Yes, those boring safety training sessions are important

Dispatches from the field is happy to welcome Katie Grogan, a postdoctoral fellow to share a post this week about a scary field safety lesson! Check out the end of the post for more about Katie.

The second scariest moment of field work I ever experienced happened basically on campus, exactly one mile from our lab and office.

Caught in the mist net. Photo by JRM.

Some people may argue that catching sparrows in downtown Atlanta in the morning, spending a few hours working in the lab in the afternoon, and sleeping in your own bed every night doesn’t qualify as “true” field work – no airplanes, hours in a truck, or having to sleep in tents. But I completely disagree. Any activity that forces you to get out of bed at 3 am in December, and sit staring at a mist-net in a cold field for at least 6 hours, freezing and exhausted, is absolutely field work*.

White-throated sparrow. Photo by JRM.

The reason for this field work is one of the major projects in my postdoctoral lab at Emory University, studying how genetic variation underlies variation in behaviors like aggression or parenting. To do this, we catch wild white-throated sparrows during their fall migration south and bring them into the lab for behavioral testing. The white-throated sparrow, common throughout North America, is an incredibly interesting bird (See this Nature News Feature!) and uniquely suited for this kind of study because of its two behavioral phenotypes: the more aggressive white morph and the less aggressive tan morph.

We catch the birds using mist-nets set up in a field near campus in November and December, an activity that seems fairly low risk apart from some occasional frostbite. However, in order to set up the mist-nets, ‘lanes’ must be cleared through the field so that tree branches and brush don’t snag the nets. We clear these lanes using a machete, and therein lies my story.

The field site.

There are typically no ‘rules’ for doing field work, except to collect your samples without doing anything too dangerous or illegal. But doing local field work a mile from our lab, rather than traveling to Costa Rica or Madagascar, obviously lulled me into complacency, because a safety briefing was the last thing on my mind that sunny afternoon in early November.

For starters, although I have accumulated months of field work in multiple countries, I was relatively new in the lab and I had never caught birds before. Marmots, howler monkeys, and lemurs, yes, but not birds. So who was I to speak up? Like in so many of my previous field experiences, I was the one in training, not the one training other people. Also, this was Atlanta! In the Rocky Mountains, we worried about bears and lightning strikes; in Costa Rica it was heat stroke (or having a monkey fall on you); and in Madagascar it was rocks in the food and stomach problems from ingesting any unfiltered water. But in Atlanta, what was there really to worry about? Basically, I was worried about bugs, twisting an ankle, and being hungry, but not about potential trips to the emergency room. Big mistake.

Grad student with a machete. Photo by KEG.

I realized the severity of this mistake when I looked up from moving freshly cut branches out of the lane to see our machete swinging with wild abandon less than a foot from the head and torso of our newest graduate student, whose back was turned.

I froze in horror, visions of dismemberment flashing before my eyes. Then I sprang into action. Yelling at the machete swinger, I leaped forward to pull the student away from their peril. No one was hurt, nothing happened…but the potential danger of that situation made my heart virtually stop in terror.

I made everyone drop what they were doing for a quick crash course in field safety and awareness. In this instance, the most important lesson was to always be aware of your surroundings, and know where your team members are located and what they are doing. This included keeping at least a 10 foot clearance around anyone doing anything dangerous such as swinging a machete or an ax. I also instituted a personal policy that dangerous tasks should be saved for the postdocs and older grad students – we try not to maim the undergrads or new grad students during their first field experience because it sets a bad precedent for recruiting more help the following year. (I’m absolutely kidding! We don’t maim anyone at all).

This incident was less than 30 seconds long, but was a defining moment in my realization that all field work, whether far away or on campus, should be accompanied by a thorough safety plan, and everyone should be briefed on this plan before work begins. (See here for a good example of how to do this!)

*Just to clarify: I never actually had to endure this hardship for this particular project. By the time I started in this lab, I was a postdoctoral fellow and had already paid my dues years earlier, following marmots in the Rocky Mountains. The graduate students needed the samples and so they got to suffer through this one!

Katie Grogan is interested in the intersection of genetic diversity, fitness, and environmental change, especially for endangered species. She is currently studying the epigenetics of growth and stature in human hunter-gatherers as a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State University. Prior to moving to State College, she worked on gene expression in white-throated sparrows as an IRACDA postdoctoral fellow (a GREAT fellowship for postdocs also interested in teaching). She did her PhD at Duke University, studying the relationship between genetic diversity of the immune system and survival and reproduction in ring-tailed lemurs. When not in the lab or the field, she can be found playing with her dog and reading novels. Photos by KEG (Kathleen Grogan) and JRM (Jennifer R. Merritt, a graduate student in her former lab).

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