A different kind of field season

This week, Dispatches from the Field is very excited to welcome Stephanie Kim to the blog.  Steph is a graduate student at Queen’s University, and in her post she shares some her experiences from a very unusual field season.

When you hear the words “field season”, you probably think of forests or swamps or lakes or just the great outdoors. When I hear the words, I think of dark, lonely basements and skeletons…but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Last summer, I went on a whirlwind museum tour/data collection extravaganza across North America to collect data for my MSc project. I spent the summer perusing some of the best museum collections in North America and taking pictures of bird skulls and legs, all while getting to visit some places I probably would never have seen otherwise! I went on three amazing trips and, while it was lonely at times, I wouldn’t trade my basement skeletons for anything else in the world.

Instead of wild adventures and close encounters with amazing (live) animals, I’ll give you a few highlights from one of the coolest summers I’ve ever had:

TRIP 1: Museum of Comparative Zoology (Boston) – American Museum of Natural History (New York) – Smithsonian (Washington, D.C.) – Carnegie Museum (Pittsburgh) – Field Museum (Chicago) – Michigan University (Ann Arbor)

TRIP 2: Kansa University Museum (Lawrence) – Louisiana State University (Baton Rouge) – Museum of Southwestern Biology (Albuquerque) – University of Colorado (Boulder)

TRIP 3: Yale University (New Haven) – University of California, at LA (Los Angeles) – LA County Museum of Natural History (Los Angeles) – Moore Lab of Zoology (Los Angeles) – Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (San Francisco) – California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco)

The oh-so-fashionable 'airport bag lady' look.

The oh-so-fashionable ‘airport bag lady’ look.

First off, imagine me running through airports, trying to catch my next flight with only 30 minutes of layover time and no idea where I’m going…looking like this. It wasn’t my best look. I was carrying a tripod, a camera, my laptop, a full desktop scanner, and 3-4 weeks worth of clothes. My backpack hardly made it back in one piece and my shoulders have never been so sore.

My first experience during this trip was: a) something I’ll never forget; b) an embarrassing fan-girl situation; and c) not at all science related. I met Viggo Mortensen…aka Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. And because I was so nervous I was going to miss my flight, I was at the airport 4 hours early. So I have a lot of pictures of the back of his head…like this one.

Even from the back...the most exciting part of the trip!

Even from the back…the most exciting part of the trip!

So let’s marry these two pieces of information: the first (and probably only) time I  met a famous person… I looked like an airport bag lady.

Great company: the MCZ stuffed dodo in Boston.

Great company: the MCZ stuffed dodo in Boston.

After leaving Aragorn behind, I started my actual museum tour. The MCZ at Harvard University in Boston was my first stop. It was a gorgeous little museum right in the middle of  campus. The company was scarce, but I did have a lovely stuffed dodo bird to keep me company. To be honest, this was the beginning of my extreme summer of nerding out and instagramming everything with the hashtag “Darwinning”.

Museums are such an amazing source of information and research! There were huge libraries in almost every collection I visited and the staff were founts of knowledge. As part of my data collecting, I was taking images of the three leg bones in birds (femur, tibiotarsus, and tarsometatarsus). Before leaving, I had done lots of research into correctly ID-ing the leg bones, but when I opened my first specimen box, it was just a slurry of bones. Some were broken, while some were still attached together… I had no idea where to start. Thankfully, one of the staff members helped me out and pushed me in the right direction. Needless to say, if you ever need to ID the left leg bones of a bird, I’m now your girl. Seeing the work being done in these collections and the army of people behind the scenes at museums was something I will never forget…and something that has made me admire and appreciate museums even more!

The Darwin bird! The top two tags are even in his handwriting... #darwinning

The Darwin bird!

Working in these museums also meant that on my breaks, I got to walk around and see all the exhibits. Sometimes, I would even get a cool badge that made me look super official. The American Museum of Natural History (in New York) had some of my favourite exhibits, but the coolest thing I saw on my journey was behind lock and key at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.: a Hudsonian Godwit that was collected by Charles Darwin himself!! It was collected on the HMS Beagle’s second voyage to the Falkland Islands – the top two tags are the original ones that Darwin wrote when he collected this bird! Pretty cool. …#darwinning.

