The right question?

The most important lesson I learned during my MSc came from a seminar given by one of the professors in my department.  “Science,” he said – pausing to emphasize the gravity of the wisdom he was about to impart, “Science…is all about asking the right question.”

Ah!  I thought, feeling a lightbulb go on in my head.  That made so much sense!  But…how would I know what the right question was?  Fortunately, he must have believed in teaching by example, because he went on to tell us the question that had inspired his years of work on marine mammal behaviour. “My question,” he said, “was quite simple: how can I spend as much time as possible sailing in the tropics?”

A boat, a blue ocean, and a beautiful day: can you think of a better goal than that?

A boat, a blue ocean, and a beautiful day: can you think of a better goal than that?

I took his advice to heart, and immediately developed a question of my own: “Where’s the most amazing place I can do fieldwork, and how do I get myself there?”

This question at least partly guided my MSc research, leading to a project involving fieldwork on Nova Scotia’s iconic Sable Island.  In fact, by the time I finished my MSc, I’d been lucky enough to do fieldwork in some pretty fantastic places, from Sable to Alaska.

However, as I prepared to begin my PhD, I noticed a major gap in my experience: I’d never done tropical fieldwork.  And from everything I’d heard, that was an experience well worth having.  Anyone who’s ever taken a biology class has probably heard the term “biodiversity hotspots” used to describe latitudes around the equator.  Well, after spending a few summers freezing in the fog of Sable Island, I was ready to try something different, and a hotspot of any kind sounded pretty good to me.

Thus, when I started my PhD at Queen’s, I knew where I wanted to go, if not what I wanted to study: I was determined to develop a project that would allow me to do fieldwork somewhere tropical.  However, I’d learned more than one lesson during my MSc degree – and so I was also determined not to repeat some of the more egregious mistakes I’d made.  Unfortunately, it turned out that these two goals were somewhat incompatible.

The second most important lesson I had learned during my MSc is that you can make your life a lot easier by working on a ‘lab’ study system – that is, one that has had the kinks worked out of it by earlier generations of grad students.  Using a lab study system gives you access to well established methods and sites, other people who know and understand your system, and, often, years worth of previously collected data.

However, despite the availability of two amazing study systems in the lab I joined at Queen’s, I was less than a week into my PhD when I decided that I wasn’t interested in either of those systems: instead, I was going to strike out on my own.  How quickly we forget.

In fact, for my PhD study system, I decided to go a step farther: instead of just picking a system that no one in my lab studied, I decided to go for broke and choose a study system that pretty much no one in the world studied.

I knew from the outset that I wanted to study partial migration – that is, the odd (although not uncommon) situation where some birds in a population migrate, while others do not.  I set about finding a study system that would allow me to pursue the questions I wanted to answer…but also finally do some tropical fieldwork.

Female black-whiskered vireo sitting on her nest.

Female black-whiskered vireo sitting on her nest.

Black-whiskered vireos seemed to fit the bill perfectly: distributed mainly throughout the Caribbean into South America, they display variable migratory behaviour throughout their range.  I started digging through the literature, trying to find out what we already knew about the species and who had figured it out.  It turned out that what we knew was slightly more than nothing – and those few facts had been figured out by a Canadian researcher affiliated with an institution not too far from mine.  Excited, I immediately sat down to send him an e-mail.  I received a response the next day – telling me that the researcher I was trying to get in touch with had passed away the day before I sent my e-mail.

It was hard not to feel that that might be a bad omen.  However, I remained determined.  I knew what I wanted to study – now I just had to figure out where to go.  Through an amazing stroke of luck, I connected with Kate Wallace, who runs an ecotourism company (Tody Tours) in the Dominican Republic.  Kate had a small camp deep in the Sierra de Bahoruco, a mountain range in the far southwestern end of the country – and she was eager to host scientists wanting to learn more about the Dominican’s chronically understudied avian species.

Now I had one study site – but I also wanted to be able to compare the Dominican partially migratory vireos with fully migratory vireos, so I had to look elsewhere for another.  After some searching, I found a migratory population in the Florida Keys – and thus, unwittingly, set up a Byzantine labyrinth of permitting requirements for myself.

