While pursuing my Ph.D. in analytical chemistry, I did field work collecting soil cores from an abandoned mine tailings site in a remote location in South Dakota. The trip took some planning. I had driven over 400 miles from my own lab in Colorado to collect samples with my collaborators, over two days.
The first day, we faced afternoon thunderstorms. On top of that, we had to pull my colleague out of a sedimentation pond. His boots got stuck in the thick sediment while he was hammering the sampling equipment in place. Then, at the end of the day, our soil corer jammed. We only had the materials we had brought with us, so we didn’t have the tools on hand to fix it.
My collaborator had to ask a local farmer for tools so we could fix the soil corer for the next day of sampling. If we’d been unable to borrow tools, we couldn’t have completed the sampling trip. Given the location of the site, returning at a later date would have been extremely tough.
We were lucky.
Don’t Count on Field Luck
Fieldwork is crucial to scientific advancement, although it’s often expensive and stressful. It also adds to the difficulty of getting a protocol correct the first time round. (That can be hard enough even under the best circumstances when one is in a fully equipped, controlled and familiar lab.)
Not all studies include a field component, so it’s unclear the percentage of researchers who perform sampling, monitoring, or experimentation in the field. A team of biologists found that, in the field of conservation science, from 1980 to 2014, the volume of fieldwork-based articles dropped by 20%. (On the other hand, there were spikes of 600% and 800% increases in modelling and data analysis studies, respectively.)
Researchers Field Motto: Be Prepared
Remember, even if you are prepared, you can’t plan for everything when you’re outside your lab. If you’re missing materials or something fails, you might need to come up with a quick and creative solution to your problem. Undoubtedly, there are many potential issues we can face in the field. For instance, one researcher, responding to an informal JoVE survey on fieldwork, noted that accessing the testing site was a problem.
With that in mind, here are some fieldwork tips:
- If you already have a protocol written for the work you’ll be doing, review it before you leave for the field. If not, writing out a protocol will help to ensure you make a comprehensive list of materials to bring.
- If the work you’ll be doing outside the lab is new to you, run through it so you can visualize all the steps. If you watch a JoVE video on the procedure, you can see exactly what to expect. (For instance, JoVE protocols often include tips on where a procedure can go wrong.)
- If you’re working with colleagues familiar with the location you’ll be working in, find out everything you can from them about that environment in advance. Learn if any resources are available on-site, so you know what you need to bring with you and what you can leave at home.
- You’ll need to think about clothing and equipment. Pick gear that is suitable for working outdoors that will help support your scientific research.
- Take specific, detailed notes, especially if you made modifications to any part of your procedure. When it comes time to write up your methods, you’ll want to describe what you did accurately, no matter how creative the process, so others can replicate your work.
With that, I wish you luck with your fieldwork!