Thinking outside the lab

Shortly after starting my PhD, I was assigned to TA a class called “Diversity of Plants”.  As an ornithologist, I did not feel entirely confident teaching undergraduates about plants.  But what worried me most was the first lab, which focused on how to use a microscope properly.  “This is going to be a disaster,” I lamented to a friend over the phone.  “How am *I* qualified to teach people to use a microscope?”

“Why do you say that?” my friend asked. “I would think you’re actually extremely qualified.  Don’t you use microscopes all the time?”

I stared at the phone in consternation.  “Um…I study bird behaviour, so…not so much, no.”

There was a long silence, and then my friend said uncertainly, “But you’re a scientist!  All scientists use microscopes…don’t they?”

 

My friend is not alone in her misconception.  For most people, the word ‘scientist’ conjures images of serious people wearing white lab coats and safety goggles, ensconced in pristine labs full of Erlenmeyer flasks and microscopes.  Few people immediately picture dirty, windswept individuals wearing an excess of plaid, large floppy hats, and socks with sandals.  Fieldwork isn’t usually the first thing the general public associates with the word ‘science’.

And this misconception often extends to science students as well.  As an undergraduate in Biology, I spent a lot of time gathered around lab benches counting fruit flies or looking at slides – but I didn’t really understand that science doesn’t always take place in a laboratory until I was in third year.  That year, my ecology course went on a mandatory weekend field trip to the Queen’s University Biological Station.  This trip was a long-standing tradition in the course; its purpose was essentially to introduce us to some of the questions, methods, and experiences of field biology.

Years later, that trip is one of the few things that stands out vividly in my memories of undergrad.  I remember dragging myself out of bed obscenely early to catch the bus to QUBS (and getting carsick on the twists and turns of the gravel road).  I remember stepping out of the bus into quiet air that smelled faintly of pine and rain.  I remember tromping through a field wet with dew to check live traps for small mammals, and I definitely remember the large and extremely angry weasel that the lab coordinator very carefully released from one of the traps.  I remember discovering that chickadees, although small, pack a surprisingly powerful bite, and the moment I realized that the chest waders I was wearing to seine for sunfish had a rather large leak.  Most of all, I remember being completely entranced by the whole experience.  That field trip was my first real exposure to the world of field biology – and clearly it made a lasting impression.

Seining for sunfish in Lake Opinicon.

Seining for sunfish in Lake Opinicon.

 

Fast forward a few (okay, many) years, and suddenly I found myself TAing that ecology course.  I was really excited to help organize and teach those field weekends – not least because it would be my first chance as a PhD student to teach something I felt passionate about.   But I was also a bit apprehensive about it.  The field weekend had been one of the most important parts of my undergraduate experience, but this group of students didn’t seem particularly excited about it.  I was frustrated because I wanted them to love it as much as I had.

Throughout the early weeks of September, I spent several long days at QUBS with the lab coordinator, preparing all the weekend activities – from digging holes for pitfall traps to carefully laying out and flagging grids of small mammal traps.  In doing so, I got a firsthand look at just how much work was involved in pulling off the trip each year.  Planning a field weekend for 160 young adults is no small task.  The lab coordinator, who had been organizing these weekends for many years, was a bit like a general in charge of a very intricate military campaign.

On the last Friday of September, she and I headed up to the field station late on Friday evening.  I was driving the (very sketchy) departmental van, which made for a somewhat nerve-wracking drive.  The brakes creaked ominously, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to turn on the high beams.  On top of that, the road was inexplicably covered in frogs – so the drive was a bit like an obstacle course, as I swerved first one way and then the other in an attempt to minimize the carnage.

However, I made it unscathed (although sadly the same could not be said for all the frogs) – and upon arriving, was immediately put to work.  It was late and dark, but there was so much to be done before we got to sleep.  Cabins needed to be assigned, lists and maps needed to be printed and posted, and supplies needed to be distributed to the appropriate places around the station property.

Finally, before falling into bed, we headed out to bait the 40 small mammal traps we’d laid out with seed.  When we put the traps out earlier in the month, we’d flagged them with glow-in-the-dark flagging tape to make them easier to find.  However, I learned a few valuable lessons that night.  First, glow-in-the-dark flagging tape doesn’t really glow in the dark.  Second, forests are tricky places at night, even with a headlamp.  And third, spider eyes glow when light hits them.  The last lesson led to another discovery: there are many, many, many more spiders in the forest than one might think.

With the traps baited, everything was ready for the arrival of the students the next morning and I finally got to crawl into my sleeping bag – for a short time, anyway.  Very early the next morning, we climbed back into the departmental van and headed out to meet the students.

The bus had been scheduled to leave Kingston at 6 a.m., so it was no surprise that the students staggering through the doors into the cool fall morning were sleepy and cranky.  Despite having been told multiple times about appropriate footwear, at least five or six of them were wearing flip flops.  Several others were still in pyjama pants.  They stood shivering in the field beside our grid of mammal traps, leaning against each other, yawning, and complaining about the hour and the cold.

Naturally, the order to split up into pairs and go retrieve the traps was met with some muted resistance.  But eventually, they all grudgingly trooped off into the woods, and then ambled slowly back carrying the metal Sherman traps.  At first it seemed like all the traps were empty…until one last pair of students came running out of the forest, clutching their trap and shouting, “I think there’s something in here!”

Who would have thought one little deer mouse could capture the attention of 80 undergrads?

Who would have thought one little deer mouse could capture the attention of 80 undergrads?

I watched as the coordinator carefully emptied the contents of the trap into a plastic bag.  A surprised deer mouse slid out, which she then held up for everyone to see…and a collective “Ooooohhhhhh” rose from the students around me.  All of a sudden, no one was yawning.  Everyone’s eyes were on the deer mouse, and everyone looked awake and interested.  Suddenly, I was less worried about the weekend.

 

I ended up TAing that course for four years, and helping to run the field trip is still the most fulfilling teaching experience I’ve ever had.  Every year I watched tired, cold, and disinterested students straggle off the bus on Saturday morning – and energized, excited students climb back onto the bus on Sunday afternoon.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I know that the skills and techniques learned in labs are an essential part of a scientific education.  But I think it’s also important that we give students a chance to explore the other side of science.  For most people, the experience may change the way they think of the discipline.  For some people – like me – the experience may change the course of their lives.

Watching a grad student band birds at QUBS.

Watching a grad student band birds at QUBS.

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