If it wasn’t for fieldwork…

A team of field-biologists in action. Looking for a picket fence?

A team of field-biologists in action. Looking for a picket fence?

By Jonas Waldenström

We biologists are masochists. Not in the strict sexual sense, but in our obsessiveness with painful fieldwork. With the possible exception of journal impact factors, fieldwork is what is most bragged about in the research community. Let’s face it, all other aspects of academia is kind of dull – it is not often you hear someone telling what a “mind-blowing, insanely cool new faculty budget“, or “that printer is so bright I gotta wear shades!” Such things just don’t happen. Because. They. Are. Dull.

If it wasn’t for fieldwork I wonder how many biologist that would endure another round of grant writing, another cohort of undergraduate students, and the tally of committee-related memos to read. To survive, we embrace fieldwork as if it was the Holy Grail; we plan for it, long for it, and talk about it constantly. Even old, grey and bent professors vividly recall each and every field season long after they forgot what the research was about (or the names of their kids).

Per the masochistic definition, fieldwork should be hard, challenging and preferably muddy, stinking and wet. The best field sites are those exceedingly remote, like a speck in the ocean, a steep mountain island covered with guano, where you (The Hero) are dragging yourself up an improbable cliff while darting this and that way to avoid spewing fulmar chicks. Or, in the midst of the thickest jungle imaginable in Tierra Incognito, where you (The Hero), try to solve the riddle of the tiger whiskers while leeches suck your legs dry and winged pests aim their proboscises for your bare parts. (For true stories, you can read the recent expedition to the Amazon where researchers hunted down the animal behind the “mystery picket fence” [spoiler: tiny little spider], or the invertebrate scientist who operated a nematode out of his own mouth).

This is apparently a documentary on leeches and the researchers set out to study them.

This is apparently a documentary on leeches and the researchers set out to study them.

Admittedly, tales of fieldwork tend to evolve with each time they are told – but that’s how it is to be human. As a PI, I don’t really spend that much time on fieldwork anymore, and even if Mallards are cool animals, and Ottenby a very beautiful nature reserve, it is not exactly stuff for legends. That’s why I tend to talk about the time I nearly got shot in Nigeria, or the crossing of Drake’s Sound where albatrosses steamed around the stern of the ship like flies on freshly deposited cow dung.

I am not totally of the chart yet: fieldwork is still being done, and in a not too distant future I am going to Antarctica again. There is still hope.

Finally, when your career has gone too far away from the starting point, there is but one option left. You see, far away on the other side of fieldwork lies the conference trips, the last resort for the former field-biologists. But that is a poor, poor substitute.

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