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Summer Field Season (Part 1)

For many scientists, summer is a welcome change of pace. For those of us in academia, campus is peaceful and quiet, and it’s a perfect time to set unreasonable writing expectations. For others, summer is a time to tackle the manuscript drafts gathering dust in upper corner of your desktop. For many of us, summer is field season! It’s time to get out of the lab, collect samples, run experiments, and survey the natural world – the pastimes that motivated us to become scientists in the first place!!! The Femina Sci team interviewed some of our favorite scientists to get the inside scoop on the summer field season.

1) Who are you? Where do you work? And what do you study?

Thea Whitman: I’m an assistant professor at UW-Madison in Wisconsin. I study soil microbial communities and biogeochemistry. I’m particularly interested in fire-affected ecosystems and the effects of fire and pyrogenic organic matter on soil carbon cycling and soil microbes.

Christian David Guzman: I work as a postdoctoral research associate at Washington State University. I am working in Professor Jan Boll’s lab on isotope hydrology, ecohydrology, urban stormwater, and Food-Energy-Water nexus resilience in the Columbia River Basin. I completed my PhD at Cornell University with Professor Tammo Steenhuis last year conducting research on soil erosion processes in the Ethiopian highlands.

Annemarie Nagle: I work as a lab manager in a research laboratory in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at North Carolina (NC) State University. We study urban ecology and pest management on ornamental plants. Most of the researchers in our lab focus on the effects of urban environments (especially the urban heat island effect) on city trees and the insect communities that live on and around them. Cities are a few degrees warmer than surrounding undeveloped areas, and the magnitude of warming we observe in urban areas is a close approximation of what we expect to see over the next 100 years if global warming proceeds at projected rates. The way in which trees and associated insect communities are responding to urban warming may provide us with glimpse at possible larger-scale responses to a warming world. Cities are our labs!

2) What do you do in the field?

Thea: It can vary quite a lot from one experiment to the next, but can often include: digging soil pits or taking soil cores, measuring soil CO2 fluxes with portable analyzers or taking vials with gas samples back to the lab, and preserving microbial samples in liquid nitrogen.

Christian: In the past, I have collected soil samples, water samples, and delineated watersheds with a handheld GPS. Currently, field work is collecting water samples in 1-L HDPE bottles for stable water isotope analysis.

Annemarie: I do a lot of fieldwork during the warm months of the year and it probably takes up about 75% of my time, which I love, even when I’m cursing NC’s 100 degree weather. I’m responsible for fixing whatever equipment decides to break at the most inopportune moment possible, servicing the irrigation systems, weed control, and plant care. I also run pest management experiments at our research nursery plot and assist with larger-scale experiments on urban trees. Our urban tree work often involves using a pole pruner to take clippings from tree canopies to count insects and do physiological measurements...and it also involves driving a big water truck around downtown Raleigh! Thrill!

3) Describe your field site.

Thea: One site I’ve been lucky to work in recently is Wood Buffalo National Park in AB/NWT in Canada, as a collaboration with Canadian Forest Service and University of Alberta researchers and the national park. We were studying boreal forest fires, and so a site can range from dense forest to a “moonscape” of burned vegetation, especially at sites that had two burns in short succession.

Christian: My study site in Ethiopia was a 14 ha agricultural watershed with gentle to steep slopes and clay soils. I usually went in the transition from dry to rainy season so the area was marked by yellow and brown hues early on and then lush green colors by the end of the season. Lower areas would be soggy and full of grass while the higher areas would be covered in crops (e.g., teff, maize, bean, sorghum). In the Inland Pacific Northwest, the streams are snowmelt dominated, so they are most active as Spring arrives and temperatures warm and then tend to be in low-flow conditions by the end of summer. The South Fork Palouse River watershed that we study is 342 km2 and is full of gentle hilly agricultural land.

Annemarie: The majority of the pest management work that we do takes place at NC State University’s Lake Wheeler research farm. We have a couple of research plots there that are basically miniature plant nurseries--with a drip irrigation system and rows of potted plants on a weed cloth surrounded by 8 ft electric deer fencing. It’s really peaceful and beautiful out there most of the time and I often spot wildlife--deer, birds, woodchucks, and a very friendly rabbit who has been chewing my irrigation lines in half.

4) When does a typical day begin and end?

Thea: It depends on the site we’re trying to reach that day. A regular day might just be 8-6 or so, but if it’s a far site, we may head out earlier and come back later. Then, once we’re back, there can be a few hours of sample processing.

Christian: In Ethiopia, the typical day would entail getting up around 4:30 am, having some tea with mint leaves and sweetened dates and toast. Packing up all the equipment in duffle bags and heading to the local Bahir Dar bus station by 5:30 am. Catching a bus and then riding an hour or so out to the study site. The end of the day entails packing up all the soil samples, hiking out, and waiting on the side of the road for a bus to pass by with extra space. This would take anywhere 15 min to 2 hours and often entailed some negotiation.

Annemarie: I leave my house every morning at 7:15am and ride my bike to the Durham bus station to catch the express bus over to Raleigh. It’s great to get a little ride in every day, and I enjoy riding the bus to work. It’s a chance to catch up on the day’s news, catch up on sleep, or stress out about what needs to be done that day. I’m usually in the office by 8:15 and fully caffeinated by then, so I’m ready to work until I catch the 4:53pm bus back to Durham. Sometimes I’ll get stuck in the field counting bugs or troubleshooting broken things.

5) What do you wear into the field?​​

Thea: Generally work pants and long-sleeved light-colored shirts to try to keep the mosquitos away.​​

Christian: Usually some lightweight jeans or durable pants, timberland side-zip boots, a lightweight crew t-shirt, and a large straw hat for the sun. Typically some sort​​ of army surplus backpack for notebook, lunch, and small supplies also.

