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

Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...