grad school instead.


Marilyn and Nat Peters, 1973

I jumped in with both feet. I did a little project on iron binding compounds in the estuaries and mud flats of South Texas. I developed greater lab skills. I wrote my first scientific paper. I was engaged in the work. After I completed nine graduate classes, passed my German foreign language exam, and took the candidacy exam for my PhD, I had reached the competence level appropriate for a grad student (Grad student years).


I belonged to the profession of science. I was a scientist—now even a biogeochemist.


But there was something missing. Although I “belonged” to this small group of people who identify as such, I lacked the personal interactions with colleagues or my major professors that provide the social strings to belonging. I was a quiet student [I was known as The Phantom], one woman in a lab of all men, and an outlier in South Texas, since I hailed from New Jersey, which most Texans thought was a city or town part of an unknown state. I spoke to Chase Van Baalen, my closest major professor, maybe every other week. Pat Parker, then the Director of the Lab, was too busy. Bob Tabita, my microbiologist mentor, was based in Austin, far away from Port Aransas, where the Marine Science Institute was based. We interacted every 2-3 months. My fellow students were either born again Christians or Yahoo Texans. I was neither.


Seth Newsome, Anne J., Chris, post-vaccine

The reflections on “belonging” were sparked this past week, in the class I am teaching with 22 grad students via Zoom at UC Riverside. We read and discussed a paper (Rainey et al. cited below) that brought all of this to a sharp focus for me. The topic for the week was Women in Science, something I’m familiar with to say the least. Rainey et al.’s paper identified four aspects that solidified a person’s sense of belonging in science: identity, competence, interest, and personal interactions. In discussion with some of students, I was surprised to learn that although they had the interest and the personal connections, they did not identify, yet, as being a scientist. Some questioned their competence. The isolation of the pandemic hasn’t helped.


That sense of belonging for me now is all about people and personal interactions—and has been for some time. As my formal career as a scientist, a stable isotope geochemist, winds down, people have made the journey special.


I’ve been thinking this week about how I got to this sense of belonging. When I first arrived at the Geophysical Lab as a postdoc, I was even more a fish out of water than I was in Texas. I was a biologist with a degree in botany in the midst of high temperature/pressure petrologists. During those early years, I continued to grow in terms of identity—now a stable isotope biogeochemist—and competence, as well as a widening interest in what I wanted to study. It took a good five years for me to make those personal connections (New staff member).


I began my own lab group—Steve Macko was a first partner. We exchanged ideas daily, hourly. Then, Luis Cifuentes, David Velinsky, Noreen Tuross, and Paul Koch followed. My office was the center of a growing group of young biogeochemical stars. I had a silver bowl always filled with peanuts in their shells. People from the Lab drifted in for a quick snack, littered the floor with peanut husks, and shared their day. Tom Hoering and Doug Rumble, fellow staff members, became friends. The administrative and custodial folks dropped by for casual conversation, and some advice. Visitors from around the United States came to use my lab. I made connections with outside colleagues—Jon Sharp (Univ. of Delaware), Brad Tebo (Scripps), Hans Paerl (Univ. of North Carolina), and Ron Benner (Univ. of Georgia).


Will Porter and Associate Prof. Hoori Ajami, Salton Sea

Today, even with the pandemic and my inability to travel far, I am connected to several networks of people. The listserve Isogeochem offers the chance to reach into the labs of more than 3,500 scientists. As Equity Advisor for UC Riverside’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, I work with another 100 folkx of all sorts working to promote fairness and inclusion. I also engage weekly with the Salton Sea Task Force, a group of about 20, that I started in 2019 to study the environmental, medical, and energy problems surrounding Southern California’s largest inland lake. Further, I’m still working with students, postdocs, and collaborators finishing up projects that keep us all engaged—butterfly physiology, bacterial isotopes, diet experiments, wildlife isotope ecology, food webs, and new methods for measuring isotopes within molecules. Once a month since the pandemic began, the Geochem Girls (Kate Freeman, Hilairy Hartnett, Liz Sikes, and Liz Canuel) zoom on Saturday evenings with cocktails to hash out what we’re thinking about.


Hilairy, Liz S., Marilyn, Kate: GeochemGirls

Now, the Moderna vaccine has opened up in person visits! Chris and I are starting to host dinner parties with neighbors, welcome family, and look forward to welcoming those special science colleagues that have become dear friends.


As the world readjusts to seeing people in person, it is important, especially for those establishing their careers to make those personal interactions, jump back into active research, and yeah, don’t be hesitant to identify a special part of you as a scientist. You are the future. We need you!


Race and gender differences in how sense of belonging influences decisions to major in STEM, Katherine Rainey, Melissa Dancy, Roslyn Mickelson, Elizabeth Stearns & Stephanie Moller.


