Co-post: A conversation on the dangers of field science

I'll be honest, I've been thinking about this post for a while, but didn't really know how to approach it. Every time I tried to put thoughts down it seemed to me that it came off sounding like "Look how fucking tough I am! I face danger for science!" when in fact I am neither particularly tough, nor is what I do particularly dangerous. But CoR and I started talking about field science the other day and parts of that discussion seemed like a natural post. What makes it more compelling this time is getting the perspective of another person who does different work and deals with different dangers, so hopefully between the two of us we've put something coherent together. In any case, the slightly redacted conversation below. We would be interested to hear from others who spend time in the field.


When I was but a wee graduate student I did a *ton* of field work. Probably 4 years solid either collecting or doing field trails. (The gray beards are laughing at me right now. 4 years? Hah!). In any case, many -ologist types do field work and this work brings its own rewards. It generally is hella fun and part of the main attraction of being an -ologist.

The downside is that field work can be dangerous, regardless of where your study site may be. Field work can be even more tricky if you are of the female sort. I encountered enough weirdness during my time in the field that I am reluctant to offhandedly send my trainees out alone.

For example. (I'm cherry picking the most annoying examples -- there were others). Once, while collecting by the side of the road, I was asked to breakfast by a man that looked exactly like this (I am not kidding) and drove a car that looked like this (how can you NOT be a machodouche in a car like that?). He thought maybe I could take a break and we could have a chat at the local IHOP? Um, no thanks. I'll pass on the pancakes and certain death, thankyouverymuch.

Another time I was manhandled by Drunk Joe while ordering dinner at a bar after a long day collecting in a far-off place. All I wanted to do was drink a beer, grab a gigantic hamburger and hole up in my hotel...and random drunk Joe felt the need to massage my shoulders and fiddle with my bra straps. I shrugged him off until my food came...and then I walked in the dark, alone, to my hotel.

I was completely fine both times, and probably extremely lucky. On most occasions out in the field I was alone -- I drove all over a portion of the states by myself, jumped on people's land or hiked into public lands, collected my critters and went back home. And during most trips nothing happened. However, had something happened it would have been really difficult for my kin to have recovered the body since no one knew where I was at any given point. This was probably really stupid.

While I haven't had to face the prospect of getting invited to join the cast of Tarantino's "Death Proof", I've found myself in some interesting situations in the field. Admittedly, I traveled for collecting purposes far more as a grad student than since, but because of what we do and did, I have gone to some unusual places to get the beasts we need - locations where making a mistake can be magnified simply due to the circumstances. Hell, I have even had to carry a gun for science (NTBI represent)!

As one example, I was in the high Arctic one summer camping near a small inlet miles from the small town from which we had embarked. There were four scientists, two guides and a dog. The dog was identified as the "polar bear dog" and it was never clear whether that title was meant as "polar bear distraction snack", "early warning system" or some combination of the two, but the dog clearly wanted nothing to do with the whole affair and bolted as soon as we got to our camp site. Our guides seemed more concerned about losing their neighbor's dog than not having it for the bears, so that night we pitched our tents in the middle of an enormous barren and didn't worry about it. Afterall, the guides were going to stand guard.

The next morning we woke up and got talking with the guide who was awake. We noticed that the top part of our tent was missing, and although it was covered by the fly, we asked about it. "Last time, a bear collapsed the tent and broke it." was the response. Apparently no one was hurt because the bear got startled by the ease with which the tent deflated, but the previous occupants had been understandably startled by giant paws on them in the middle of the night. Hence, the "polar bear dog" (who, BTW, was still MIA).

Slightly unnerved by this news, we were even less enthused when the second guide woke up and had been sleeping in the boat. "Was something wrong with your tent?" we asked. "No, I was scared of bears." was the response. Thanks dude.

In any case, all went well on that trip. No bears were sighted and the dog was eventually found (not much to hide behind 500 miles north of the tree line), but field work that seemed routine at the time has certainly led to tragic endings.

