Field Work is neither all Work nor all Play

A large chunk of the work for my project in June was spent collecting data and doing field work. Often times this meant crouching in a literal field given our particular pant of study, but sometimes this involved more conventionally outdoorsy activities like crossing rivers, hiking dirt trails, and general bushwhacking. Studying and working in the disciplines of biology, environmental science, or other “macro-scale” natural sciences, you hear the term “field work” thrown around a lot… but what does this vague umbrella term actually mean? Now I’m sure this very well may vary considerably depending on what line of work you’re in and what questions you’re actually trying to answer, but I will give you my impressions from a general /plant ecology perspective.

Exhibit A on crouching in a field


First impressions when people think about field work in biology tend to end up favoring one of two possibilities: A) that it’s all sweaty, dirty work where you get eaten by bugs and covered in poison ivy, or B) that it’s like a bunch of tree-huggers out frolicking in the woods. Neither of these are entirely false (poison ivy and frolicking included), but they aren’t really true either. Going on a semi-extended trip to do field science is a pretty immersive affair that combines outdoor activity, academic rigor, and a genuine sense of camaraderie.


A PosTex positioning system for collecting spatial data (fondly known as Dexter)

My field work so far was broken down into 3 back-to-back trips at 4 sites across Virginia. The first was a 3-day trip to Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, a protected island in the James River, then a week-long trip to Blandy Experimental Farm and Sky Meadows State Park, both near Winchester, and several days of commuting to the local Historic Greenspring run by the NPS. At all the sites, our general purpose and activities were about the same, we were there to collect data (another buzzword for a different post) about just about every aspect of Common Milkweed. We measured these plants in terms of: height, area, diameter, quality, herbivory, reproductive output, position in space, chemical composition, and even genetic information… which all becomes quite a large task when you realize it must be done roughly 800 times. In the process, I learned how to use two new field instruments to collect spectral and spatial data. I will be using a lot of these different measurements in various elements of the statistical population model that will be my final project, whether that be incorporating heights to model growth, or using a combination of height and herbivory to predict reproductive output in the form of flowering probability. It was great to be fully involved with the planning and carrying out of several different projects (not just my own) and get to actually do what tends to come out very dry and boring in the Methods section of papers. Other students will be using some of the same data that we all collected (for example, to correlate spatial and genetic information and create a genetic map of the plants), so it really felt like a group effort. Due to the summer heat in VA, we were running on our “siesta schedule”, that broke up the work to avoid the hottest part of the day. Waking up early to beat the heat, then moving inside to plan and discuss next steps, then going back out in the late afternoon. In my opinion this worked out better than a typical nine to five and gave us a continuous stream of activity all day, which carried right through to our communal dinners and evening relaxation and data analysis. I really enjoyed these later parts of the day because it allowed us to bond and enjoy each other’s company in a way that just doesn’t happen in the lab. Good thing we had such a great team of people though, because working and living with the same people could get old very quickly if they don’t mesh well.

I like to think that I had a pretty balanced idea of what to expect going into the field season, but I was still (mostly) pleasantly surprised. I was definitely expecting to work hard and be busy, but I was skeptical about whether or not it would be as much fun as it sounded. I learned a ton, got to know some great people and feel more connected and involved with my work than ever. Overall, “field work” is an extremely rewarding experience and I would encourage anyone interested to explore it for themselves.


  1. semodlin says:

    This seems like a really cool project and I hope all is well. Just out of curiosity, what 2 field instruments did you use? I’m more familiar with molecular biology, so field stuff is relatively unknown.

  2. aealindsay96 says:

    Loved your description of field work. Like you say, I think many people have a slightly skewed idea of what field work actually is and what it entails. This sounds like an incredibly fun project. What is the significance of the milkweed plant in your research and how will all these data points help in your research?

  3. slstruckman says:

    Milkweed is our plant of interest, so the whole project pretty much revolves around it. I am working with statistical models that can predict the dynamics of the milkweed population (i.e. survival, growth, reproduction, population decline, extinction risk, etc.). These data points are basically the foundation from which we can construct such a model. Having data on things like leaf chemistry and herbivory, paired with demographic data will allow us to see what role, if any, such things play in dictating what happens to the population in the future.

  4. slstruckman says:

    Thanks! I used a PosTex spacial positioning system that uses ultrasound to map each plant’s location in relation to the other’s, and a spectroradiometer that measures chemical composition (leaf nitrogen, fiber, other compounds like cardenolides, the toxins sequestered by monarch butterflies, etc.) by interpreting the wavelengths of light the plants reflect when placed in the instrument. The PosTex is more of a forestry/field instrument, but the spectroradiometer is also used in wet lab since it can scan a huge variety of substances.