Thursday, May 6, 2021

May is 5 years for me and ALS Awareness Month


Family, December 2020

Twenty to twenty-five percent of people diagnosed with ALS survive five years or more. I’m coming up on this milestone in 2 weeks and will very likely join that statistic. Five years has seemed, to me, almost like a separate lifetime: life before ALS and life after.


What keeps a person “going” who has a relentless, terminal illness?

Having a purpose in life.


I always had very strong reasons for living and working. As ALS has progressed in these five years, some of those life purposes have necessarily been changed. My physical condition has gone from fair to mostly poor. Anything requiring robust activity has had to change. The pandemic year has made the transition easier than it had been by promoting the use of online, computer meetings for keeping in touch with people.


My purpose is to help people—however I can in this state—and for as long as I can.


I can provide inspiration to young people starting out as scientists.


I can provide financial support for family and for larger causes like the Golden West ALS chapter and research funds for young students.


I can provide an “Ear” to friends, family, and colleagues.

And when asked, I can provide advice.


Seth Newsome & Family with Sora Kim & Family, 2021

How I help people has changed: I can no longer hop on an airplane or jump in a car, so people have to come to me or we interact remotely. I’m no longer going into work on a daily basis, but I work from my computer at home. I can no longer shop for nice presents, but am pretty good on Amazon and the internet.


I can still give you a hug—although a bit feeble—now that I’m vaccinated.


I can still laugh and talk.


And most important for me, I can still write.


May is National ALS awareness month. See my personal journey (ALS blogs) and Evan’s movie about me (2019 Movie).


New horizons are appearing for figuring out how to treat this disease, but it’s more complicated than we thought—even 5 years ago. Over 50 genes, with potential mutations, can cause ALS, most of them not inherited. In my case, I did not inherit the genetic basis, but something along the way made small—but important—alterations to how my nerves work. If I knew which of the possible 50 genes were not working for me, maybe, just maybe, we’d be able to figure out a drug that would “fix” the problem. This is unlikely for me, but for those getting the word that they have ALS today, there is hope.


The Golden West Chapter provides hands on practical help to me, as well as contributing to timely research to figure out how to arrest the progress of this disease. To donate: (Golden West ALS)



Sunday, April 25, 2021

Working outdoors--fieldwork: is it for you?

Plucking icebergs from the Arctic Ocean, 2004


Because I don’t get seasick the idea of being tossed around in stormy seas in the middle of the ocean sounded like fun to me. I embraced fieldwork—studies that take a scientist out of doors to experience the natural world. Fieldwork can also be broader—getting out of your normal environment working in another location, perhaps interviewing people or setting up new equipment. Although I spent the majority of my time in the laboratory running analyses, fixing instruments, writing grants and papers, conducting sampling in remote places was a real perk to the job.


“Fieldwork in company with others is most important to learn about sources, processes, influencing factors, errors & biases during sampling, sampling strategies, experimental setups, new questions and research ideas.” Sebastian Breitenbach, Northumbria Univ.


As a college professor I learned more about how others think about being out of sight of familiar surroundings, particularly the human-built environment. My first field trip with ecology students only went across campus to UC Merced’s vernal pool and grassland natural reserve. Black and white dairy cows grazed on the gently rolling hills dotted with shallow pools. Ground squirrels bolted from burrow to another. Red-tailed hawks soared overhead. In February the green landscape was peaceful and serene. I urged the class to step away from the unpaved service road and walk far enough to have the campus disappear.


Students at UC Merced, 2013

But as I led them, several of them held back. Eventually I realized what was happening, slowed down and had students spend a couple quiet minutes taking in the natural surroundings. They adapted to the landscape and began to feel more comfortable. My fieldwork teaching improved slowly. On my first trip with students to Yosemite National Park, I handed out binoculars and field guides, which they put in their backpacks and never used. That year one student shouted, “My first waterfall!” as he looked at Bridal Veil Falls. The following year, I split the class in two: my husband Chris, a talented field ornithologist, taught students how to use binoculars, while I taught the other half how to use a field guide. That day we saw almost 10 species of ducks and had a spectacular look at a Great Horned Owl in a tree. I heard, “I didn’t know there were different types of ducks.” I learned to assume nothing.


Where had my training come from? Undoubtedly from childhood adventures with my family and neighborhood buddies. Summer vacations for me were to far-flung national parks, battlefields, and historic forts. My father was a fisherman, so I spent hours holding a fishing rod, bitten by mosquitos, wishing I could have been sunbathing on the beach like my friends. We did nothing fancy, but I did become comfortable taking hikes by myself and enjoyed solitude in the out of doors.


