Episode 4: How to Be Field Ready

Episode 4: How to be field ready

Veteran scientist and author Sara Vero talks about her upcoming book Fieldwork Ready and how to make sure you're ready for any surprise your field experiment throws at you.

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Hi, everyone, welcome to our podcast “We Measure the World” produced by scientists, for scientists.


The un-labeling I mean, man, that is, that’s a big one. I’ve seen that go wrong on people an awful lot. I know one friend of mine had taken a whole load of water samples, he comes back to the lab, it was a long day, he had to travel quite a distance. And he had labeled the lids instead of the tubes. And when he took the lids off, he couldn’t remember which lid went with which tube and he goes, What should I do? And I think I think you better go back and take new samples.


Oh no


It’s so frustrating. But we’ve all done that we’ve all mislabeled samples or failed to remember what our sampling code was, even though it seemed perfectly logical to us at the time. So yeah, that’s another really common mistake. And, you know, I make these mistakes too. That’s the other thing in fieldwork ready. I’m not saying that I’m above these mistakes. What I’m probably saying is, I’ve made these mistakes, you don’t have to.


That’s a small taste of what we have in store for you today. “We Measure the World” explores interesting Environmental Research trends, solutions to research issues and tools to better understand the entire soil plant atmosphere continuum, stay current on applied environmental research, measurement methods, and more. Thanks for joining us. Today’s guest is Dr. Sarah Vero, who will be discussing all things field research, as well as her new book field work ready. Dr. Vero is a lecturer in agricultural science at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland. Her research focuses mainly on soil science and water quality. After her PhD, Sarah did her postdoc at Kansas State University. She then returned to Ireland as a member of the catchment science teams in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. Sara, I just want to thank you for joining us on our podcast today, and was hoping you could give us a brief introduction of your book, and then what inspired you to write it.


Hi, Holly sure! thank you so much for having me, I really, really appreciate being here today. And um field research is really it’s kind of the backbone or it’s the spine of, of Agricultural and Environmental Science. And we really need it in order to ground our conclusions and our observations in reality, so that the advice we’re giving to farmers, to policymakers, and the information we give to the general public is realistic, and it actually reflects what we see in the actual outdoor environment. And as modeling becomes more and more powerful, and that we rely on it more and more, sometimes field research can kind of get a little bit forgotten, I think. But in order to make realistic and effective models, and in order to make device practices and technologies that actually work for the people with their boots on the ground in the field, we need to do field research. And I came up through, you know, third level education, I did my undergraduate, my masters, and my PhD. And I found that field research had a huge learning curve. When I got to that Masters and PhD level. I mean, there was always someone available to teach me the practical techniques, you know, how to use certain pieces of equipment type to do things in the laboratory, but the soft skills of logistics and planning and, and really asking the reason why we do field research, that was sometimes a little bit lacking. And there was an awful lot for me to learn on the go. So I kind of thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was a book or some sort of a research resource there, that would introduce new researchers, whether they be students or whether they be post grads into what’s involved in field field research, to kind of set them up with those primary skills. And to overcome the fear factor or the intimidation factor that surrounds research. I know, from my own experience, being afraid of you know, the challenges that are involved or nervous that they might do something wrong, is one of the things that holds a lot of students back from getting into the field. And there’s really no reason for that. There’s nothing that can’t be overcome with good planning and good execution. So that’s really what I hope to achieve with this book is kind of to make an introductory guide as sort of a friend in the fields to help people get started. It’s not going to answer all of the questions, but it’ll get you into the fields so that you can start answering them to yourself.


That’s great i think that’s so true field work has such a kind of a mental component to it. You know, if you’ve never done it before, there’s sort of this mental block. Can you talk about that? Because I know you’ve said that you’ve experienced that with your students before?


Yeah, absolutely. I mean, let’s say you take a new student, right, whether they be an undergraduate or a PhD students or a master’s student, or even just someone who’s new to research, and they might be very, very educated and very, very knowledgeable based on their classroom or their lectures or the laboratories. But the classroom, the lecture hall, and laboratory are all controlled environments in which you kind of know what’s going to happen next. And you know where everything is. And, you know, there’s very clear indications of what’s going to happen next. And now you’re saying, Well, here’s a question, a really challenging question your PhD hypothesis that nobody in the world knows the answer to on out there as the real environment, whether it’s a prairie, or a field, or a river or the Antarctic, and we want you to go out there. And to figure out logistically how to test your hypothesis. I mean, that’s a big thing to ask someone and they don’t know so much, not from any fault of their own, but just because they’re new. So what I wanted to do was to take away the fear factor to break down the steps that are involved in field research from translating your hypothesis into a field question, how can you test this? And then developing the strategies? And how would you go about actually executing that test? And so I really thought, if you have a map, things aren’t so frightening. And I thought that this would provide people with that map.


So that’s a good point. So a lot of times with lab procedures, right, you have a protocol that’s written out. And so it’s very comforting and very easy that you feel if you just follow those steps, that you’ll get the results that are reliable. But yeah, I guess, with fieldwork, that’s very much not the case all of the time, right?


