On mentoring & fieldwork

As field biologists we know we are extremely privileged to do what we do. We get to explore some of the most remote places in the world, study some of the most exciting flora and fauna, and experience some of the most exciting, hilarious and terrifying things you could ever imagine. But we don’t want to keep these experiences to ourselves. That’s exactly why we started this blog, to share our stories and other’s stories with everyone. It’s a simple form of outreach, call it a media-based outreach if you will, which we hope has given some readers a little glimpse into fieldwork.

But Dispatches from the field is certainly not the only medium out there for getting people excited about fieldwork. Over the next few weeks on Dispatches we are going to highlight stories where field biologists have made an effort to get people excited about fieldwork, whether that is the general public, children, or even undergraduate students. We’ll be featuring some more media-based stories, some stories about local groups/clubs and even some course-based stories. Whatever the context, the broad theme over the next several weeks is fieldwork outreach and I’m very excited to start things off this week by talking a bit about my experiences as a mentor in the field.

I’ve been working in the field since 2009 and I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of field assistants over that time. Lackeys, minions, call them what you want, but they’re certainly more than just hired help. For most of my field assistants, fieldwork in our lab was a first for them, and I wanted to make that the best possible experience for them.

Thinking back to my first field season in summer 2009, I was terrified. I was always an outdoorsy person but was still pretty intimidated. The field technician that year, my now good friend Sarah, played a huge role in getting me excited about fieldwork. Her enthusiasm for the natural world was exceptional. I remember meandering through some of the paths surrounding the Queen’s University Biological Station and looking at spring ephemerals. Every time we came across a species she didn’t know she helped us key it out, and it was super exciting to turn the pages and eventually a matching image would jump right off the page. Sarah was a pretty special mentor to me, and that field season literally changed my whole career path and a lot of my life.

Having Sarah as a guide in my first field season really set the pace for my future field seasons as a graduate student. As I grew into my role as a field biologist, I realized my role as a mentor, and fast. Suddenly, I had my own students to help with my own projects. I had to give advice and help set up their honours thesis projects. I had to show them how to identify local flora and familiarize them with our sampling techniques and most importantly, I had to get them excited about doing it. I had to get them to appreciate the natural world and give them their first taste of fieldwork.

sarah and i

Sarah and I are my field site in 2009 Photo credit: S.Baxter

For me, it was really exciting to see who was going to end up loving fieldwork and who would stay indoors for the rest of their lives. Over the years I would certainly say I’ve seen a handful of the latter, but for the most part fieldwork was a positive experience for most of the students I have worked with. For example, I had two field assistants last summer both who had a great time doing fieldwork.

Jen, who did an Honours thesis project on masting in sugar maples, is now doing fieldwork in Alaska (you can expect to hear a story from her soon…). Jen, a self-described tree-hugger, was meant to do fieldwork. She had spent some time doing fieldwork in New Zealand (anyone remember that story?) and was just an outdoorsy person in general. I remember working in the field with her one day and talking about how much we loved to work in the field. “It makes you feel alive” Jen commented. She is certainly right about that!

My other field assistant John follows a similar story line. John was an outdoorsy guy with experience working for a conservation authority. He came into our lab, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and excited (SO EXCITED) to do fieldwork. I remember interviewing him and thinking there was no way he could still be that enthusiastic by the end of the summer. But John proved me wrong! In fact, he’s starting his Master’s this semester in our lab and doing a totally fieldwork-based thesis!

Like I said before, fieldwork isn’t meant for everyone, but you don’t know if you enjoy something until you try it. Mentoring students and getting them excited about fieldwork stands as one of my favourite parts, if not my absolute favourite part of being a field biologist.

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