In the ‘field’ of science

Words: Samantha Ward

If I ask you what is involved in studying for a PhD, a Doctor of Philosophy, a higher or postgraduate degree in science, what do you envisage? The terms are different, but I’m sure the image is the same.

How do you imagine a Science PhD? Credit: Cindy Schultz via Flickr

Most people would likely describe the endless monotony of writing notes, the back-breaking hours spent hunched over a computer, buttoned up in a white coat whilst pipetting minute volumes of liquid in a sterile laboratory, or uttering unpronounceable words to a sea of confused faces.

Sounds about right…?

Perhaps not, but I’m sure you didn’t imagine donning a pair of gumboots and getting dirty in a field! This is the PhD I know and have come to love.

The PhD I know and love. Credit: Scott Cawley via Flickr

The big, wide world…

A year and a half ago when I waved goodbye to the black taxis, red post boxes, cups of tea and the perpetual downpour that is the UK I had little idea of what was in store for me when I began my PhD at the University of Melbourne. I had read around my subject of using wasps to control agricultural pests, absorbing as much information prior to my arrival as humanely possible. I’d also spent years volunteering at the Natural History Museum in London, so I was well prepared. Or so I thought. Less than a fortnight had gone by and I found myself shadowing a colleague, collecting insects in rural Victoria. The day passed by in a blur of dazzling yellow Canola fields and a close encounter with a huge brown snake. Maybe I wasn’t so prepared…

A blur of yellow… Credit: Kris Fricke via Flickr

Happily, that was my one and only experience with anything venomous and fortunately the encounter did not deter me from future field work. Not only is research in the field particularly rewarding, it is also fundamental if you are interested in understanding any living thing within that environment.

A parasitic wasp; the target of my search. Credit: Nikk via Flickr

So, what does a typical field trip look like?

As with most professions, completing paperwork is essential and not the most riveting of jobs. Risk assessments, first aid training and volunteer forms, however, are health and safety necessities. It all gets more exciting from here though, I promise. A typical field excursion begins with an evening of preparation prior to the trip. This involves sorting equipment and loading it into your vehicle ready for the next day. The number of chemicals, containers, traps, documents, plants, and sugary snacks (not to be forgotten) you will need will depend on the length of the excursion, the intensity of sampling, the area covered, and of course the organisms you’re planning on collecting. I have accompanied several colleagues into the field and, whether it be earwigs, mosquitoes, aphids, millipedes, or mites, the process is the same, but the car load varies dramatically.

A kookaburra on overhead cables. Credit: Johnny Worthington via Flickr

For those of you who have not experienced Australian field work, the scale is phenomenal and most of the time can be spent behind a wheel travelling from one site to the next. I’ve since sampled a wide array of podcasts and have lost my voice numerous times singing along to Disney soundtracks. Once at a site ditches can appear from nowhere, the heat at the peak of day can be stifling and the flies…oh, don’t get me started on the flies! On the plus side, however, you can watch kangaroos grazing in distance, hear kookaburras laughing on the overhead cables, sample the best pies from little bakeries in the middle of nowhere, and chat to friendly farmers offering you cups of tea. Clearly, I didn’t wave goodbye to all that I held dear!

Yellow pan trap. Credit: Nigel Jones via Flickr

Trials and tribulations

I’ve trialled numerous traps to collect my wasps. I’ve sucked them up with vacuums, searched high and low for yellow pan traps I’ve left overnight in paddocks of even yellower Canola, and collected them by hand, leaf by leaf. Usually there’s the odd obstacle to contend with too; a disgruntled, territorial cow that just so happens to be in the exact spot you wish to sample, a wonderfully sharp new fence that has appeared, creating gaping holes in your trousers, and flocks of sheep kicking over your perfectly positioned traps! Perhaps Alfred Russel Wallace with his butterfly net or Charles Darwin with his box of beetles didn’t experience such events, but I have never felt as much of a biologist as when I’m out in my gumboots.

If you’re keen to read about some more experiences from scientists in the field I’d highly recommend looking here for a laugh:

So, if you ask me now what is involved in studying for a PhD I don’t think I could give you a definitive answer. Let’s just say I’m glad I’m not hunched over a computer every day!