Getting out

For various reasons, over this past summer I have had the opportunity to get out into the field much more than usual – rivaling the amount of time that I was in the field during my Ph.D. studies. While I generally do ensure that I go out several times in any given summer, the frequency and intensity of the field work this summer was beyond what I’ve been used to since I have become a faculty member.

One of the oddest things about being a faculty member, in fact, is the general trend that I’ve noticed (and keep in mind that for personal experience N=1) toward more desk work and less boots-on-the-ground work over the years of my employment. Some of the trend is necessary – when managing a number of graduate and undergraduate students and postdoctoral associates, the general red tape of research takes time and effort to cut through. Some of it is probably a time-management factor of letting some lower-priority items fill summer field work time. And there have been periods where research activities were more overtly lab-based than field-based. But, whatever the reasons, it’s hard to argue that for a biologist, less time in the field is a good thing.

Regular field work is a tonic against DOTS – Distilled Organism in a Tube Syndrome. With the shift of genomics, metabolomics, and other “-omics” methodologies toward easier and cheaper access by many research labs, field work can often mean a quick collecting trip or two – potentially done by someone else under contract – followed by rapid reduction of the study organism to some sort of solute in a water-filled tube. While this has been great for speeding along scientific discovery, it has had the side effect of reducing the amount of contact that investigators have with their organism(s) in nature. In fact, it is possible for many research projects to run off of the samples or data collected in years prior. For instance, in my lab I could simply have graduate students determine the function any number of mountain pine beetle enzymes in a long series of projects using material stored in our freezers. The students would never have to even see a forest or a live (or dead) insect. Those results would be useful and informative, but they would lack the connection to the larger system and would, potentially, be less than relevant in terms of the insect’s full ecological function

Of course, not every research lab “distills” creatures down to a tube of DNA, but it is still possible in other methodological contexts (e.g. DOPS – Dry Organism on a Pin Syndrome) to begin to lose sight of the natural history of the organism. And when that happens, the likelihood of pursuing irrelevance increases.

Regular field work takes you to the periphery of your study system. It is normal to focus on one or a few organisms, hypotheses, and/or systems. Scientists need a substantial level of focus to be successful. But what are the things that are happening around the edges of the system? What other organisms or environmental factors affect my study system? What is my organism doing during times of the season when I may not be normally collecting? These sorts of questions can only be answered by scouting around the edges of your system. And scouting the edges can only be done by taking the time to observe the natural context of your organism in the field.

Regular field work centers your thoughts and allows you to really observe your study system. My Ph.D. work was on the effect that volatile compounds from nonhost trees have on foraging bark beetles. The initial idea for the work came when my supervisor (prior to me working with him) was taking a break from field work and eating lunch in a stand of aspens surrounded by a mountain pine beetle infestation. All of the lodgepole pines surrounding the aspen stand had been mass attacked by beetles. The few lucky pines growing within the aspen stands were untouched. That initial observation was only possible because he was taking the time to contemplate what was going on around him. While such eureka moments cannot be planned per se, they occur best when the opportunity for them has been planned by intentionally spending time in the field. In other words, insight arrives seemingly unscheduled in centered moments. But some planning and scheduling is required to allow for those moments in the first place.

Summer is almost over now, and I am very glad to have been out as much as I have this year. I’m looking forward to a winter of preparing for another field season in 2015. I hope all of you have also had great seasons, wherever your research has taken you, and are already starting to plan for a new year ahead.