We are very excited to welcome this week’s guest blogger, Kim Stephens, an Undergraduate student from Queen’s University. Kim was a field assistant in 2013 to one of our resident bloggers, Amanda and today she tells us about some of the lessons she learned during her first summer in the field.
During the summer of 2013 I worked as a field technician for the Aarssen Lab at Queen’s University – meaning I got to spend my summer working outside almost every day. I was incredibly excited to not be stuck in an office or store, gazing longingly at the sunshine outside. My 4 months were spent digging in the dirt, watering plants, and picking flowers – a dream job! We worked on 4 different projects throughout the summer, which were at varying degrees of completion. That summer, I was continually learning, and by the end I could identify a multitude of flowers and grasses, and knew my way around areas surrounding Kingston. I also learned quite a few lessons about field work… many of them the hard way. Here are some of them!
Science happens, despite the weather. One of the projects that I was helping with involved differing water levels on the study sites (decreased, control, and enriched) which meant that once per week, we pulled the Rhino out of the white house, and watered study plots for an entire day. This made complete sense to me on a scientific basis, but when I was standing out in the rain watering, it didn’t make quite so much sense anymore. That being said, watering in the rain was sometimes a nice break from the +30oC, when you wished you could turn the spray nozzle around, and get cooled off by the pond water.
Protect yourself from the elements. Sunscreen is your best friend! I was used to my typical days out in the sun – sitting in the shade, hanging out at the beach – being able to enjoy the weather without being in the direct sun. This was completely different! Bracken field, where we watered, was exactly that – an open field. We had very little reprieve from the high UV, except while filling up the water tank, and after a couple of encounters with lobster-coloured skin, I started applying sunscreen more frequently. On the opposite end of the spectrum – invest in a good rain suit… especially if you’re working in and around Kingston. Field work continues in the rain, so not having to sit in wet clothes all day, or change multiple times, makes the work day much more pleasant.
Plant ecology can be dangerous – watch where you’re walking. Late in the summer, during seed collection for Amanda’s project, I discovered that I was thankfully not allergic to wasps. We were in an area which had very little, if any, cell service and virtually no houses nearby. I was walking along the side of the road, and found some plants that looked like they might have seeds that we needed. The ground camouflaged the wasps’ nest, and unfortunately I stepped right on it. They didn’t take too kindly to my intrusion, and stung me 12 times.
Double check that you’ve packed everything. Early in the field season, just after we started digging trenches around study plots, Amanda and I were taking a break for lunch, when she discovered that she hadn’t packed a fork for her salad. Unfortunately, I didn’t have one either, and since we were so far from a town, we had to make do with what we had, which ended up being a garden trowel that we had been using to dig. After rinsing, sanitizing, and rinsing again, it was designated ‘safe’, and she created a new meaning to ‘shoveling food in your mouth’. We didn’t forget cutlery very often after that.
Offence is the best defense. Poison Ivy, a tricky little plant which causes rashes and other irritation, quite enjoys hiding in the most unsuspecting places. A good portion of the summer was spent collecting samples which were conveniently located in patches of poison ivy. My solution – full yellow PVC-coated rain suit (read: homemade biohazard suit) complete with rain boots and gloves. Armed with this protective layer, I ventured into the area which held the Dame’s Rocket flowers I wanted to collect for my project.
Back up your pictures. You will see many amazing things while working in the field and take pictures of as many as you can– I took over 2000 during my time in the field. Weather happens, equipment breaks, and phones reach the end of their lifespan. While I was putting together this blog post I had a perfect picture in mind of one of the other field technicians watering plots in the rain. I discovered far too late that it had been taken on my cell phone – which gave up a few weeks ago…. before being properly backed up.
Stop and smell the roses. Fieldwork has its ups and downs, but while you’re out in the field, take the time to appreciate the beautiful nature around you. I took an office job the summer of 2014, and spent most of it inside, appreciating how amazing the previous summer had been.
Kim did her undergraduate degree at Queen’s University in Biology and studied the relationships between metrics of plant body size for her undergraduate thesis. She returned to Queen’s for the 2014-15 school year to finish off her degree in German and is headed to Germany this year to work and attend graduate school.