In these situations, bringing trainees can be particularly stressful because rather than being responsible for only myself, I now have to worry about the actions and reactions of those I bring with me. I know that there have certainly been times in my past when I pushed the boundaries of safety for one more sample, for something that looked critical at the time, or even to ensure that everyone else in the group was safe. There is certainly the mentality of "I've come all the way here, spent all that money, and need to make it worth it". Clearly nothing in science is worth bodily injury, but in the right circumstances, apparently mundane decisions can lead to bigger than anticipated consequences. Getting this across to trainees is exceedingly important to me now, though I would not have thought about it that way a few years ago.


I'd like to come up with strategies so that my trainees are not confronted with the same scenarios that I walked myself into. The most simple solution of course is to insist that no one go alone to the field. This doubles the cost of field expeditions, and some field work (like you describe above) is going to be dangerous no matter what. This doesn't mean, I think, that we let our guard down for the expeditions that aren't obviously dangerous. Field work that seems rather safe and benign might not be. I considered carrying a gun at one point, but someone informed me that I would have to be willing to actually use it. Plus, I'm more of the sort that would take forever to root around to find said gun and would then just be the gun supplier for said shady person.

So what are the strategies, or rules that we can impart to people before sending them off on, arguably, the most fun aspect of the job?

The solo student in the field is less of an issue for my people because most of our field work is done in groups in distant places, so it is not the kind of thing where an individual would wander off by themselves. I also would be on the side of "having a gun is more likely to get you hurt than not", but that is a personal view and likely influenced by my gender in no small part. I think it is a fine line between impressing safety concerns on trainees without making them paranoid, since the intent would never be to send them to a place with foreseeable danger. It is also, however, important for the trainee to know that they can voice their discomfort with a situation without being labeled as unwilling to deal with adversity. This is especially true for what we do, because I would rather have someone bail early than panic in the middle of everything and put others at risk. I don't know what the answer is and it may be different from one student to the next. I do know that in several labs I am familiar with, field travel is disproportionately allocated to those who are seen to be dependable and can get shit done. How that relates to the ability of trainees to voice concern for their safety is not clear to me, but I can see where it might have bad consequences.


Right, and I think this is where I want to be particularly careful. I could easily see the scenario of the 'most dependable' or 'most able to get shit done' mutating into 'the easiest to send out' and that person being the dude, given my worries that field work entails another aspect of danger for women. I certainly don't want to perpetuate that kind of inequality. I think some simple things I can do is to insist everyone goes to the field with at least one other person, carries a cell phone and has a working GPS. I might insist on calls both in and out of the field, probably on a daily basis. It would also be good to have people inform park rangers where they are going to be, especially should they be doing off-trail collecting. Other than that? I'm out.

I think those are reasonable requirements and most people will probably augment with any additional precautions that they feel are necessary. Obviously the primary concern is making sure your people are safe, but it is an easy trap to equate safety with least likely (in the PI's view) to be the subject of an attack (in your case) and freak out in adverse conditions (in my case). Judging that a priori is bound to lead to problems.

Maybe we should blog this and let others weigh in?

26 responses so far

  • Marcus says:

    Are the students trained in any way with regard to safety? Like what to do in your breakfast murderer example?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Where I am there is no formal training, it all happens in each lab individually.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Within the confines of the University we have boatloads of safety training. Chemical hazards, biological hazards, radiological to work with animals, what to do when the big piece of research kit falls on your foot...

    Is there no institutional training for field research? Really?

  • CoR says:

    I posted this over at CoR, but I never had any field safety training. I would imagine that field stations are probably required to have training sessions for their long-term visitors, but I do not know for sure. There are no standards for individual labs or University requirements for safety training at the institutions that have employed me.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Drug Monkey, Kim Hannula. Kim Hannula said: [geo women: add your stories to the mix] RT @ScientopiaBlogs Co-post: A conversation on the dangers of field science [...]

  • Waaaay back in the day when I was doing some field work there was no safety training provided by either the university, or the field station where we did the work.

    I was an undergrad at the time, and completely oblivious to the sorts of issues that each of you bring up.

