Field work is one of the best and worst things a scientist can do. By its nature it involves a lot of time outside, something in the time of COVID many are probably chomping at the bit to enjoy. However, that can involve a number of terrains and weather systems which some people couldn’t be paid to endure.
It also brings with it some of nature's less hospitable species requiring jewelry-melting deet to keep the (occasionally diseased) bloodsuckers at bay, and don’t even get me started on the price of inoculations. However, as anyone who’s ever had the privilege of carrying out field research will tell you, there’s no job quite like it.
In a recent Twitter post, British biodiversity research organization and volunteer tourism operator Operation Wallacea challenged some of their followers to tell a three-word horror story about field work, and the responses were enlightening to say the least.
Opwall, as it’s also known, organizes expeditions and research projects on wildlife conservation, social science and protected area management aims for students and members of the public alike. As such, they are uniquely placed to ask such a question with a following rich in a diverse range of citizen and professional scientists with experience in the field.
One primatologist jumped at the challenge, putting forward six stories straight off the bat with calamities ranging from “mauled by baboon” to “reported as terrorist.”
The call to action received 1.3 thousand replies from scientists working in ecology, marine biology, primatology, herpetology just to name a few. Harrowing entries from the replies included leeches where one should never find leeches (more than one response on the vein, pun intended), quicksand scenes fresh out of The Never Ending Story and a sequence of failures from a biologist that read like a haunting Rupi Kaur poem: North-facing moss. Myth... Desert. Cracked engine.
And it’s not just their followers who are carrying well-worn emotional baggage in the form of stories from the front line. After speaking with Operation Wallacea it became apparent that some staff had their own tales of woe.
"Floater During Survey” by Katie Bell, Borneo Research Project Manager. Derawan Island, Borneo.
"We were out with a snorkel group in Borneo looking for inverts for the ID dive and the other Dive Master swam up and tapped me on the shoulder to tell me - not to look now - but there was a MASSIVE poo floating by the group. I nearly vomited and I didn't even see it - I couldn't wait to get back and shower in bleach. There's a lovely artsy photo of it somewhere.
"Nighttime Rat Cuddles" by Olivia Farman, Head of Design. Hoga Island, Indonesia.
“Ooooh I hate that this happened, but when I was on Hoga Island I had heard a rat scuttling around in my room at night time but thought nothing of it, as I didn't think it would come near me. I woke up one night with my water bottle (which I kept next to my pillow) having been chewed through and I was getting soaked. This was when I realised the rat had been crawling into my bed at night time and I can't say I was super thrilled about a rat trying to cuddle with me whilst I slept!”
Sweet dreams, science folk.