This week we are happy to welcome Lucy Chen who shares her story of getting to know fieldwork and her lab mates! For more about Lucy, check out her bio at the end of the post.
It was early spring, and the trees around us were budding fresh green leaves.
“So…. What do you do for fun up there?”
That was my umpteenth attempt to engage Tash, the lab technician, in conversation. We were driving along the sinuous road leading to the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS), which boasts some 3400 hectares of land within the Frontenac Axis in Ontario. I had won a scholarship to do a summer research project on the effects of oil-sands contaminants on wood frogs, and it was going to be my first time running an exposure experiment in the field. The main experiment has already started; since I had been thrown right into the middle of it all, I wanted desperately to catch up.
Tash’s aura of effortless badassery impressed me, but unfortunately my admiration for her seemed one-sided, as she was rather taciturn that morning. She answered all my questions nicely and matter-of-factedly, but then I’d run out of things to ask her, and silence would ensue. I felt we were both exhausted by my interrogation technique, which I learned from a workshop on how to bond with strangers. You gotta peel the onion, the spunky presenter had said, ask follow-up questions! The trouble was, no one told me what to do when the other person didn’t reciprocate with an equally enthusiastic volley of onion-peeling.
As I mulled over my social ineptitude, we turned onto a little country path off the road, flanked by a field on one side and a forest on the other. Toward the end of the path was “The Lodge”—the visitor centre and cafeteria of QUBS, an elegant, spacious building that looked like an oversized cabin. Our experimental site was a small clearing in the woods with a shed and eight large cattle tanks, each containing hundreds of tadpoles housed in stainless-steel bowls. Tash took me to our cabin by Opinicon Lake, just steps away from the tadpoles. I dropped off my things, took a deep breath—thus began my first day at QUBS.
My question about “fun” was soon answered. The Lodge was the social hub of QUBS, being the one of the only buildings with precious access to the internet. The dozen-or-so young researchers in residence would drive to a town six kilometers away to stock up on beverages and then frequently spend their evenings playing drinking games—one of the great highlights of the QUBS experience, to my horror. As I lacked anything to drink that first evening, I puritanically took a cup of water to the table. “Act normal,” I told myself, casually sipping away at my colourless liquid like I was really having fun. I spent a lot of the evening scanning the room to assess the social hierarchy: the alphas (life of the party), the butt of the jokes (chill dudes), the provocateurs, and the harmony-loving followers. Exhausted from the hard work of keeping up with the banter, I fell into a dreamless slumber that night. I had always thought of field work as solitary work involving only a few lab mates, so that first night at QUBS caught me completely unprepared.
I would have felt totally out of place if not for Sam, an incoming grad student and my other colleague at QUBS. Together, we would run two parallel experiments on the tadpoles over the summer. Sam was very tall with a childlike, carefree demeanor, perpetually cheerful and often singled out by cafeteria ladies to help with chores. Fueled by copious amounts of coffee and Youtube videos every morning, he could instantly recall any piece of information and animate any dull conversation. Most importantly, he could make Tash tell funny stories. In short, to me, Sam was a rainbow-pooping unicorn.
Despite my initial misgivings, curiosity quickly got the better of me. Never had I been in a place with so many knowledgeable people and so many strange gadgets. There were the bird people, who got up at ungodly hours; the mice people, who trekked around the woods all day setting rodent traps filled with peanut butter and apple chunks; and the fish people, who plunged into freezing lake water and came back with fingers bleeding from fish spines. Apart from the researchers, there were the wonderful cafeteria ladies Laura, Veronica and Crystal, who fed us very nice food, which also helped put me out of my antisocial mood. The second day, I devised a plan. I made it a point to talk to everyone about their work to become more comfortable around people at future social events. I also asked Veronica for her baked fries recipe, which turned out chewy, subtly garlicky spuds (For the rest of the summer, she and Laura would sneak leftover food for me to snack on after dinner so that I wouldn’t go “starving”).
