field research fieldwork unpredictability the public humans

What happens when a researcher steps outside the lab and into the public sphere?

Unexpected Encounters of the Human Kind

Research in a lab setting allows for control over many environmental variables and conditions, but can be limiting due to the unnatural context. Research in a field setting can be more natural and realistic, however that tight control over the environment is lost. One unpredictable source of a challenging field environment? People.

“You want me to shoot it for you?”

The wrinkle-faced man was completely perplexed by my research partner and me. It was a hot summer morning in rural Kansas, and we were idling on the side of a dirt road, staring silently through binoculars at a small songbird singing on a telephone wire.

He had pulled his pickup truck parallel to our 15-passenger 1990s van, the temporary field vehicle loaned to us by the Kansas State University Department of Biology. There was a shotgun sitting in plain view on the passenger seat of his truck.

“No thank you!” We flashed over-the-top smiles, feeling anxious. We were two bright-eyed, college-aged girls from California – relatively new to research, and very new to Kansas.

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Fig. 1 No, we are not with the C.I.A. Photograph by Daron Blake.

Going into the field to perform biological research involves extensive preparation – determining methods and experimental design, compiling equipment and batteries, weather-proofing everything, obtaining permits, hiring field assistants, and so on. But as researchers, and particularly as young researchers, we pay much less attention to the social aspects of performing fieldwork. Unlike lab work, biological research “in the wild” does not take place in a vacuum. Going outside means exposing yourself to the public. Hikers pass by and ask questions. Off-leash dogs run through experimental plots. Children are traumatized because they equate handling animals with hurting animals.

And friendly neighborhood Kansas farmers offer to help by shooting your study subject: “You’ll be able to see it a lot easier if you let me shoot it down from that wire for you. But…suit yourselves.” He was 100% genuine. Sighing, he gave us a look of bewilderment and continued on down the road and out of sight.

I have mixed feelings about the exposure that comes along with working outside. On the one hand, it has allowed me so many opportunities to engage with the public – to show them what a scientist can look like, to demonstrate what doing science can entail, and to get them excited about my study system. On the other hand, people can really get in the way – interrupting at the worst possible time during an experiment, hanging around for way too long, or having a ridiculously cute dog that distracts all of my field assistants at once. And sometimes, they just give a strange look and write you off as totally insane!

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Fig. 2 No, we are not subscribing to the latest fad weight loss gimmick. Photograph by Amy Strauss.

I once worked for a summer very close to the border between two countries with a lot of social and political tension. The lead researcher and I had come from Canada and the U.S., respectively, and we were working with a local field assistant, hired for his excellent knowledge of the local flora and fauna, his familiarity with the trails and parks of the region, and his ability to translate from the native language of the country into English. We relied heavily on his biological and cultural expertise throughout the field season.

As part of the project, we were searching for birds’ nests in the rainforest so we could monitor them throughout the breeding season. Nests tend to be built in extremely camouflaged locations, woven into the architecture of the forest so as not to be discovered by predators. While this is indeed beneficial for predator avoidance, it makes it very challenging for human researchers to find and re-find nests. So when a nest is found, our typical system is to mark a nearby landmark with flagging tape so we can return to check on it again later on.

“No, you cannot mark the nest like that!” After excitedly flagging our first nest, we were quickly told by our local expert that this was not okay.

He went on to explain that people from the neighboring country were known to sneak over the border to collect eggs from wild nests and eat them for food. “They kill our wildlife. They steal from our forests. Your flag will alert them to the nest, and the eggs will be gone. Do not mark the nest so blatantly, or they will take the eggs for food.” We were studying tiny songbirds, with eggs the size of marbles. This was unexpected.

Many of the locals held extremely negative, prejudiced views of the bordering country’s citizens. We had heard many slanderous remarks from the other locals at our field station, and were never quite sure what to believe or how to respond. Inclined to dismiss this concern as an untrue myth based on national animosity and cultural misunderstanding, we almost left the flag up. But what if our local guide, who knew much more about the region than either of us did, was right?

We did not flag the nest, but instead made subtle mounds in the forest floor dirt to indicate the nest site. The eggs hatched, the nestlings fledged, and our monitoring was successful. Had we flagged the nest, would the outcome have been different? Would humans have cued into our method and threatened the nest? And would they have been sneaking over from across the border, as we were told? I’ll never know.

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Fig. 3 Successful nest = successful data collection. Photograph by Amy Strauss.

Working in the field means being subject not only to the weather and the elements, but to the humans that share our wild spaces. Controlling for these human encounters is virtually impossible, and the nature of the interactions can’t be anticipated.

…but they sure do keep things interesting.

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