Yeah, because, I mean, the real environment, the outdoor environment, by its nature is heterogeneous, and it’s variable throughout time. So just because you go and visit a site on day one, and you do your preliminary spec, and you’re like, everything looks great here doesn’t mean that that site is going to be as reliable, as accessible as controllable throughout the entire year or multiple years that you’re analyzing. So really, to be a field researcher, you have to be adaptable. And you can’t really be liable to panic, you have to stay calm, and you have to have a plan in advance rather than try and deal with things on the fly as they come up. Because every field campaign that I’ve ever come across both my own, and those people who I work with, and my colleagues and peers, they all have, you know, the unexpected, whether it’s, oh, my goodness, some cattle got loose and trampled on my plots, or, yeah, there was a once in 100 year storm and a flash flood, and it’s swept away my monitoring station, or just, you know, the results aren’t coming in the way I expected, or it’s a little more challenging to dig this soil pit, and you just have to be ready for the unexpected, there’s always something and the thing is not to panic, when the unexpected happens.




And the other thing by being afraid to get into the field, students and early career researchers are often worried that they will do the wrong thing, you know that they will spend money on equipment that’s not ideal, or that they will choose a site that’s not perfect. And they get this sort of paralysis by analysis, you know, where they’re like, Well, I have to answer absolutely every question before I go into the field. And that’s actually not the case. If you had every question answered. Or if you waited until every single question or uncertainty was answered, you would never get out there. That’s the truth. So the thing is, is to set people up to such a degree that they’re able to get out there and start narrowing things down answer the first question, which will allow you to answer the second question, and so on and so forth. And if you break things down sequentially, it’s an awful lot less frightening.


Do you think there is such a thing as the perfect field site?


No, no, I absolutely don’t, because, you know, there’s so many variables in the environment. The other challenge with environmental or agricultural science, is that you’re trying to draw conclusions, from a limited number of sites, even in the largest studies that are applicable much more broadly, that’s the whole point of research, you know, and not everything can be tested on sites, you need to draw your conclusions out to their wider implications. So there’s always going to be drawbacks from that perspective. And even if you have a site that you can control very well, people tend to return to the same sites, year upon year. And then you have to question whether that site is compromised by previous experiments. So no, there’s no perfect site. And unlike a laboratory, you’re never starting from a completely blank, clean slate environment. And that’s just something that we have to compensate for as much as we can. And quantify if you can quantify the antecedent characteristics or quantify the sort of potentially confounding characteristics, you can still draw very, very useful conclusions.


Right. So accepting that the site’s never going to be exactly how you want it to be, but as long as you can account for the things that might be affected Your data. That’s the important part.




So what was your first introduction to field work? And I guess, how did you get into becoming a scientist?


Well, you know, I didn’t come from an agricultural background at all. But even when I was a kid, I was fascinated by farming fascinated by agriculture, really into the outdoors. So for me, it agriculture was always the route I was going to go in some way or another. And I always had a huge interest in science and in asking questions. So for me, there was never any big mystery about what I was going to do after school, it was always going to be agricultural science, which I’m sure it confused a lot of my schoolmates in Dublin, which is Ireland’s capital city. But for me, it was a it was a done deal when I was very, very young. And when it came to research, so I was finishing up my undergrad, which was animal and crop production, which was a very, very broad agricultural degree. And I did want to do a Master’s, but I did not want to sit in a classroom, for one minute longer. I had had enough of classroom and we did an awful lot of time out actually on farms, you know, working and I did a pig farm, dairy farm, beef, sheep, you name it. So I’d already kind of been out in the wild, so to speak. And the idea of going back to the classroom now just didn’t do it for me. So there was a Master of Science by research that became available, which had a little bit of funding attached to it and they wanted somebody to look at soil compaction. It was a very, very simple, straightforward plot study. And it would involve me going to Teagasc, which is the Agri Food and Development Authority here in Ireland at their Wexford site in the southeast of the country. And I couldn’t have got on board quicker. I thought it was so exciting. I essentially had a plot trial where I was adjusting the soil to different moisture contents, and then driving over it with a tractor is landini vision 105, the 2000 gallon slurry tanker, I can remember all the details now, I probably remember the tire pressure if you gave me a few minutes. Yeah, I measured simply the change in torque density, the change in shear strength, and the yield loss over time. From compaction. I spent most of the summer either taking soil cores or driving around on a lawn mower. I had a great time. I just loved it. I loved the environment and the Research Center and the fun with the other students. I love talking to the researchers, I thought they were also interesting. And yeah, that was my first experience. It was really I couldn’t have had a better introduction to field research actually, and based on my master’s was very clear to me that field based research not only was really, really important and translatable, I mean, it that project, I felt it, it performed very well in that it was able to yield information that was useful to policymakers and other researchers. But it also was so practical, like I can talk compaction with a farmer. And because it was based on a field trial, not some model that’s rather incomprehensible, that I was able to quantify the results. This is what you will see in the fields. These are the kilos of grass or the tons of grass per acre that you will either gain or lose, depending on your practices. So I really liked that aspect to it.


Wow, that’s really interesting. And so then at that point, you were hooked. And you knew you were going to go on to the PhD in the postdoc, and the whole thing.


Yeah, absolutely. I had arranged a PhD as my master’s was halfway through. And what happened to my PhD Actually, there was another student who dropped out of the Ph. D. program, and his PhD was kind of floating in the wind, so to speak. So I stepped up and I said, if you’re interested, and if you can hold on a couple of months for me to finish up. My master’s thesis’s I’d love to do that piece of work. So I was able to move straight over from one to the other, which was great. Yeah, that really suited me.


Right. So was that also in soil compaction? Or were you looking at some different questions?


No, not in compaction, but it was in soil physics. So what I was looking at was nitrates transport and nitrate leaching that is through the Unsaturated Zone to groundwater. So it had quite a large field component in terms of installing soil monitoring arrays and doing tracer tests. And then also soil sampling, which I then analyzed for soil water characteristic curve. So it was kind of backed up, the field component was backed up by a strong the bar tree curve and some method development, which was very challenging. I’d say method development was probably the thing I found most challenging, but also very rewarding because you’re you’re bringing in a new method that wasn’t there before developing a previous method. But certainly I the part that I loved was the field component.


