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The FUNstrations of Field Work

Friday, July 13, 2018, by Emory Ellis
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     Once you have finished designing your summer project, it may seem easy: collect samples, process those samples, input the data, interpret the data, and present your findings. Easy… right? Not so much. Timing is everything. How can you finish your project if there are not enough hours in the day?

     This summer I am researching how silica fluxes and concentrations differ between trees in dry and wet regions in the Harvard Forest over the growing season (aka the summer). Before I came to the Harvard Forest, I knew that research was a long process. It will take time to develop a research project, sampling methods, goals, and get the ball rolling. But, I thought we could figure that out in the first few days and start. Research takes time.

     It takes time to make sure your project is in order. Is my sample size too big or too small? Do I know how to collect phloem samples? Have I read the literature to truly understand the research question I am asking? Two weeks into an 11 week program, and I got to start collecting data. I thought I could samples 40 trees, but my mentors were smart when they cut me down to 20. I thought I could samples twice a week, but looking back that would be nearly impossible. Thank god for mentors!

     Although my project does not involve setting up elaborate contraptions, one of my mentors did. He set up a big chilling system to chill trees, but rather than taking 2 weeks, it took almost a month to set up the system. The two other students in my group are building a tweeting tree and looking at how soil respiration changes in the chilled trees this summer. Their projects have hit a few snags. So, in hopes of informing others about the many challenges that may arise and things that will take longer than you expected, I made a list.

Here are some things that could delay your project:*

1.It is hard to even set up a project frame work and figure out your idea.

2.A project may change half way through a summer.

3.It is hard to learn how to identify species (especially obscure species, I am talking about lichen).

4.Your machine will die in the middle of your experiment.

5.Your project will need to be cut down/ you will start off too ambitious.

6.You will realize that you over sampled one area of your plot and need to redo your whole sample selection.

7.It will take longer to set up what you need to set up.

8.EVERYONE wants an oven by the end of the summer.

9.Drying and grinding takes 4EVER.

10.R is hard.

11.Bugs make everything take longer and mosquitoes will make you cry. I should know I am from a swamp.

12.You will contaminate something.

13.If the power goes out, anything in the lab will be delayed. 

*Disclaimer: Not all of these things happened to me or my group, I took some from other people in the program. Also, this is not supposed to put a bad taste in your mouth about field work or ecology research, but rather prepare you for the fun mind puzzles that will inevitably arise in your project. All of this aside I have learned an incredible amount and I cannot wait to apply my knowledge here to a future career in research.


 Emory Ellis is a rising Junior at Hampshire College studying Restoration Ecology.

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