    Our supervising professors took the time to explain that we were required to wear knee-high rubbers boots any time we ventured away from the housing area (on accounta the venomous snakes and the fact that we were about 50% further in terms of driving time from the nearest source of antivenin than it would take for a bite to kill a body). Our prof also told us that we should always carry a flashlight, even at noon, because it gets dark fast in the rainforest, and swimming in the river is at your own risk because it is full of crocs.

    That was it.

    Had a great time, only minor injuries and misadventures, but in retrospect, it's a wonder nobody died. I am also a little surprised that the field station had no safety training. Especially since it was owned and operated by a very prominent US institution, which probably could have got the pants sued off of it some undergrad kicked the bucket out of their negligence (I'm not saying that I think suing in such a situation is appropriate, just acknowledging that it could happen).

  • HH says:

    I've spent the better part of the last 12 years doing fieldwork during the summers (and occasional fall and winter). The only safety training for fieldwork that I've ever run into is the occasional requirement to get ATV or snowmobile safety training. That includes working as a volunteer tech (during undergrad), working on a couple of different short-term tech positions, as a masters student doing my own research, as a masters student supervising undergrads, as a doctoral student, and now as a postdoc.

    Exactly what safety training do you think should be recommended for fieldwork?

    I would start with requiring (or strongly recommending) a basic first-aid class, especially one that included dealing with a variety of environmental conditions. As far as personal safety, I really don't see how that could be structured besides the adage we all learned in kindergarten- don't get into cars with strangers. On the other hand, if your field vehicle breaks down and your in an area with little or no cell reception (been there), you can either take advantage of the kindness of strangers (when available) or have a VERY long walk home!

  • tideliar says:

    I once had a colleague who studied pred/prey relationships in the high Canadian arctic. She was offended when we asked about the dangers of her work, especially seeing as she was female and alone out there... "just because I'm a woman doesn't make me more likely to be killed by a bear!"

    Fair call, thought I, but it does make it infinitely more likely that you'll get raped and beaten in some remote outpost somewhere. And then killed by a bear.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I have done lots of field work with fishes in the USA, and South and Central America. I also took many ichthyology classes on local seining collecting trips. I wondered what to do about people who could not swim. First class I took out, in 1966, I decided to let the nonswimmers carry the gallon glass jugs with formaldehyde. I figured they would be so focused on not breaking the jugs that they would not be afraid of being in the water. It worked perhaps too well. Last field trip of that quarter, one of the creeks was flooded. I looked around and two of the nonswimming females were wading across the creek in waist deep rushing flood water, chatting and gossiping like they were on dry land. I modified my technique of dealing with non swimmers as a result. I never lost anyone.

  • Kim says:

    Field geologist here. My formal safety training consisted of my graduate adviser saying "always where goggles" while bashing away at a piece of quartzite. (No goggles anywhere in sight.)

    But to be more serious: field safety training consists mostly of "don't be stupid." Creek is running fast & high? Don't cross it there. Cliff is too steep to scale safely? Don't climb it. Loose rock? Don't scramble up it when there are people below. Be aware of your surroundings, physical and human, and be responsible in choosing where you go and how you get there.

    As for wild animals: there isn't a standard safety procedure that is guaranteed to keep us safe from them, and it would be irresponsible to teach students that if they follow a certain procedure, they'll be safe. It's worth knowing how grizzlies, polar bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, etc. tend to behave, but animals that are accustomed to humans can behave in unusual ways.

    And dangerous humans (including the ex-convict who murdered a woman geology student doing fieldwork in Colorado a few years ago) are even harder to predict.

    I think the best approach is to acknowledge that fieldwork can be dangerous, to be honest with students about that, and to let them choose whether to take the risks or not. Graduate students choose whether to do field-intensive or lab-intensive research. And field geology is no more (or less) dangerous than the things that my students do for fun (kayaking, skiing, mountain biking...)

