A beginner’s guide to making a unique first impression

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes Jenna Finley, an undergraduate student from Queen’s University studying plant ecology, to tell us about her first time in the field with her supervisor. Check out the end of the post to learn more about Jenna!

My very first field season has now come to an end. I managed to learn a lot and pick up a few good stories at the same time. The earliest, and as it turns out the most important, lesson I learned came courtesy of my supervisor: things go wrong sometimes and there’s nothing you can do about it. Although he didn’t phrase it quite like that!

The day I learned this lesson, I had only been in the lab for about a week.  I had been in the field twice since my arrival, but for the first time, I was going out with my supervisor. The plan for the day was simple – he was going to show me around a few sites that he thought would be good for the experiment I was going to run. Most of the day would be spent in the lab van, probably in silence, as I tried really hard not to give a bad first impression of what it’s like to work with me.

It was a gorgeous June morning: the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and I was full of hope. I ended up driving, even though every fibre of my being told me this was a terrible idea. But despite my initial misgivings, I actually ended up feeling a lot better as the morning wore on and the situation turned out to be less awkward than I’d feared.

Just before lunch, we stopped at one final site. The field was across from a cemetery, filled with bird boxes, and only accessible by driving down a gravel incline. Getting in was no problem. We looked around for a bit and my supervisor told me a little about the history of the field before we decided to move on.

Now, getting in may have been a cinch, but getting out…

I tried to reverse back up the incline, but the van slid back down, presumably due to the loose gravel under the wheels. I turned to my supervisor, hoping he had a plan, only to see him getting out of the van. He told me that he was going up onto the road to make sure no other cars were coming, and when he gave me the all-clear, I was going to floor it.

This wasn’t the type of plan I had been hoping for, but I had no other ideas.  A hundred worst case scenarios flashed through my mind, but I just nodded, praying that I didn’t overdo it and end up stuck in the cemetery across the road.

As soon as I got the thumbs up, I stomped on the gas and immediately started moving… for about two seconds. Instead of backing straight up, the van slid sharply to the and very quickly jerked to an abrupt halt – even though I had yet to release the gas pedal.

The mystery was solved when I got out and looked underneath the van.  It turns out that when I slid off the incline, I landed on top of a short fence post… effectively impaling the vehicle.

van impalled by the fence

The poor lab van

Luckily we had cell service and were able to call the nearby field station for help. As I felt horror and total mortification flood my body, my supervisor chuckled. When I looked at him, he said ‘s*** happens,’ and started snapping pictures he thought would be great to showcase during my seminar in a few months. He seemed totally unconcerned with the situation we now found ourselves in – in fact, he ended up presenting it as a plus, telling me people would find it hilarious.

The more he spoke, the more I began to see the bright side in the situation myself, and finally managed to have a pretty good laugh… even when we found out that it would be a few days before our van could be recovered. And the day was not lost! We were dropped off at another vehicle to continue where we’d left off.

So while I was still pretty embarrassed, everything turned out a lot better than I imagined it would in the moment. And I’d picked up a valuable lesson that served me well for the rest of the season: ‘s*** happens’.

Not to mention, it was pretty nice not driving for the rest of the day.

Jenns with a tall plantJenna Finley is an undergraduate thesis student at Queen’s University focusing on plant ecology. Since joining Dr. Lonnie Aarssen’s Lab, she has been looking at plant adaptive strategies involving meristem allocation and the affects of factors like body size, leafing intensity, and apical dominance on those strategies. She also works part-time in the Queen’s University Phytotron, trying to always stay connected in some way with her plant brethren. She can also be found on Twitter: @Jennafinley.

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