Although my social life at QUBS was looking up, as the new comer, I still struggled to understand the daily logistical concerns of my lab mates. How should we schedule sampling days? How many cryovials do we need for tissue samples? Would certain sampling tools arrive too late, and if so, what should we do? I had no idea how to contribute to these conversations, which bothered me.
My feeling of uselessness was not helped by my physical frailty. The water we used to raise our tadpoles came from a shallow vernal pond nearby every two weeks, we needed to put on chest-waders to collect dozens of buckets of it. I quickly learned that I could barely keep my head above water; my skinny arms could barely sustain the weight of one bucket. To cheer myself up, I took it upon myself to document the entire experiment with my camera. Looking back, I don’t think Sam and Tash minded me not knowing anything about purchasing equipment or not carrying the water, but it certainly made me question whether fieldwork was really my thing.
Fortunately, as summer drew near, lush green ferns started unfurling their fronds all around the lakes. I diverted myself by going around the property collecting pressed fern samples. (Sam took an interest in my Victorian hobby and helped me find the best spots.) The good weather also led to campfire nights, where I discovered Tash’s penchant for sassy, off-colour jokes. I began to appreciate these social events, which made working in the field a great deal more tolerable. Moreover, once my tadpoles were old enough for me to perform behaviour tests on them, I threw myself into the work and felt a lot better.
Gradually, we all settled into a routine, checking in on the tadpoles in the morning and prepping for sampling days in the afternoon. As the tadpoles approached metamorphosis, popping out little arms and taking on the droll appearance of strange four-legged fish, we found out that a volunteer student, Lauren, was coming up to help us. When Lauren first saw our tadpoles, she squealed with excitement. Lauren had a great sense of fun, and her amazement at everything made her a refreshing addition to our team. Lauren’s time with us was really the highlight of the summer, packed with star-gazing trips and canoe outings on the lake.
Riding on the waves of everyone’s high spirits, I went home for a break. Little did I know that, while I was away, half of our tadpoles would die from a Ranavirus outbreak. When I came back, I met a crestfallen Lauren by the lake and ran to the Lodge to find Sam with bloodshot eyes—there went his thesis experiment! My stomach churned. I felt worse for Sam than for myself. Sam had been researching Ranavirus for two days ever since he stumbled upon the tadpoles dying en masse. He told me that this specific genus of virus was a significant contributing factor for the global decline of amphibians. The virus most likely had lain dormant in the pond from which we collected water and became active with the warm weather. The virus quickly spread as the tadpoles started cannibalizing the infected cadavers.
I’m pretty sure some expletives were used as we sat together trying to come to terms with this terrible surprise. They were so close to becoming frogs, we said in disbelief, how could Mother Nature do this to us? I remembered something one of the fish people told me: “Anything that can go wrong in the field will go wrong.” It’s amazing how much truth is contained in this smug little aphorism. We took out the pale, lifeless little bodies out of their buckets and watched them pile up. We all felt personally responsible for their deaths. Fortunately, our supervisor drove up to comfort us as soon as she could. She reassured us again and again that it wasn’t our fault, and that we still had enough data to make it all worthwhile.
Ultimately, I truly believe our shared misery brought us closer than ever. We cut the experiments short, sampled the surviving tadpoles, and packed our things into the lab van. As Sam, Tash and I drove away from QUBS down a road now bordered with lushly verdant trees, we talked and laughed and joked about abandoning our careers in academia. Was it wrong to leave the field with such a feeling of relief? One thing was certain: I never thought that my first experience in the field would be so fraught with emotions.
Lucy X. Chen spent one year studying wood frogs at the QE3 lab at Queen’s University, Kingston, headed by Dr. Diane Orihel. Lucy graduated from Queen’s with a BSc in Environmental Science and Philosophy, and will start an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management at Oxford University starting October 2018. Her further adventures and musings will be chronicled at lucyxchen.wordpress.com.