  • Silver Fox says:

    As a field geologist my field dangers parallel Kim's and include being unexpectedly left out all night in October by a forgetful helicopter pilot, and close encounters with rattlers and mountain lions.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Kim, I'm not trying to paint field work as something that is a danger that needs to be regulated or fear, but I disagree on the parallels with rec activities. With something you are doing for fun, there are no consequences (perceived or otherwise) for saying something is to gnarly for your tastes. There is no one depending on the outcome, nor is there a (potentially) a lot of money and someone's research project on the line. Like it or not, this is not a bike trip among friends.

  • Kim says:

    There may be a difference between types of field work, in the question about whether it's possible to just say no to a dangerous activity. For most of the work that I do, it's possible to modify a project when weather turns bad, or to choose a safe route. Even when I worked in Alaska (dropped off by helicopter, so lots of money involved in getting to a place safely), the project didn't demand that we worked through dangerous storms or scaled a cliff to a particular rock. There are some projects that do require getting to dangerous places - glacier work has different dangers from working on rock, for instance, and I know someone whose research project required sampling rocks while doing technical rock climbing. But grad students choose their research projects based on their outdoor skills and interests as well as based on their research interests. (In geology, grad students also have a big role in planning their own projects - they aren't brought in to work on a specific grant.) The people involved in the rock-climbing project were chosen based on their technical climbing skills. In fact, I think they may have been professional climbers.

    So yes, I think it is possible in most cases to say no without ruining a research project. And research advisers have the responsibility to respect a student's refusal to do dangerous things. (This may be different from bio. My impression is that, because field work is so fundamental to geology, reviewers and program officers and journal editors understand that sometimes nature doesn't cooperate with the plans of researchers. We deal with it. And we don't have to deal with expectations that come from being in a field dominated by lab researchers.)

  • Silver Fox says:

    Oh, and dangers relating to having to deal with unsavory or dangerous people (like being killed the way Kim mentioned above).

    A little about carrying guns in the field.

  • As an undergrad, I did field work in an actual field (I worked in a plant pathology lab & spent summers sampling soil in soybean & potato fields).

    As you might imagine, soybean fields are wildly dull. Most exciting events?
    1. Winning $10 from under the cap of a 20 oz bottle of Sprite we bought at a gas station on the way back to the lab.
    2. Eating ice cream at our agriculture school's dairy store, which was right across the way from our lab.
    3. Umm.. ... yeah. Very exciting.

    I do certainly miss how thin I was that summer, hauling backpacks filled with dirt across the countryside for hours and hours every day...

  • Weighing in as another female geo-type, I think Kim and Silver Fox have captured a lot of my experiences. For me in grad school, field work dangers were primarily swift water streams (+ large wild animals). I'm a chicken, so usually my impulse for self-preservation kept me from taking too many unneccessary risks, though I do have some good stories where poor planning put me in some potentially dangerous situations. There was one field site that existed when I started my project but that I completely abandoned because I could not see any way in the world that I could safely and accurately sample it. I worked with field assistants about 90% of the time I was in the field, and my rule was that if I was unwilling to wade the stream or shimmy across on the log, I wasn't going to ask them to do it.

    Now as a professor, the streams I work in are tiny, but I find myself thinking a lot about field work dangers, particularly with regard to the southeast's snakes and the urban settings where some of my work is being done. I'm comforted by the fact that even most of our forested sites are within cell phone range, but I can't afford to send two students out together all the time. I bought a first aid kit for the research group, and asked my students in the field to carry it, but I notice it sat in the lab most of the summer. I ask them to make sure that someone knows where they are going and when they expect to be back, but that someone is usually not me. In some ways, I think the local-ness and familiarity of our current field sites brings complacency, and I don't think that's a good thing. In my long-term, strategic list of things to do is come up with some organized (and enforced) safety protocols for my students, but right now I'm really counting on them to use their heads and get themselves out of any situations that they encounter. Hopefully that keeps on working out for me for a while. :-/

  • [...] discussion over at The Spandrel Shop and Cackle of Rad on doing field work in the sciences--and the potential dangers that might be [...]