Annemarie: Fire ants are a big problem both in the nursery plots and on the streets of Raleigh, so I don’t often risk shorts! Light hiking pants are a life-saver when the summer heat really sets in. Super-light wicking long sleeve shirts are a must if I’ll be out in the sun all day. By the end of every day I’m usually covered in a slurry of my own sweat, DEET, and sunscreen.

6) What’s the coolest piece of equipment you use?

Thea: I guess it would be a portable greenhouse gas analyzer - so much better than worrying about gas vials leaking before you get to analyze them!

Christian: I really enjoyed using all the soil sampling equipment, but especially a split-core sampler that we made out of 5-cm diameter PVC pipes sliced in the vertical direction. This was around 50 cm in length and held together with steel hose-clamps. After this was pounded in and removed from the sampled location, we could remove the soil profile easily by unscrewing the hose-clamps.

Annemarie: I get to use a piece of equipment called a “pressure bomb.” It’s not super high tech, but it allows you to tell how water-stressed a plant is!

7) What 5 things could you not do without? Thea: My hiking boots, work pants, knife, straw hat, and sunscreen!

Christian: Lunch/water! Field notebook, gallon Ziplock bags, split-core samplers, and Army-surplus duffle bags.

Annemarie: I have a box full of field-related odds and ends that I drag everywhere with me. Work gloves, nitrile gloves, a pocket knife, sunscreen, and my cell phone usually rise to the top of the pile in that box.

8) Would you be willing to share your best field tip, trick, or hack?

Thea: One of my first field seasons was doing limnology research with Dr. Shelly Arnott as an undergrad at Queen’s University, where we lugged a heavy metal anchor many km each way into and out of field sites, until we discovered the “rock bag anchor” technology, which dramatically improved our lives.

Christian: Yes! Exercise your mind and body consistently. Fieldwork entails lots of mistakes, failures, and setbacks so it’s best to be constantly growing in your patience and ability to bounce back to make the best of the situation and the most with limited time in the field. And! Try to get in a regular fitness program that works for you to make your field trips exciting and not so physically grueling.

9) What’s the most exciting/ridiculous thing that has happened to during field season?

Thea: Nothing super crazy yet. The same summer I worked at Queen's University, we had to take shelter under a tarp during a hailstorm in July, in Ontario, which was surprising. Another sweet summer was during research for my undergrad honors thesis - I was collecting plants to study the trade-offs between leaf size and leaf number, and once I’d collected just about everything you could find close to the university, my advisor, Dr. Lonnie Aarssen, asked me to grab a friend and take a road trip through Southern Ontario to expand our collection. It was awesome! Seeing the wildlife in Wood Buffalo park (yes, like wood buffalo, bears, cranes, and pelicans) was really special too.

Christian: One day after field work, I needed to make sure I arrived in time to pack for a flight to the capital (Addis Ababa) for a small conference. We usually stop around 2pm or so, to make sure we can grab a spot on the buses that head back and forth between Adet and Bahir Dar. The research site is right in the middle of two hubs, so rush hours are from 6:30-9am when it’s difficult to get a seat and 4:30-5:30pm, when most buses are filled as people are commuting back to Bahir Dar. Well, we couldn’t get anyone to stop, and whenever they would stop they would change their mind since we had three people returning and they would only accommodate one person. Eventually, the rush hour came and went and we were stuck out on the side of the road, as the sun is starting to set we are getting nervous because we realize we may need to just sleep the night out in the study site with a family in the community and I would just miss my flight. But just as the sun sets, a bus comes through and decides they’ll let us squeeze in, even though they are standing room only and all the standing room is filled. We loaded the soil samples on the roof and pressed up our bodies among the already crowded travelers and just bumped along aisle all the way home as the night sky darkened. That day we waited for the bus for about 5 hours on the side of the road and luckily, I was able to make the flight the next day. Waiting became a very familiar way of life.

Annemarie: Doing field work in the “urban jungle” presents many strange experiences. Last summer, I worked on a project where I was watering maple trees around the city of Raleigh. Each tree had 2 watering bags attached to it and needed 40 gallons of water once a week. I drove a big truck with a water tank in the back, and when the tank was emptied, I had to open a fire hydrant and use a giant heavy water meter to fill the tank back up. One of the hydrants I frequented was behind a Food Lion--we called it the “sketchy hydrant” because something weird always happened when we were back there. Once there was a pile of women's clothes and high heeled shoes scattered all over the parking lot. Another time a person came crashing out of an adjacent field of kudzu and dashed by our truck in a frenzy. On my last day of watering for the summer I was pretty over it, and thankfully the Food Lion hydrant seemed nice and quiet.We filled the tank successfully, and thought we’d get out of there without something weird happening, when a police car pulled up next to us and asked me to step out of the truck. They had received a call that someone was stealing water from the Food Lion. Fortunately, I was able to dig out our permits and paperwork and explain that we were just lowly scientists trying to water Raleigh’s trees. The cops were nice, and they let us go with a warning that it was “sketchy” behind that Food Lion.

10) Playlist or podcast? What’s your summer 2017 jam?

Thea: While in the field, I’m not usually listening to anything, but for me, summer always means Beach Boys' greatest hits and Kashtin.

Christian: Youtube playlist with new and past summer songs (

Annemarie: I had to count whiteflies on some plants the other day and playing DJ Shadow and Run the Jewels “Nobody Speak” on repeat was probably the only thing that got me through it. I’m really digging 99% Invisible, Invisibilia, and Lore this summer. If I’m in a bad mood and want something truly brain-rotting, I’ll listen to Hello from the Magic Tavern. Check it out for a good laugh!