Happy the Penguin

Happy the Penguin

Other adventures include going to a National Aviary in Pittsburgh, where I met a 6-month old penguin named Happy, spending Canada Day at the Bean in Chicago after a day at the Field Museum, walking through Kansas University campus where I saw real-life Greek row, filled with giant fraternity/sorority houses, visiting the giant collection at LSU, and finishing some amazing hikes in Albuquerque (Sandia Peaks) and Boulder (Iron flats).

It’s worth mentioning that I was given a to-do list for my time in Baton Rouge: eat a shrimp po’boy and see the Mississippi river. Unfortunately, everything is fried in peanut oil in Louisiana…and I happen to be allergic to peanuts.  Instead, I was offered a very sad, blanched, shrimp sandwich… that wasn’t great. As for the Mississippi river, I walked 40 minutes to get a glimpse, but the only place I could get to was guarded by security and I wasn’t allowed to approach the actual shoreline, BUT if you look realllllyy closely at the picture… you can see a tiny sliver of the river (behind the swampy waters). Check.

The Mississippi river. No, really...it's actually there if you look closely!

The Mississippi river. No, really…it’s actually there if you look closely!

My last trip started in New Haven, on Yale’s beautiful campus. (Shout out to any Gilmore Girl fans – I went to all the libraries to channel my inner Rory!) Yale has some of the most stunning libraries I’ve ever seen, gorgeous art museums, and the headquarters of a secret society called “Skull and Bones”, which was formed in 1832! There’s some pretty cool history on that campus.

After New Haven, I headed to the beautiful state of California. While in LA, I stayed at a youth hostel right on Hollywood Blvd. where I quickly became the odd one out. Everyone kept asking me to play beer pong or go bar hopping, but I was constantly in a corner, with bird skeletons plastered on my computer screen After day 3, they stopped asking. On the night of the “biggest club crawl in LA”, I opted out to go see Diana Krall perform at the Hollywood Bowl, which turned out to bean insanely cool concert venue.


The Hollywood Bowl: coolest concert venue ever!

Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences.

Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences.

After visiting three great museum collections in LA, I went on to the last stop of my summer museum tour: San Francisco. The Berkeley campus was gorgeous, but the award for my favourite location of all three trips goes to the California Academy of Sciences. It was basically a science lover’s dream come true. There was an albino alligator, huge aquariums, a four storey rainforest with butterflies and birds flying all around, a museum with amazing displays and exhibits, a planetarium…and everything else sciency and cool you can think of. I only photographed a few specimens in their collection, but I ended up staying two days so I could see everything inside – if you’re ever in San Fran, I would highly recommend this incredible place!

No hiding for this guy! Albino alligator at the California Academy of Sciences.

No hiding for this guy! Albino alligator at the California Academy of Sciences.

All in all, while I love the great outdoors and traipsing around in swamps, my museum tour field season was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It brought me to incredible museums and collections, and gave me the chance to be independent and explore some awesome cities, meet some cool people (including all the incredible staff at the museums). Most importantly, it brought me to Aragorn.

P.S. As an aside to any arachnologists out there, I came across this beautiful spider in the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center in Baton Rouge and have no idea what kind it is! I also have a slight fear of spiders so it took a lot of courage to snap this pic…

Mystery spider - any ideas, anyone?

Mystery spider – any ideas, anyone?


Bio picSteph Kim is a MSc candidate in the Biology department at Queen’s University. She completed her BScH in Biology in 2013 and her B.Ed in 2014, both at Queen’s, and is finally gearing up to leave this great school and city. Her MSc project is focused on comparing trait morphologies between closely related species of birds to answer the question: can species interactions influence the evolution of bill morphologies in birds, worldwide? Outside of school, she enjoys music, hiking, playing around with her camera, and being around her awesome friends and family!

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