What is your favorite thing about field research? What gets you so excited about doing it?


Oh, That’s a good question. I really like the outdoors. I like that you’re traveling around, you’re seeing other people, you’re seeing things happen in the real environment. In other words, it’s not just notional, there’s not 20 steps between what I’m observing and what I’m the conclusion I’m trying to grow or trying to develop, you can see it in the field, if your methods of analysis are good enough, whether that’s sensors, whether that physical methods, whether that’s measuring yield, or whatever else. So it’s, it’s quite an, it’s very tangible. And it’s also exciting, because things are happening in real time, you know, so I really like that aspect of it, I like that there’s a team aspect to it too, you very rarely are entirely alone on field work, you’re usually working to a greater or lesser degree with other people. And that’s really, really rewarding.


There’s kind of like a camaraderie aspect where even if you’re doing something that’s not fun, because I remember with my Masters, we would be out in the fields in the middle of the summer in Texas pollinating corn by hand. And so that’s, you know, not the most fun task to do. But I think the fact that you’re out there with other people who are kind of suffering alongside you, right, that’s kind of a bonding experience for everyone.


Yeah, 100%.


And you feel really satisfied after it when you come home, at the end of the day, you feel like you did work.


I completely agree. Like, I’ve worked for days and days at a piece of statistics, or I’ve been, you know, pulling my hair out over a paper that I’m trying to write, and you can get the end of the day or the end of the week and be like, wow, I really don’t feel I made any progress. But if you got your round of sampling done, or if you installed a sensor or whatever else in the field, it’s it’s a win every day, I think has a real win in it. And I really agree with what you’re saying about kind of suffering together. Like even when I run into people now who I did field work with, five, six years ago, Oh, my gosh, do you remember that day we were in the West Coast, and you know, the sun was beating down or we were, you know, up to our knees and in a flooded fields. And you can laugh about it after? You know, it’s it’s a really friendship building and character building, I think,


right, sort of a forced team bonding exercise in some ways.


Yeah, absolutely!


So I guess then, on the flip side of the things you like about field research, what are some of the most challenging things? Or, you know, can you think back to an experience where it was just a hard day in the field, and you kind of were discouraged?


Yeah, I mean, the fact that it’s unexpected, or that there’s uncontrollable elements, is probably the most challenging part of it. And, you know, it can be very disheartening. When you think you have all of your bases covered, you know exactly how you’re going to install this equipment or run this sampling. And then you can have, you know, whether that’s out of your control, or simply miserable to work in, or you can have equipment malfunction, or you forget something or, I mean, you name it, what can go wrong will go wrong. There’s some great threads on Twitter, where I think it’s hashtag fieldwork fails. And not that I want to say that fieldwork is, is prone to failures, but it’s certainly prone to accidents, errors, and the unexpected


will just like lab work is to right, totally, totally. It’s just sometimes on a different scale, that the mistake is happening.


Yeah, absolutely, and so you know, things can go wrong, they will go wrong. And that can be really disheartening. But what I find is, the more you go on through fieldwork, and the more you speak to other researchers, everybody’s been through it. So no one’s looking at you thinking, Oh, what a fool. They really mess that up. They’re thinking, Oh, my gosh, I remember what went wrong when I was doing this three years ago, or you think that was bad? Wait, can you hear what happened to me? You know, so what I would say is not to try not to be too discouraged by the things that go wrong. And then the other challenge is, sometimes it’s just hard. Sometimes you have to walk 10 or 15 miles, and it’s in Kansas in the middle of summer, and you’re using a metal detector to find sediment traps, and you’re thinking, I wish I was inside with a cold drink. And this is just too hard. Or, you know, sometimes you’ve done weeks and weeks of intensive water sampling during the recharge period, and you’re just tired, and you’re just cranky. And so is your team made and you’re arguing over something silly. But at the end of the day, every day of fieldwork is taking you one step closer, there are no backward steps and fieldwork, you are only ever going forward every small wind that you have, whether it’s taking a sample or taking it making an observation that’s taking you one step closer to your goal. So I’d say Don’t let the small difficult days get you down. You’re on your way you’re moving forward even if it’s slow.


That’s a good point. And, like we talked about that sense of tangible accomplish That’s happening, you know whether it’s you, sometimes when you’re writing, you could rewrite the same paragraph like three times in the same way you feel like what did I get done?


Yeah, absolutely. Whereas if you’re doing let’s say you’re doing a, I don’t know, a plot trial, right, and you take your yield data in the middle of summer, and it was a really tough one, it’s a really long day, and you come home, when you’re cranky, and you’re tired, you need to think to yourself, Well, actually, I never need to take that sample, again, that sampling point. I’ve got it in the bag, those samples are in the oven, I’ve recorded my data. And even though it was hard, you don’t have to repeat that. Where as just as you say, you might have to write that paragraph again, and you probably will have to run the stats one more time to be sure. It’s not like that with field work when it’s done. It’s done.


Right? I think that’s an important point too, though, of being cognizant of that when you’re in the field, even though you might want to rush because you’re tired, and you want to be done. But this is your time to take that data. And if you cut corners, now, you’re not going to be able to redo it or undo that.


Yeah, completely.


So I guess kind of on that note, making mistakes, are there common mistakes that you feel like everybody makes that maybe we don’t all need to be making them and that we can kind of learn from each other?


