The Reality of Scientific Fieldwork

Victoria Barker

“Some years ago, never mind how long precisely, having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”

– Herman Melville –

Photo Credit: Victoria Barker

Photo Credit: Victoria Barker

While reading about scientific innovations printed on the glossy pages of a magazine, the casual observer may conclude that scientific experimentation is a highly meticulous, well thought out and documented field that proceeds very cleanly through the design, implementation, analysis, and write-up phases. After all, researchers rarely disclose the true challenges associated with scientific progress to the general public. However, a new Twitter hashtag, #overlyhonestmethods, has begun to shed light on some of the lesser-known struggles of scientific progress. Scientists from across the globe have taken to social media to humorously share portions of their research methodology that have gone horrendously wrong. Here are just a few examples:

In an effort to follow the overly honest trend, I figured I would spill some of the #overlyhonestmethods that take place while I’m on a research cruise. As a fisheries biologist, I conduct fieldwork at oil and gas platforms in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. When most people think of going on a cruise, they imagine tropical seaside destinations, unlimited drinks and relaxing in the Caribbean sun. Often, when I mention I’m going on a research cruise, it’s hard for friends and family to get this idyllic landscape out of their head. But the reality couldn’t be any further from the truth. Scientific research cruises are often dirty, sleepless, and extremely hectic experiences. In order to dispel this misconception, here are just a few #overlyhonestmethods to illustrate how immensely pleasure cruises and research cruises differ.

Exotic locations

While it’s certainly possible that your research may occur in a tropical paradise (a friend of mine worked with sharks in the Bahamas), more than likely your work will take you somewhere slightly less desirable. Many of my friends studying wetlands at some point land in the middle of waist-deep water in a mosquito-filled swamp, where temperatures can easily rise to over 100 degrees and the humidity can be suffocating. Traversing through deep woodlands, having to machete your way to your field site while carrying all of your equipment on your back is often a common occurrence. My research sites are four oil and gas platforms located approximately 100 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. It takes ten hours to reach the sites by boat out of Port Fourchon, which is three hours south of Louisiana State University. Being in such a remote location means that we are at the mercy of rough weather, large waves, blistering and freezing temperatures, and gale force winds. On the bright side, the sunsets are truly exquisite.

Another beautiful night on the Gulf of Mexico. Photo credit: Elizabeth Keller

Another beautiful night on the Gulf of Mexico. Photo credit: Elizabeth Keller

Relaxation

The point of any cruise liner is relaxation: tanning on the deck, getting massages, going on adventures while at port in a new country. Fieldwork has relaxing moments – sitting around watching Shark Week during dinner for instance – but is primarily a rush of getting all of the data collected as efficiently as possible. Ship time can cost an obscene amount of money, from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars PER DAY plus fuel costs, making the need for efficacy apparent. As my data is collected at night, we often have students working at all hours of the day. Even when we only collect data during the day, we generally sample from 6:00am to 9:00pm, leaving little room for relaxation. Not to mention the famous Carnival Cruise boat drinks aren’t allowed when handling thousands of dollars worth of scientific equipment!

Note: It is physically possible to brew beer using only the materials you have access to on a research vessel. Just make sure your funding source doesn’t find out! You can find directions here.

Cleanliness

There are no swan-shaped towels on your pillow when you’re on a research cruise and gleaming, pearly white research

vessels are the things of Hollywood magic, not the real world of fieldwork. Due to funding struggles, scientific vessels are often older boats repurposed for research and are therefore not the newest or sleekest model. Additionally, fieldwork by its very nature is messy. For my work, we conduct field dissections on a multitude of fish species, which results in blood and viscera on deck. Fish scales and saltwater permeate the deck and stick to sweaty bodies, making showering the best part of the day.

Field dissection of red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus). Photo credit: Victoria Barker

Field dissection of red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus). Photo credit: Victoria Barker

Supplies

During fieldwork, we operate under the assumption that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. Equipment can fail or be lost at sea, the boat can break down, and the weather rarely cooperates. I’ve worked with commercial divers who have salvaged hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost scientific equipment off the seafloor. I’ve been on cruises where the engine has malfunctioned and others where the water pumps have failed, leaving us with no potable water. Sometimes the air conditioning breaks or the food is barely edible. In order to mitigate this reality, we always bring multiples of everything: extra video cameras (we use 6 at a time but bring 12), extra computers (6 are in use at any given time), as well as innumerable extra cables, wire, memory storage devices and fishing hooks/lines. In this case, it is infinitely better to be safe than sorry. An entire cruise can be ruined if you don’t prepare accordingly… and on this cruise there’s no gift shop to buy any supplies that you might have forgotten!

Fieldwork is an integral part of any Master student’s academic journey. It is often dirty, exhausting and time-consuming work, but it is a critical skill to obtain and a rewarding one to achieve. It is often the most fun portion of anyone’s thesis project, despite the environmental and technological hurdles the student may have to jump through to obtain data. I enjoy the adventure of fieldwork! Being out in the middle of the ocean is an experience most graduate students do not get to experience. I love the freedom and sense of peace that the ocean exudes, even during my most hectic days. After all, I can always take a vacation with Carnival Cruise Lines later.

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