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10 Steps to Enjoying Fieldwork for Sedentary Scientists

Note: Physically competent field scientists who find fieldwork a breeze may scoff at the suggestions here

As a bench scientist whose only form of physical exercise in the laboratory is pipetting, I vividly remember my first fieldtrip to the wilderness. It was a trip to an island off the coast of Singapore to collect water and sediment samples from a lake for my research. To get from the laboratory to the island, it was a 1.5 hour journey by car, followed by a 15 minute boat ride. Although we set off in the morning, it was close to noon by the time we reached our destination. In tropical regions such as Singapore, it is scorching at noon, when the sun is directly overhead. Add that to the excessive humidity and you have a recipe for almost unbearable heat. When we reached the island, the more physically competent amongst us got into a canoe with the 14 kg sediment grab (a piece of equipment resembling a pair of jaws for grabbing sediment) and hauled sediment out from the middle of the lake; I, on the other hand, stayed on the shore to collect water samples. I was perspiring buckets even before starting any fieldwork. Although the water sampler only weighed about 2 kg, my arms ached after about an hour of releasing and emptying it. I had also underestimated the number of hungry mosquitoes that were delighted at my easy blood offering. I also did not bring sufficient drinking water and the only stand selling drinks was closed. We were in the middle of nowhere for 6 hours, with poor mobile phone reception and Internet connection. At the end of it, I was sweaty, thirsty, itchy, and utterly miserable. I vowed never to venture outdoors again.

However, research commitments beckoned. Since then, I have gone on several fieldtrips and survived to tell the tale. So what advice can I give to fellow sedentary scientists who find themselves doing this?

  1. Pack sufficient water, sunblock, and a favourite snack or two

Sounds like a picnic? Well, you can make every fieldtrip a picnic. The human body can lose 10 litres of water from skin evaporation on a hot day, so drink enough water at regular intervals to stay hydrated. Compounds in sunblock scatter and absorb ultraviolet radiation, thus shielding the skin from sunburns. You may burn many calories on field trips as a result of the vigorous physical activity. However, depending on where you are, food may not be readily available. Hunger pangs can make anyone irritable so pack some small snacks to munch on to stave off the hunger. My favourite is individually packaged biscuits which can be easily eaten in a few mouthfuls. Other snacks I recommend include sandwiches, beef jerky, and cheese sticks. These provide a quick boost of energy and taste great, thus alleviating foul moods caused by hunger!

  1. Bring a first aid kit, towels, and bags

If you are as clumsy as I am, you may suffer cuts from slipping down slopes or brushing against sharp undergrowth. Even if you are nimble-footed and adept at navigating the terrain with ease, it is still a good idea to bring a first aid kit. Repeated chafing when operating sampling equipment can result in abrasions on the hands, which should be covered with adhesive bandages to prevent infections. It can get wet and muddy in the field so use towels (preferably cloth ones to avoid generating rubbish) to wipe the equipment before bringing everything back to the laboratory. Afraid that your mobile phone will fall into a lake while you are busy scooping sediment, setting traps or counting organisms? Fret no more – just put it into a waterproof bag.

  1. Use insect repellent liberally

The wilderness is full of arthropods that bite and sting. To avoid becoming a tasty meal for bloodsucking insects, apply insect repellent liberally. Insects such as mosquitoes home in on their targets by detecting body heat, carbon dioxide and odours. Repellents containing DEET and picaridin are the most effective and ward off mosquitoes by blocking their odour receptors. For those who prefer to use natural alternatives, you may consider applying repellents containing eucalyptus oil.

  1. Stay fit

I cannot stress the importance of staying fit. Sampling equipment as well as the environmental samples are usually heavy and traversing challenging terrain while carrying them is akin to a vigorous cardiovascular workout. If you don’t want to feel like your lungs are bursting from your chest every time you hike up a hill, exercise regularly. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity for healthy adults. Staying fit will give you more stamina to tackle field trips. Not to mention, maintaining an active lifestyle will give you more energy for day to day laboratory work as well!

  1. Wear appropriate clothing and footwear

Choose fabrics wisely. Cotton is a breathable lightweight natural fibre which can absorb several times its own weight in moisture. On the other hand, synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon absorb less moisture but dry faster. Both are suitable for hot and humid weather, depending on your preferences. For cold weather, dress in layers such as merino wool for the base layer, fleece for the mid-layer, and a jacket for the wind-proof layer. Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to avoid insect bites. Invest in comfortable and appropriate footwear for the different environments in which you will be conducting fieldwork. For example, hiking boots are recommended for trekking while waterproof booties protect the feet when wading in water.

  1. If schedules permit, choose a time in the day where temperatures are more comfortable to do fieldwork

It is easy to forget that it can be brutally hot in the tropical afternoon when you are working in an air-conditioned laboratory or office most of the time. Temperatures in Singapore, where I am based, can reach 34°C in the afternoon. After experiencing full on heat during one of my fieldtrips, I decided to set my alarm for an earlier start to the day so that we could set off sooner. Sacrificing a few hours of sleep for a more comfortable and hence, more enjoyable trip is definitely worth it!

  1. Check the weather forecast before setting off

Singapore is situated near the equator and experiences a tropical climate with abundant rainfall. In fact, it rains an average of 167 days annually. Thunderstorms with lightning are commonplace. If the area you are visiting is prone to hurricanes, snowstorms, or sandstorms, minimize fieldwork during these periods unless your research calls for it! Always check the weather before planning a trip to avoid being caught in adverse weather conditions.

  1. Learn how to drive

More often than not, the sites you visit are located in less than accessible places away from civilization. Having a driver’s license with a vehicle at your disposal will allow you to get to those sites easier and quicker. In addition, having a car or van will allow you to conveniently transport whatever equipment or paraphernalia needed for your excursion.

  1. Learn how to row and dive

At the same time, learning how to row and dive will be advantageous. Sometimes, you may need to collect samples from the middle of lakes or the sea. Knowing how to canoe or dive means that you can conduct fieldwork at these hard to reach places. Furthermore, such activities encourage sedentary scientists to get out of the laboratory more often and adopt a healthy lifestyle. See point 4 for the benefits.

  1. Lastly, appreciate the beauty of your surroundings and be grateful that you are enjoying the great outdoors when most are working indoors

I have seen majestic overarching granite outcrops, water snails scuttling in mud, and families of macaques sitting along foot paths. I have also learned to identify birds by their calls. As someone who lives in a city, these sights and sounds remind me how beautiful nature is as well as how fortunate I am to be able to appreciate these while others are working indoors. Poor mobile phone reception and internet connection also provide a brief respite from the urban lifestyle of staying connected all the time!

Fieldwork can be demanding even in the most favourable of situations but I hope that with these suggestions, sedentary scientists can learn to enjoy it. Here’s to more adventures outside the laboratory!

Image Credit: USFWS/Brian Jonkers

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