The things they don’t tell you…

This week, Dispatches from the field welcomes guest writer Kathryn Stewart to share some of the things she has learned through doing different types of fieldwork but that you are not usually prepared for!

Look, we’re friends right?! And as friends I feel we can have uncomfortable conversations. So let’s get this out in the open for good.

There are two types of scientists in this world:

Hard-core field scientists and those left with a kernel of self-respect / dignity.

What do I mean by that? Well, when you have food poisoning while traveling through different countries…do you keep your dignity trapped in your chest waders? Do you try to waddle to a proper bathroom, or better yet try to convince a trusted assistant to drive you to one? OR do you run for the nearest bush and let nature take its course, all-the-while thinking about the potential data you’re missing out on?

…see where I’m going with this?

Listen, I’m going to make this post a little easier on you and ease your trepidation in scrolling down this page. THIS POST WILL NOT CONTAIN PHOTOS! But what it will contain is a glimpse into a mind-set that is admittedly all-together unhealthy but not uncommon among your field comrades.

I, myself, have relinquished all types of bodily fluids into the depths of the great-outdoors and I have NEVER regretted it. Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way, shape or form, a boasting platform. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of what I’ve done. But I also would never waste precious time on dignified moments of peace when I might possibly be within the grasp of getting the perfect data-set. Or at the very least, not going home (tent/cabin/car) after a long day and crying alone about the follies of my research design…out of ear-shot from my field assistants of course.

These tid-bits are something that people rarely talk about. Sure, people will sometimes ask if you are ok to pee in the woods but when you drive out at 5am to watch birds with a group of 5 people for 8 hours and not one person admits to having to defecate….well, it’s not that they have perfectly trained their bodies to the exact minute they return to a walled-abode (of some type) over the course of months. They simply do it in the forest and move on with their lives.

When you expect yourself (and everyone around you) to work 7 days a week for 4 months straight with little to no interaction with people and then one glorious morning you awake to find out temperatures have dropped 20 degrees, tornadoes are on the horizon, and hail is falling like Cadillac’s from the sky – perhaps you reward yourself with one too many beers. You wake up hungover like a 16 year old and stagger into the field only to run to a bush, vomit, and continue on as if nothing happened. THIS IS FIELD WORK. It’s not your most pleasant moment, but if an impending brown-streak in your pants won’t get you to stop your data collection, a little vomit isn’t going to get you down either.

I’ve personally crab-walked away from supervisors about to approach during awkward moments, and I’ve been on the receiving end of glimpsing things I shouldn’t have. I’ve drank too much without missing a second of work, I’ve eaten questionable tacos, and sat on fire-ants with my pants around my ankles. We shake these images out of our heads because like all obsessive-compulsive data-collecting robots, we love science, and science is often gross…but the rewards are always worth it.

So if you’re an aspiring undergrad about to embark on your first field collections, by all means don’t feel OBLIGATED to vacate your body of all its toxins. No one will force you, but also keep your wits about you…you never know what kind of carnage you might stumble upon. If you’re a well-seasoned grad student, you know all too well what I preach here. Know that you are not alone – also, I saw what you did and my lips are sealed. Promise.

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