After a quarter spent with Penn State’s Wallops Island Marine Science program, where 40 students immersed themselves in studying coastal islands, marshes, beaches, and waters, I was hooked. The remainder of my career involved fieldwork around the world: the Arctic, the taiga, deserts, temperate forests, mountains, oceans, and the tropics.


During my sophomore year in college out in the field with my paleontology professor (a retired naval officer), in the backwoods of Tennessee where he grew up, was the first time that I learned (but sadly not the last) that the first flat tire is an inconvenience but the second flat tire is the “real inconvenience”. He also taught me who “George Dickel” was [sipping whiskey], how to make western eggs, where to get packs of 20 cent cigs, how to drive a standard transmission truck, chew tobacco and much more. He was my hook into Geology.” Dr. Mike Engel, Univ. of Oklahoma


My first major field work was conducted in Yellowstone National Park where I learned sampling, hazardous duty, and permitting. The work came after failing to develop a new method for isotope analyses and provided the right push to me to take a right turn and do something different.


“Of course fieldwork is all about sampling for laboratory analysis, but one of my favorite aspects about the field is really getting a handle on the context of what you might be sampling. It’s possible to read about the context of an archaeological site, or look at photographs and drawings, for example, but being physically there during excavation and experiencing the environment that leads to site formation is an almost spiritual experience for me.” Jon Nye, UC Riverside

Jon Nye on glacier, Antarctica


I followed my terrestrial work with time at sea. The smell of the ocean and the excitement as you leave the sight of land cannot be described adequately. The camaraderie on board ship, in fact during almost all fieldwork, has unique powers.


I’m a hydrogeologist and user of isotopic data. Field work was what drew me to studying geology—the occasional personal accomplishment in overcoming physical and logistical challenges; the aesthetics of working outdoors; and the sense of place, learning more about the communities whose water resources I study. These feelings all were amplified when I starting working in developing countries in 2004. I’ve taken students of color to the field, but I’ve come to realize that as an older, white, male, American, reasonably able-bodied professor, I enjoy privileges, including the opportunity to do field work without being questioned or harassed (usually), that most people don’t have.” Alan Fryar, Univ. of Kentucky


In fact, working in the field internationally changed my worldview profoundly. I spent eight field seasons in the Australia’s Outback, often times working on Native lands interacting with people from a completely different culture. The relationship that Australia’s native people have to their land differs from my white, outsider feelings. Australia’s plants, soils, and animals were study subjects to me; soils and rocks—the land—were central to Aboriginal people’s soul, religion, and history. It took awhile, but it sunk in. I could have done more to explain our work to those who lived there.

Arndt (R) in Vietnam


About 6 years ago, my wife and I began collaborating with young Vietnamese faculty and students from Vietnam National University (VNU) in Hanoi, Vietnam, studying caves in rural northern Vietnam. At the onset of our fieldwork, our motley group including 'foreigners' (which was unheard of in that remote area!), raised great suspicion among the provincial government and police, prompting them to assign a young man to accompany us as an official "guide", but actually to make sure that we were under control. The young man called Minh (like Ho Chi Minh, only shorter) had recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree and was employed at a low level by the regional government. He had grown up in an extremely remote village close to the Vietnamese/Chinese border. He was the only one of his large family who had ever attended university. Smart like a tack!

In the following weeks of hard work, our group bonded tightly and Minh began to behave and work with us like any of the VNU students. He caught on fire about science. The young man began to fancy Nguyet, one of our female VNU students, and the feeling became mutual. After our return to the USA, the couple became engaged. We attended their wedding during one of our follow-up fieldwork campaigns in Vietnam. As a graduate student, Nguyet decided on a VNU research project on radon in 'mud houses' of ethnic minorities in northern Vietnam. Her husband Minh had conveniently grown up in such a house and he successfully lobbied his regional government to let us work on radon isotopes in his ancestral village about one mile from the Chinese border, which was totally unheard of and prompted several uniformed and plainclothes police officers to be dispatched with us to the 'politically risky' location of our research. We all became friends within one day and afterwards were allowed to run freely like the countless chickens in the village. Pictures of our radon research are here:” Arndt Schimmelmann, Indiana Univ.

 I felt similarly when working in far northern Ethiopia a few kilometers from the border with Eritrea. While working in the field collecting ancient soil samples to tell us about past civilizations, we heard artillery being tested—my first experience working under political uncertainty. Soldiers stopped our vehicle coming and going. Today, this area, the Tigray region, is at war with southern Ethiopian military forces and Eritrean soldiers. People are dying and refugees are escaping to neighboring countries. This was also my first (and only) trip to Africa where I felt firsthand what it feels like to be the only one of my race in a busy marketplace.

