Do scientists say #YOLO? Field biology's perils fascinate young researchers
Number of times I have feared for my life in the field: 4
Number of times I've worked over 16 hours in one day: over 3 months straight including weekends, this year alone
Number of times I've driven through the night to get to a field site for a sunrise low tide: 5 in one year
I can go on and on and get more and more oddly specific, but the reality is that field biology is not for the faint of heart. This is what draws a lot of people to science, the thrill of discovering new things and being outside to experience nature in a way that few regularly enjoy. This famous pilgrimage up and down the US coast for many west coast field biologists is modeled after the work of Bob Paine, a pioneer in ecology. This year, I set off to do my own with my fellow crazy colleague, Nick Burnett. We bonded early on over the fact that neither of us could convince anyone else to embark on such a dangerous and exhausting journey.
Nick and I study completely different things - him the feather boa kelp on rocky shores and me the eelgrass sea hare in estuaries - so it was imperative that we planned our days down to the minute. We paired our field sites based on latitude and picked campsites that were equidistant to each one. We would work in the mornings, often rising at 5 AM to get there in time, and drive to our next field site (minimum 4.5 hours) in the afternoon. It was cold, exhausting, and exciting - we were testing out new ideas and techniques along the way, and hoped that our efforts would not be in vain when we returned to Berkeley to process our data.
Among the lowest points of our trips (yes, we did this multiple times) was the first night we arrived in Tilamook, OR. We had driven up from Berkeley that day in one go, and despite our excessive planning for how to deal with our research equipment and live specimen handling, we neglected to think about our own creature comforts. We set up our tents in the deserted campsite - it was early April, after all - and took all of 5 minutes to decompress before realizing that we brought absolutely nothing to do. No games, only one book, and only our field gear headlamps. This is a bit of a problem when the sun goes down at 5 PM and you are in the middle of nowhere. That first trip we got really good at exploring local supermarkets to waste time and our next stop we invested in a bit of campfire wood to keep our spirits up. It wasn't until we returned that both Nick and I told each other that we were ready to quit on that very first night - it's a good thing our collective stubbornness kept us going!
I think Nick will agree that the absolute best part of these trips was when we found the data that we were hoping for. We invested an incredible amount of energy into researching areas that were suitable for our work from satellite photos and papers published in the literature, but realistically we didn't know how successful we would be until we got out there. Our first few sites were a bust, but once we got a rhythm going we were able to collect an incredible amount of data that will become one or two chapters in each of our dissertations. Second to this was definitely the feeling of eating breakfast at a warm, cozy diner on the water after spending 2-3 hours in the freezing cold water collecting and writing until our hands were numb. Can't beat some hash browns and bacon after being outside for hours on end!
I typically don't see myself as a danger-seeking individual, but I will probably try just about anything in the name of science. Maybe this is my version of you only live once. You only live to research once? Somehow I don't see that catching on anytime soon.