Ah, the joys of field research. Driving out under a blue sky through the rolling hills of the Eastern townships, it’s hard to think of a better way to spend a work day.
It’s the many days like this I’ve spent over the last two years that make me feel lucky to be in field research. Although agricultural fieldwork is often the subject of spirited complaints, I don’t think I could survive without it.
During my undergrad I got acquainted with labwork, working after school running DNA gels and Western blots with a PhD student to pay my tuition. There’s a certain satisfaction to be derived from succeeding in a laboratory experiment, in making invisible molecules jump through just the hoops you wanted.
I still remember the feeling as our whole lab crowded around a computer screen as I did the pilot run of the experimental setup I’d been working on that summer. I had spent months retrofitting an elaborate machine to supercool tiny samples of liquid, which I had painstakingly collected at a rate of a few microliters per day from some trees on campus. We had figured out how to isolate the proteins we were looking for, and I’d set up a microscope fitted with a camera so we could use image software to look at our results.
After all that work and careful planning and consideration, I was trying out the protocol for the first time in front of a live audience including my boss(es) and peers. Everyone was quiet as I just barely adjusted the dials… and slowly but surely a perfect geometric crystal emerged out of the liquid on the screen; a sure sign of success and proof of concept. It was very exciting.
Fieldwork is the other side of that coin, and it can be just as satisfying to see your research happening out in the real world. I’ve certainly had plenty of time for that during the last two years while working on my Masters project. Every week throughout the summer months I’ve been collecting data from fields around Quebec, from the MacDonald campus of McGill to Sherbrooke, Drummondville, Trois-Rivières, Quebec city and just about everywhere in between.
From Spring through to October I spend two or three days a week out collecting data at one of my field sites. It’s great to be outside, and an always welcome change to escape the city environment for a time. Several times I’ve brought my camping gear with me and tented overnight out in the field, and acouple times I’ve squeezed in a hike on one of the small peaks on the way home.
Although fieldwork can admittedly sometimes drag on, at times even seeming more like a burden than a blessing, there’s a certain skill and satisfaction to doing it well, and to knowing that the success of your project relies on you and no one else. It’s the simple pleasure of doing a job yourself, and doing it well.
As I compile and begin to analyze my mountain of data this winter, the results should (fingers crossed…) slowly emerge from the noise of the tens of thousands of values I’ve accrued over the past 2 seasons, like shapes coming out of the fog. Then we will see what this fieldwork has wrought!
I’m going to miss field season. There’s no way to connect with your research like getting out in the field and getting hands-on with the subject matter.
That being said, there is definitely a slight overtone of relief in knowing that the days of scratching around the field for 10 hours at a stretch are coming to an end…