Yeah, I think probably one of the most common mistakes is in time management, people. Usually under budget when it comes to time, I mean, people are normally quite generous in their financial budgets. But for some reason, we don’t do the same thing when it comes to time management. And I’m not saying this is other people, this is me, too, it’s really quite challenging. And as a result of leaving not enough time, either on a daily basis. In other words, you think you will get more done in a single day of fieldwork than you will, or over the course of a season and that you think you’ll get more rounds of sampling or that you’ll get more installations done. So on a macro and micro scale, people just underestimate how slow things really are. So I think that’s probably one of the most common mistakes that I have observed. And really, you know, a lack of sufficient time, in my experience has led to only two possible outcomes, one of which is that the researcher suffers and not you’re under physical and mental pressure to meet your targets within the brief time that you’ve allotted. or number two, that the data suffers and that you take the measurements within the time that you’ve scheduled, but maybe they’re not as representative or as high quality as they would have been, if you allowed yourself more time. That’s probably the most common one that I have experienced. And then just sort of general, under preparedness, people will often prioritize preparing the key equipment. So they’ll have the augers that they need. And they’ll have, you know, they’ll arrange for whatever technician they need to be on the site, the kind of the macro issues. But then they’ll forget the little things like, Did you bring a suitable pair of spare clothes? Do you have a multi tool? Have you got spare sampling bags? Like those little bits are the difference between fieldwork being successful but challenging, and field work running smoothly? You know, so I think paying attention to the your general preparedness is really, really important.


Yeah, that’s a good point. So are those two kind of common issues that people need to account for something you discuss in your book to help people sort of how do you better estimate time if you’re not well experienced in the field to know kind of how to adjust those things? And how is there sort of like a checklist for people of like things you should always have on you when you go to the field that you might not think about? off the top of your head?


Yeah, absolutely. So in my book, fieldwork ready, I kind of cover a lot of the soft skills of field research. So you’re planning, your preparedness, your logistics, all of those aspects, that should give you that general preparedness in order for you to excel in your specific science, whether that’s agronomy, or, you know, fish science, or, you know, ecology, whatever specific area of expertise you have, I would kind of break these things down into the three T’s. I think you need to think about your team, your tools, and your time. When it comes to time, I kind of prioritize that because I see that’s where people most frequently go the most wrong, I kind of have an equation for it. So I think you need to think about your travel time, your set of time, the time it takes to take your measurements, the time you need to rest and this is probably the most overlooked just because you have I don’t attend a 12 hour day doesn’t mean you can work for 10 or 12 hours straight, particularly if you have driving as well as that plus, you need x You need spare time for the unexpected because as we said earlier, there’s always the unexpected. And even if you allocate time, sufficient time for the other aspects of your field work, some small on unexpected thing. And it could be as minor as you know, a farmer comes by, and he wants to talk to you for 40 minutes. And that’s absolutely fine. And it’s a good thing to do. But that can throw the rest of your time budget, unless you’ve allocated sufficient time to accommodate these unexpected things. Or maybe there’s just heavy traffic, and it takes you longer to get to the field site. So that will kind of be my equation for time management. And this goes, it’s a buffer of time that allows you more flexibility on the day, or across the season. When it comes to tools, I’m a big fan of making lists. And I think everyone should have a list all the time of the tools that they need to bring, and also the equipment they need to bring for themselves. So your clothes, your, you know, your food, things like that. And but I always have a grab bag as well. And it doesn’t really matter whether I’m doing water sampling or soil sampling or working on a plot trial, I will always have certain things with me no matter what. So the first step on for those would be a multi tool, and I’d say get a really, really good multi tool, it will stand to you, you’ll have it for years. And the one I like best is the Leatherman surge model because it’s got a lot of kind of electrical, and electrical devices on it are tools that will work with electrical devices. Because I work with soil sensors, often that’s very, very helpful. And I like to go for heavy duty multi tool because they they last and they give you a bit of strength in the field. The last thing you want is the pliers, you’re depending on to snap I’ve known that to happen to. And I’d say you should always have a flashlight, it can keep you safe, it keeps it gives you an extra few hours of sampling or in moving around the area if you need it. I’d say and this is one that all field researchers I’ve ever come across will all swear by these zip ties, they are the most useful thing, you can use them to rig up equipment to seal sample bags, you know, you name it, you can do it with zip ties, they will keep you safe in a pinch, duct tape, another one probably pretty invaluable. And then sample containers, you should always have a variety of bags boxes, you should never miss out on the opportunity to take a sample because he didn’t have anything to put it in. I mean, that’s, that would be really, really frustrating. And I’ve heard this phrase and I heard it attributed to the Marines. But I wouldn’t want to swear by that. I don’t have a citation for that. But it goes that “two is one and one is none”. In other words, you should always have spares and the spare for your spare. And so they’d kind of be my my rules of thumb when it comes to tools.


Right? If you have 50 samples to take you better go out with way more than 50 bags.


Yeah absoultely!


In case you break one or miss label it or


Absolutely and labeling. I mean, man, that is. That’s a big one. I’ve seen that go wrong on people an awful lot. I know one friend of mine had taken a whole load of water samples, he comes back to the lab, it was a long day, he had to travel quite a distance. And he had labeled the lids instead of the tubes. And when he took the lids off, he couldn’t remember which lid went with which tube and he goes, What should I do? And I said I think you better go back and take new samples. It’s so frustrating. But we’ve all done that we’ve all mislabeled samples or failed to remember what our sampling code was, even though it seemed perfectly logical to us at the time. So yeah, that’s another really, really common mistake. And, you know, I make these mistakes, too. That’s the other thing in fieldwork ready. I’m not saying that I’m above these mistakes. What I’m probably saying is I’ve made these mistakes, you don’t have to.


