The only thing harder than hiking for three hours into a remote boreal forest is realizing you forgot your sample kit back in the lab.
For many researchers, running out of a reagent means walking down the hall to borrow more from a neighboring lab, but field researchers don’t have that luxury. They may be hours away from their labs, and miles away from the van.
That’s why planning is so important.
This week, we learn the three T’s you should remember to pack on EVERY trip.
Dr. Sara Vero, PhD is a researcher and lecturer in agricultural and environmental science at The Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland.
Dr. Vero has worked extensively in soil science, water quality, plant nutrition, and land management, and this week, she condenses some of her experience into three topics you’ll need to prepare for your next successful trip.
The first T stands for Tools – the equipment you’ll need to bring along to complete your observation or experiments.
As you plan your trip, Dr. Vero recommends that you think through the specific tasks you’ll need to accomplish – sampling, field treatments, assays – and compile a checklist of items required for each.
Typically, you’ll need three types of tools:
- Task-specific tools – these are the reagents and equipment you’ll use in your research, like core samplers, chemicals, or metering equipment.
- Consumables – the items that get used once and packed out. Think gloves, bags, pipettes, and bottles.
- Everyday Carry – personal items and equipment that have multiple uses, like a multi-tool, flashlight, or duct tape.
Make a spreadsheet or checklist, and pack common items in advance. Dr. Vero recommends having clothing and your everyday carry items in a duffel bag in the closet. When it’s time to hit the road, you won’t have to think about (or forget) any of these essential items.
It’s rare for a researcher to go out into the field alone. There’s too much to do, and there’s safety in numbers.
That’s why Dr. Vero recommends thinking through those tasks one more time to identify the right team. She recommends assessing the following considerations:
- Skills – do you have people who are skilled to complete the experiments or observations? Can you learn a new technique, or teach a junior member of the group to expand the skill base of your team?
- Labor Requirements – Do you have enough people to complete the tasks on time? In cases where time is limited but the observations are simple, consider recruiting more people from the department to multiply your force.
- Availability of Personnel – grad students and postdocs are busy people. Be aware that you may need to give plenty of notice, or scale down your planned experiments based on their availability.
Allowing for enough time to complete the work is a common point of failure for field research. Even if you have a good idea about how long your observations may take, it’s easy to underestimate all of the other time sinks of a trip.
Dr. Vero uses the following equation to estimate the time needed:
Travel Time + Setup + Measurements + Rest + “The Unexpected” = Time Needed
Researchers often forget the latter two items.
Scheduling rest time is important, because pushing your mind and body past its limits makes for sloppy research, and worse, it can be dangerous in an unfamiliar environment.
And always expect the unexpected! If you plan a trip with no margin for error, nature will find a way to mess with your plans. It might be a sudden thunderstorm or a wild animal camped out in the field you need to sample. In any case, leave yourself some wiggle room.
If you’re a field researcher, be sure to check out Dr. Vero’s website fieldwork-ready.com or her new book, Fieldwork Ready: An Introductory Guide to Field Research for Agriculture, Environment, and Soil Scientists. If you order before December 2021, you can use discount code FWR35.