  • Stephanie says:

    Guys, thanks for writing this!
    I've got a geology-hazard post written up here RT
    In addition, I'd echo Kim's sentiments that being aware & using common sense are the biggest aids to avoiding problems, that and always having someone with you. I think having folks do fieldwork by themselves is a serious mistake, even if it saves costs. In grad school it was like indentured duty, you spent half a summer in someone else's field area, and they spent half a summer in yours.

  • Is there no institutional training for field research?

    Where I work, we all do field research. Most of our training is dealing with issues like avoiding, recognizing, and dealing with heat stress (since a lot of it is done in open fields in the middle of summer). Usually, a lot of the training falls to the PI. We ALWAYS send at least two individuals into the field because accidents happen, but I don't think we've ever had training which discussed what to do when some scumbag propositions you on the side of the highway.

  • Heavy says:

    Having worked in the field from the Arctic to the tropics over the past 15 years I find the suggestion of institutional rather amusing (Sorry DM). The only training I have ever received was a video that talked about sprained ankles (and eye scratches) being the major field accident and that one should "curse the fall" when slipping. Wilderness First-Aid is a great idea although I had to go outside my institution to get it.

    Despite witnessing a coworker fall 40' off a cliff, good thing we were working in pairs and I had rope to rescue him from a sinkhole (no joke), my biggest fear is not the animals or hazards but other people. I avoid others as much as possible, just can't predict what will happen out there when it comes to the human element.

  • Silver Fox says:

    By the way, there are many places in the intermountain west where cell phones don't work and so can't be used as potential lifelines. I have worked alone some times, because not all companies provide funding for a field partner or assistant. I now use and carry a SPOT, which will send a satellite message with your location to people of your choice, will send a prearranged message to people of your choice (and new ones may send more than one prearranged message, am not sure, I have the original model), and will send a satellite 911 call (or 112 call in Europe). Emergency responders will then respond by going to your GPS location, by helicopter or other method. You can get a plan upgrade that covers cost of rescue. This device is worth having even when traveling paved roads, imo.

  • CoR says:

    @SilverFox, that is a great suggestion. They are also relatively inexpensive. Thanks.

  • This is a topic that I've thought about a lot and which makes me a little nervous - though I'm coming at it from the undergraduates-in-the-field angle now, so it's not quite the same issue as sending graduate students off to sample (since there's no way I'd leave undergraduates alone). As a grad student I spent a lot of time doing things that I wasn't quite comfortable with, admittedly, and which could have ended badly They didn't, but if I was in charge we wouldn't have tried them. And I guess to some extent having some bad-ass stories to tell is a side benefit.

    Now I'm just not willing to take undergrads into some of the remote places where I still work - if it's far away from medical care, I don't bring them. But there are still plenty of opportunities for injury and animal issues, and in a way I'm being a hypocrite because as an undergrad I did go to places like that. But I know several people who also did these things and who are now no longer with us or are missing body parts...this leaves me a bit conflicted, since I really loved those experiences and travel opportunities but I know what can happen. I have plans to get myself some EMT training soon, before my next field school, and I can only hope I never need the knowledge.

  • Chloe Lewis says:

    I have a little logical quibble with the comments about women facing extra danger in the field. In the first place, I'm probably more at risk leaving my campus every day than I am in the field, given the crime rate here. Women face that 'extra risk' everywhere, if anywhere. We might as well get outdoors.

    I'm less sure about this, but it seems likely to me that men are also at risk of horrible crimes, including rape, when in isolated tough environments. (If it happened to Lawrence of Arabia...) Moving completely to storytelling, I'd even expect it to be under-reported because it isn't narrative-confirming, and is shameful to the victim man in a different way.

    Finally, yes, it is alarming, but I don't think I'm facing any more dangers than rather a lot of the ag workers in the country.

  • European Academic says:

    Off topic for this post, but perhaps of interest to whoever is running Scientopia: since about last week your RSS feeds throw my Google Reader to another place, to rather than So for example, when I saw this post of yours and clicked on it, I ended up here:

    Same with other scientopia blogs.

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