Right, Do you have any tips specifically for women in STEM who might just be getting into field work? And are you know, maybe have that extra level of intimidation about getting in to this kind of field?


Yeah, sure. I mean, as you say, there’s an intimidation factor there for just about everyone. But maybe it’s could be a little bit more pronounced for women in some instances. First of all, I would say You’re not the first, there have been women in soil science and environmental science for absolute decades. Maxine Livein who’s with the soil science side of America published an article not too long ago which had documented significant women in soil science and went back over 100 years. So don’t think that you’re the first person to do this or that it’s the first challenge out there or the first person to encounter this challenge. That shouldn’t that should give you a lot of encouragement, because for someone else has done it before. That means you can probably do it too. And they were probably nervous as well. I’m I would also say that that probably applies to new researchers across the board, you know, there’s been great women researchers out there. So if you need some encouragement to get over that initial fear factor, just look at the great women we have in the tri societies of America, in the fields of Agronomy, crops, and soil science and any one of those you can reach out to, and they’ll give you a little bit of encouragement or a bit of advice about their specific fields if it’s your field as well. So that long legacy should really reduce the intimidation factor to begin with. And then beyond that, it’s a matter of applying the same principles that will make anybody successful. So planning, plan your accommodation in advance, plan your clothing plan, how you’re going to deal with the bathroom issue, by planning ahead, you can really avoid a lot of discomfort and worry when it gets to the field. And that allows you to just focus on the reason you’re there, which is to collect good quality data, you’re just as capable as anyone else in that respect. Don’t let the other issues limit you in that regard. Beyond that, be safety conscious. But this is the same for anyone in any environments, you should be aware of your environment from a safety perspective, and if a scenario or an individual seems unsafe, or makes you uncomfortable, take action and deal with that, whether that’s speaking to your supervisor, or removing yourself from the scenario. And this goes a lot if you’re working alone, who whether you’re a male or female as well, if you think this environment actually seems unsafe, for whatever reason, just get out of there. Remember, it’s only field work, you, the researcher, the individual and the person are more important than the data in the fields, the data, we can get that some other day, if we need to look after yourself. Number one, and I’d say that goes across the board for any safety issue. Yeah, I want my students to come back with the data. But more than anything, is I want my student to come back, they’re more important than any data. And then the final thing I would say, for women in the fields, just work to your own ability, and collaborate. You don’t have to show off or you don’t have to, you know, if you can’t do something, that’s absolutely fine. But don’t think that you can’t do something, give it a go. And remember, you’re working as part of a team. So when I’m working with my colleagues, we’re all just field researchers in the fields together. And if I need help with something, or they need help with something, we just help each other out.


I think the team aspect is really important. And I also wanted to ask, you know, if you were kind of assembling your dream team for the field, what kinds of other researchers Do you want to have out there with you?


Yeah, absolutely! So when I’m thinking of who I need on my team, I break it down into two broad elements. Number one, I need labor. And number two, I need skills. So number one, I need enough hands physical hands, to do the job in question. And number two, I may need people with specific skills. Now, if I have enough people, maybe I can teach them the skills or maybe I need to bring in skills that I myself don’t have. So they’re the two things I think of. So for example, a few years ago, I was doing river surveys, I was leading a team doing river surveys rather, where we had to take a very, very large number of samples longitudinally across river networks, we had to do this in four different catchments. And each survey had to be done. And really, we were aiming for under four hours, because we wanted to capture a specific flow period, there was no way no matter how motivated and no matter how fast I walked, that I was going to manage to cover that river network. So I simply needed enough willing people to cover individual areas, and then two layers and to bring our samples together at the end. So you’ve got to make sure you’ve got enough people under estimating your number of people that you require is a lot like under estimating your time. You or the data are going to suffer. And Either way, it’s not a good conclusion. And on the other hand, in terms of skills, sometimes you need people who have particular expertise, and you might want to train someone or become trained yourself or sometimes it’s just more efficient to bring in an external contractor or collaborator to lend those specific skills. And that, that all comes down to kind of your planning process in advance, you need to really map out well, is this something we’re going to do ourselves? Or is this something that we need to get a bit of help on. But in terms of characteristics for who I would want with me on a day to day basis, I really go for enthusiasm more than anything, I would rather a willing helper, who’s maybe a little bit inexperienced, but willing to learn and willing to put their back into it and make some effort. Then someone who is maybe very very knowledgeable and very skilled but doesn’t have their heart in it or might just not be very fun to be around. If you have a choice. You should choose people who you can work well with, much like in any other working environment because remember, you’re right They’re together you how only really each other or your small team for company, and you’re not going to need to rely on them. So you need to know that that person is going to put their best efforts both into the sampling and to look out for you, and you can look out for each other. I think I’ve been very blessed really in the teams that I have had. And I’m thinking now I can’t think of anyone who I would say no, I wish I didn’t have them on my team, I’ve really had some fantastic teammates.


