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?