The joys of completely illogical permit requirements: cleaning feather and claw samples in the field.

The joys of completely illogical permit requirements: cleaning samples in the field.

Multiple government agencies in three different countries, using two different languages: all the necessary ingredients for a Kafkaesque disaster.  I spent hours on the phone, mostly on hold but occasionally insisting through clenched teeth that yes, I really did need someone to explain why, despite the fact that I held a U.S. master bird banding permit, I also needed to obtain a Canadian master banding permit to band birds in the Dominican Republic.  Or trying not to yell while explaining for the fifth time that using chloroform to clean feather and claw samples while staying at a remote field camp with no lab facilities would be…challenging, to say the least.

Finally, less than a day before I was scheduled to board a plane, all the permit issues were sorted, all the necessary equipment and various backups had arrived, and I was ready to go.  But, as often happens (to me, at least), once I knew I was going to be able to go, I was suddenly no longer sure I wanted to.  I was on edge for the entire journey, from the first flight (Toronto to Miami), through the second flight (Miami to Santo Domingo), to the long drive from Santo Domingo to the field site.  I had wanted to try something different for my PhD fieldwork, but I was feeling seriously out of my element.  The drive itself only added to my worries: the farther we travelled from the city, the more our surroundings (notably, the road itself) seemed to have fallen into disrepair.

Uh...detour, anyone?

Uh…detour, anyone?

However, when the truck finally slowed to a halt outside the gates of Rabo de Gato, I knew it had been worth the battle to get there.  As we stepped out into the warm, humid air, all I could see was vivid colour, and all I could hear was the calls of unseen birds seemingly everywhere.

My new favourite bird: the broad billed tody.

My new favourite bird: the broad billed tody.

The next two months were a blur of new experiences.  The scenery was awe-inspiring, the weather was great (except for the regular afternoon thunderstorm – but at least that was predictable), and the fantastically colourful birds were everything a bird nerd could wish for.  (I quickly acquired a new favourite: the broad billed tody.  These flying neon green and pink pompoms live in tiny ‘tody holes’, little caves that they excavate in clay banks.)

Perhaps the best part of the entire experience was the people I met.  Despite the fact that my abysmal Spanish skills meant we could barely communicate, they nonetheless went out of their way to help me.  For example, one of the biggest challenges we faced at Rabo de Gato was the constantly fluctuating electricity.  Sometimes we had power, sometimes not – and there didn’t seem to be any pattern to it.  Unfortunately, virtually every piece of equipment I’d brought with me, from our digital sound recorder to our emergency cell phone, needed to be charged regularly.  But with no way to predict when the electricity would come on, there was a good chance we’d be out in the field when it did, and miss the rare chance to plug in our myriad electronic devices.  The camp caretaker took it upon himself to solve this problem for us.  No matter where we were, if the electricity came on, he would come chasing after us, panting and calling out, “Luz! Tenemos luz!” – giving us the chance to rush back to camp and plug in everything we owned.

At last...luz!

At last…luz!

At the end of my field season, I found it hard to leave the colour and light of Rabo de Gato – but I told myself that I’d be back.  Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that, while the tropic were everything I’d hoped, the science hadn’t worked out the way I’d imagined.  The birds had proved challenging to work with in a number of ways, but the biggest problem was my inability to tell migrants and residents apart.  And so ultimately, my first field season in the tropics also ended up being my last.

Does this mean I asked the wrong question?  I’ve wondered that a lot over the last few years – but I still don’t think so, and not just because I got the opportunity to explore an amazing new ecosystem.  I also learned one of the hardest lessons of my PhD.  I took a risk on a study system that no one knew much about – and in my case, it didn’t pan out.  But I think that it was worth trying, because taking risks is so often how science advances.  Since so much science is done by students, if we don’t take risks, who will?

Worth the risk...

2 thoughts on “The right question?

  1. The vireo’s nest is *under* the branches! How does that hold? It half looks as if it’s tied on in three places, and that would make the vireo one very, very special bird…

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