Yeah, I, one of my dearest friends, I met her when we, for the first time, when we took a trip to Weslaco, which is about eight miles from the border of Mexico, it’s like a seven hour drive to get there from College Station. And, I mean, it’s quite an adventure just driving down. Because I’d never been to that part of the country before. And when I got there, I realized that I had not put my rubber boots from the office into the field truck, I’d taken them out of my car into the office, not make it back to the truck. And the soil down there is very muddy, like, you know, kind of cakes on and I had brought some just Converse that I, you know, didn’t really care to have them dirty. But that was that was a rough time. And for me to be a new grad student with these undergrads who were training me, for them to see me show up without boots, I was like, Okay, well, this is how we’re doing it. So


Yeah, well, I guess it’s kind of Murphy’s Law, anything that can go wrong, probably will go wrong.


Right. And so not only did I not have my boots, but of course the soil was muddy…


Naturally you know, that’s, that’s field work.


So that was fun looking back, but at the time, it was very intimidating, because it was, you know, I was new to field work. If you’re away from home, you’re in an unfamiliar place. In some ways, it was kind of felt a little bit dangerous, because you’re very close to the border of Mexico. And so there’s all these different elements. You know, I’m with, I’m with a couple of undergrads. So I feel like sort of responsible for them. But then at the same time, they’re much more experienced than me in the program. And so they’re teaching me you know, how to how to care for this nursery and do Polynesians. And so I was kind of thrust in. And I think I was very grateful that they were such great people to be around. And one of them, my friend, Reagan, her and I are, you know, great friends still, even though she’s in Texas.


Yeah, absolutely. And they kind of make very lasting friendships, I find. And if you were asked to do that, now it wouldn’t see the challenges would remain the same. But you wouldn’t be so intimidated. And that’s one of the nice things about field research is that even though you face new scenarios, or you get thrown into new experiments, or new environments, because you’ve gone kind of this Baptism by fire sort of thing, you’re like, well, I don’t know what’s ahead of me. But based on my previous experiences, I’ll just figure it out. It’ll be fine. It does kind of make you sort of, I suppose inoculated against fear, I definitely felt that it taught me to be adaptable. And after a few years of field research, I was a lot less intimidated and less scared, both to learn new things, and then to try new challenges that I’d perhaps never heard of before.


Right. And each time you can, you could feel more prepared. Because you know what to expect a little bit you can prepare some things that maybe you hadn’t thought about the last time, right. I never forgot my rubber boots ever again.


Yeah I bet you didn’t!


So now im like okay, I have my boots. This time. It can’t be worse than the time I walked through the field and converse and had like 10 pounds of mud on them by the time I was done.


Yeah, absolutely. You’re, you, you will never make that mistake again. Nor will you let anyone make that mistake.


Right. Okay. Everybody have their boots? The boot check. Yeah, before we get on the road.


Yeah, absolutely. But the other nice thing about field research is you never do stop learning. And pretty much everyone you work with is going to have something to teach you like, that’s very encouraging. It’s very reassuring, in that you’re continually adding to your skills, not only are you does each field day of field research, bring you a step closer to your immediate goal. But it also is genuinely character and skill developing and which you just get cumulatively more and more competent and capable of person as you go on. And I think that’s really important actually thing to bring up that when we are in research, whether it’s undergraduate or graduate, or you know, that’s just your career, we can get a little bit myopic and think everything’s research. We’re training people for research. It’s like, Well, no, maybe you’re not maybe your student doesn’t want to go into research. Maybe they want to go into industry, or maybe they want to go into, you know, the commercial side of things. So whats the benefit of them doing field research? Well, to me, if I see someone has done a field research project, what I now know about them is that they are a problem solver, that they are capable of working in a team, that they are adaptable, and that they’re probably pretty reliable. Now, that strikes me as four skills that will be very, very useful to industry. So what I would say is, if you’re an undergraduate or graduate student, you’re like, oh, what’s the value of field research to me? I’d say that would make you look pretty attractive to a prospective employer in future.


That’s true. It’s very good character building, I think.


For sure.


We’ve talked a lot about sort of how to prepare the things that you’re going to need materially, your time, having your team, how do you sort of emotionally or mentally prepare for field research?


I suppose a lot of kind of checklisting, I suppose to to remove any concerns I have, you know, going through your checklist and making sure you are prepared on the technical side will relieve a lot of the potential stress on the psychological side. And then I suppose you just have to be prepared to be away from your home or be away from your office. For many of us, that’s quite exciting, you know, it’s nice to get out of the lab and the office. And to experience something a little bit different. So I find that a lot of people really look forward to it. Or at least they look forward to the start of the field campaign, I suppose where the where things get more difficult is as the sampling campaign goes on, because you become mentally kind of tired, you become physically tired, you’re sick of being on the road, you’d like to have a coffee in, like, at home or in the office, not in the paper coffee out of a filling station, you know, things like that can wear on someone over time. So what I would say is probably prepare yourself mentally for that know that, maybe I’m going to be a bit tired of this, or maybe as much as I love my teammates, I won’t want to see them anymore. And I’m stuck with them, like, you know, you have day in the lab, and then you go home to your family or your friends and you have a completely different life outside, when you’re on field research, you’re probably going to spend the evening with the people you spent the day with, and you spent the day before with them, and you’re actually tired of them. So what I would say is prepare yourself for being a little, you know, for wearing on you and that it’s absolutely perfectly reasonable to say to your colleagues, I’m actually going to take this night and I’m not going to go for dinner with the rest of the team or I’m going to take an hour or two aside and just you know, expect yourself to get tired. And it’s not a bad thing, you just need to deal with that the same as you deal with any other challenge in the field by taking steps to alleviate that pressure. And generally, I would say try and focus on the progress you’re making. And as I said, Remember, each day is a step forward. So even if it was a bad day, you’re never going to have to repeat that bad day, you never have to make those mistakes again, or you never have to take those samples again, that’s in the past. And, you know, it’s it’s take each day as it comes and you know, enjoy it too. Don’t forget to look around you and see that you might be seeing beautiful environments or new things that you haven’t seen before. I remember, I did my postdoc in Kansas State University, which was it’s a fantastic University. And it’s such cool research. But I remember I was installing some monitoring arrays on the prairie and it was going on for days. And it went really well. But I was just really tired and then coming back and teaching classes in the evenings. But I remember on the last day of installation, looking around, you’ve got this beautiful sunset over the prairie. And you can see the bison her knew I thought, wow, if I wasn’t on fieldwork, I’d never have seen that. And that was a huge reward in and of itself. So don’t forget, take a moment Look around you. And just appreciate it. Maybe my lab colleagues won’t like this. But I think it’s an awful lot more exciting than the lab.