Northern Ethiopia battle site with Eritrea, 2015


In 1995, I was part of a project on biological control of locusts in West Africa to find out if an insect-born fungus that could defeat locusts would work not only in lab trials but also in the field. We went to Mauretania at the end of October for a 6-week trip. After two days in the capital Nouakshot, we went to the final destination, Akjoukt, (Inchiri), 250km north of Nouakshot, a small town of 7000 inhabitants on the edge of Western Sahara. We settled and started doing our work.

We (scientist, PhD and me) lived in a small house, typically Arabic (garden yard, yard behind the house surrounded by a wall to the neighboring building). Drivers, a cook, a guard and several other people who helped us conduct the trials were locals. Some of them did not speak English well, maybe French but mainly a local dialect, so it was not always easy but we understood, and work went more or less smoothly. The main 'problem' was different mentality or culture, so some things just took longer than expected, some things were difficult to purchase etc. And there was a different understanding of time. It was often understood more vaguely than expected.

What I liked was the will of all people, even the ones you just met on the road and did not speak French at all, trying to get along with others in a positive, friendly way. At least that was my experience as a white woman in an Islamic country. You can always sit down in the dust for traditional tea ceremony (drinking three glasses of strong green tea saturated with sugar.

What I also liked was the experience of desert Sahara. The silence. The little noises of animals, plants, sand grains, the wind. It often was so quiet that my mind made up a familiar noise from the noise (or silence) around, for example I heard church bells even there was no church or bell in town. Last but not least it was the clear black night sky above the desert. I have never seen so many stars and even the Milky Way before and after that travel again. It was sooo huge and overwhelming.

The trip also showed me the world I came from [Germany] and live in - so rich, well organized, with a health system that you can rely on, clean water and electricity at all times, food of all kinds and amounts, education... and still you can live with less of it and be content, kind, make the best out of it.” Deborah Rupprecht, Univ. of Bonn

Beyond soul searching, fieldwork can be just plain fun. In Belize we had Extreme Dinners (link). In Australia, we howled around campfires telling stories, roasting choocks [chickens], and drinking red wine. In the Arctic, the cold, snow made for fun times in a homemade hot tub. Going out on the zodiac boat to pick up an iceberg for gin and tonics was a highlight.


You also get a chance to build some camaraderie with the people you’re with, especially since many in STEM are shy or introverted, you get to know the people you’re working with. Building those relationships is really helpful in a group setting, and the field can be a place where trust building happens. Mistakes can and do happen, but luckily I haven’t been a situation where someone was seriously injured in the field. Knowing when to take a break for water, food/snack, or just morale after weeks of being pushed hard is important. An unfortunate consequence of fieldwork is that those who didn’t go out with the team might feel left out, and I’m glad that alternative capstone courses are becoming more available for those unable or unwilling to do fieldwork.” Jon Nye, UC Riverside


Jon (L) in cook tent in Antarctica

Circling back to my learning about novice students in the field: being outside isn’t “fun” for everyone! Being away from showers, cell phone service, and having to pee/poop outside, can be a major turnoff for many. That peaceful feeling I get from being in the wild can bring on stress and anxiety in others. Add to that different cultural norms—Hispanic people in America are “outdoorsy” in local parks and playgrounds, not necessarily scaling mountains.  Black people have been taught for years to stay out of the woods because bad things can happen there [like KKK meetings]. As geology and ecology departments try to expand fieldwork to a more diverse student body, they’re having to pay more attention to students who don’t have a lifetime love of the out of doors.

Rebecca, center, doing fieldwork


Rebecca Doyle, The University of Western Ontario, has written some wise guidelines. Here’s one to think about:

      Avoid shaming others for not knowing how to swim or use boats. Many people didn’t grow up near water, so never learn these skills. Moreover, people of colour are routinely excluded from swimming areas. Black people, for instance, were (and continue to be) violently punished by white people for visiting beaches and swimming pools. Consequently, learning how to swim as a child is a privilege that is often reserved for white people, particularly wealthy white people who often grow up with pools in their backyards. If someone doesn’t know how to swim, or is uncomfortable working on the water, consider assigning them one of these crucial tasks:

a.      Calling for assistance if someone on the lake falls in the water or through the ice

b.      Keeping track of the time

c.      Making detailed descriptions of the field site, sediment cores, etc.

d.      Subsectioning sediment cores

e.      Communicating with landowners and/or the public if they drop by

f.       Taking photographs

g.      Collecting samples around the shore”


Careful planning and thought, just as scientists do in the laboratory, makes a big difference. Considering how to make fieldwork more inclusive is important. Resources can be found at:



And as Mat Wooller, University of Alaska says:  Mind the 7 “P”s!


Prior Preparation and Planning Prevent Piss Poor Performance.



Mat Wooller, Extreme Dining, Belize

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