So finding the things that kind of can re motivate you and remembering the things that are driving the reason you’re out there in the first place to kind of keep you going when you’re maybe hitting sort of that mental wall.


Yeah. 100% that I couldn’t agree more.


So is there a specific moment when you are out in the field? I guess you just kind of touched on one. But was there a time where field work just kind of clicked where you’re like, this: I’ve prepared well, for this. I’m getting great data. I’m so excited to be out here. And that you’re just you know, everything felt like it was on the right track and that you knew you wanted to continue doing it.


Yeah, I mean, I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had lots of I’ve probably had more good happy days in the field than bad and certainly, I loved my master’s research. It was such a neat, like a textbook plot study. So you really felt that every sampling day did yield such good data. So that was very rewarding. I suppose I was lucky to have that experience, so early on. But I think the fieldwork moment that I was probably proudest of isn’t my moment is my PhD students moment. He is looking at phosphorus leaching and uptake from different organic manures on different grassland sites. And what we wanted to do was we had an existing plot trial. And we wanted to install soil moisture, or soil water samplers at 30 centimeters below these plots. So we had to be fairly non invasive, it was kind of a surgical procedure to insert these samplers without damaging the plot trials that were ongoing. So we had four sites to do. And each side needed, I think it was, if I get this right, I think it was 16 or 20 samplers. And the first site we did, it was really challenging conditions. It was the first time that this particular team had worked together, I’d worked with these probes before, but nobody else had. And we wanted to be super careful not to damage the plots. Anyway, the installation wound up taking us two and a half days, we had to make three trips back to the site, it was really, really challenging. And we had a team of four. And by the time we’ve come to our last site, that was the first site by the time we had the fourth site, it was just me and my student Drummer. And we did the whole thing in under four hours. It was so efficient, it was just absolutely couldn’t have gone better. And it was so good that we got back to the van and we looked at did we calculate the time, right? How did we do that so quickly. So we were so smug, we were so proud, we were gloating about it for weeks, it was a real win. And all that came down to was practice and experience, and knowing what we were about, and just having a team that had been through repetition and repetition become really efficient at working together. And I thought, Wow, that’s really playing out all of the principles of good field work. I wish I could take credit for it, but it should really go to him. He did a brilliant, brilliant job. So that was, um, that’s it. That’s the day of fieldwork that I am most pleased with. His success was just fantastic.


And have you gotten the data from that study yet?


Yes, he’s got we’ve got great data. He’s writing up his thesis for submission later this year. So hopefully, we’ll have papers and all of the rest of it coming out. But definitely his thesis is well on its way. So that was really exciting. You know, that was what was really, I suppose intimidating about that particular piece of fieldwork wasn’t the equipment itself that we were installing, but rather that we were trying to adapt ongoing field trial field plot trials without damaging those plots. And that’s always the big hazard. When you come to plateaus, you don’t want to do anything that will upset the experiment that’s already ongoing. And so that’s a pretty neat piece of work.


And so when you install a site like that, how often are you going out to check on things after you’ve installed them to make sure that everything’s okay, animals haven’t come eating something they shouldn’t have?


Yeah, and they do they do? And that’s definitely a question that’s kind of a How long is a piece of string question. There’s no one rule for us and it takes, a lot of the advances in technology, particularly in sensor technology, and you guys know all about that, it really takes a lot of the burden off the field researcher to be there and have their hands and eyes on at the whole time. And it also really expands the area that we can monitor that we can investigate because you no longer need to be restricted to the preserved site nearby your laboratory or, you know, the research farm where you really control everything about it except the weather. And know you can go to much more far far flung places and either have remote data logging or telemetry that’s feeding back to you, the whole time. Telemetry offers huge reductions in the labor in terms of how often you have to visit the site, because if there’s something wrong with the site, those sensors and those communications are going to let you know. However, even with telemetry, I don’t think it’s a good idea not to revisit the site. So I would generally recommend that someone revisits the site after installation. probably pretty quickly, within a week or two, if you can, maybe within a couple of days. If the site is only a few hours away, I would be very much a proponent of boots on the ground. And I would say you should probably be downloading and Q-seeing your data ongoingly everyone falls behind on this. Q-seeing is hugely time consuming. It’s usually pretty boring. But ultimately what’s the point and taking samples or monitoring if it’s not of good quality, so that’s absolutely essential. So I can’t tell you how often you have to go and do it. But you are going to have to go back and visit the site and you know, the animal one is a really big issue because they love interfering with things. I’ve had rats now through cables. I’ve had cattle pull poor water samplers out of the ground, I had a colleague of mine actually had a plot trial when she was doing mixed species swards. And pigeons came down and eat all the clover. So it wasn’t a mixed species sward anymore. You can’t control for wildlife entirely. So, you know, I would say, no matter what environment you work in, give some thoughts to animal proofing, whether that’s fencing, whether it’s wiring around your equipment, whether it’s netting over your plots, give some thought that you’d be amazed at the damage animals can do in a very, very short space of time.


If you’re not sure what to expect or account for at a site like that do you, what’s your go to protocol? Do you normally ask a researcher who’s worked at a similar site before and see kind of what’s happened to them? or?




How do you how do you research a new field site that’s new to you to be better prepared for those unexpected things?


Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great question. So I suppose if there is a researcher who’s familiar with that site, or that environment, they’re probably the first and best person you can go to talk to? If there isn’t, I’d say, spend some time scoping out the site to begin with, both on paper, look into what is the ecology of this place? What is the, you know, climate? Like? What are the weather patterns? If I’m researching a river, what’s the nearest gauging station? Because how high and how low does this river actually flow? that’s crucial data that will really guide you. And, and then talk to locals. This is something I’ve seen overlooked time and time. Again, they may not be scientists, they might be even better because they live there. And they can tell you an awful lot about the site. So for example, if you’re working in an agricultural area, most farmers will be willing to talk to you and they’ll be able to tell you all this particular area of the catchment field, it floods every year, or, you know, this is the livestock or these are the wildlife that we have in the area. So really talking to people can provide a great insight. For example, I have a good example of this a few years ago, I was helping validate a Soil Survey map in the west of Ireland. And there was a particular soil series and we’re like, I don’t think like looking at the landscape. It just didn’t match up, I thought that it changed from one series to another at a particular point along the hill slope. And I said, we’ll look into this farmer and have a chat with him. So we were talking to the farmer, he was very helpful. And I said, By any chance, are there any springs here, and he pointed along the ridge and goes, there’s a spring there. And he goes, that comes that that spring starts running every autumn or every fall for my American friends. And I said, Well, that’s clearly the point where the soil series changes, and the water is bursting out. Because there has been this change in soil texture, and that one change in geology. The initial person who had done the survey had done a really good job. But if they talked to the farmer, they would have done a better job, they would have been more precise, and delineating where that change in series was. So you know, you can get great information from people in the locality, particularly if they’re involved in the environment. So farmers, you know, people who are involved in fishing, or hunting or game or wildlife, people who are like local ecology fans, all of these people have so much information that can really help you get your boots on the ground more quickly than you would have and kind of save you a lot of the hard legwork of figuring out an area.


Right, losing something to a flood the first year because you didn’t know that that area always floods.


Yeah, absolutely!


Wow. Well, we have a little more time. And I just have a question now kind of for myself, because my work has been on a lot of high throughput, phenotyping and phenomics. And so, you know, with field research, as things kind of move from manual things, like measuring the heights of things to you know, maybe somebody just goes on and flies a drone, and now you don’t need a team out there with measuring sticks. How do you see that affecting your job? And do you see yourself when possible taking on those types of high throughput methods instead of the manual ones?


Yeah, I definitely think that there is a place and a need for high throughput methods, particularly as the I suppose, the nexus of research, and then agricultural practice practitioners and sort of becomes more combined or more more integrated. You know, we see more and more people are running or are willing to run field trials on their own commercial and productive agricultural land. And there’s definitely a space there for more, as you say, drones, apps, more, I suppose automated technologies. But at the end of the day, those technologies still need validation, they still need testing. And even though the tools we use will change that’s inevitable. And that’s happened before, and it will continue to happen. I don’t think anything will ever replace having a man or woman in the field actually able to take or apply a measurement. And I don’t think that’s going to be fully removed. So I suppose it’s just a matter of keeping up to date with the technology, developing technologies that suit us and that are practical. And I suppose roll with times, but no, I don’t believe the field research is ever going to disappear completely.


Right, just the way we do it is going to look differently as we move forward.


Totally like, if you look at the River Thames in England, that has been monitored for over 150 years continuously. It’s one of the longest hydrological data sets that we have of unbroken monitoring 150 years, it’s outstanding. But the machinery that we’re using to monitor today in 2021, is nothing like it was back in 1900. They probably wouldn’t even recognize what we have. today. It’s just inherently different. But the the mechanism of its working is different. But we’re still hydrologists in the field using that equipment. And the need for a hydrologist hasn’t disappeared. And I think you could probably apply that across any niche within the field sciences.


Right. Just the tools you have available to you have evolved.


Yeah, absolutely.


Great. Well, I know our our time is there any thing else that we didn’t get to touch on about your book or about field research that you kind of were hoping we were going to get to?


No, I think I’ve really, really enjoyed the conversation when I would just say to people is my biggest takeaway is, don’t be intimidated. Don’t be discouraged. The book is here to teach you all the things that people don’t talk about plenty of people will teach you as I said before, the specific techniques, what I want to do is teach you have to be prepared to apply those techniques. And talk about field research more you can learn from your colleagues on his phone to talk about I don’t know anyone who isn’t at least a little bit enthusiastic about their field research and go out there and do a great job everyone’s very capable of doing it. Don’t be afraid.


Okay, our time is up for today. If you have any questions about this topic or want to hear more, feel free to contact us at metergroup.com or reach out to us on Twitter @meter_env. Sarah and I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic as well. Reach out on Twitter to me @HLplants or to Dr. Barrow @SarahEveVero89. You can view the full transcript from today in the podcast description. That’s all for now. Stay safe and we’ll catch you next time on “We Measure the World”.


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