California is in the middle of a severe drought. Winter is the rainy season here, and the last two winters weren’t rainy. The drought’s major human impact has been agriculture-related: California grows a hefty portion of the US’s fruits, vegetables, and livestock, all of which require water. The drive to my field sites takes me through the agriculture-heavy Central Valley, and the drought was clearly apparent this summer. The fields were all cracked dry earth and yellow grass, with the rare irrigated green square standing out like artificial turf. One afternoon late in the field season, a light rain sprinkled as we drove through the valley, and we rolled down the windows and cheered.
The Central Valley is thirsty.
Concerns over agriculture affect everyone; but beyond them, and more personally, I can’t help seeing the drought through the lens of a field biologist.
I have colleagues who slip and slosh through mud all summer to study Black Rails—or who hope that there will be mud to slosh through, anyway, because the small, secretive Black Rail relies on the existence of marshes in which to hide from predators and hatch its comically large-footed chicks. Less rain means fewer and smaller marshes for the Black Rails.
Museum collections are a scientific resource. They let researchers refer to a single specimen over and over, or look at variation over an entire continent, or go back and look at change over a century.
They can also be weirdly beautiful.
In the sciences we think a lot about how to recruit more [insert underrepresented group here]. There are a lot of challenges to this, such as that many people may not know that there are real paying jobs to be had studying animals/chemicals/theoretical physics, or that many entry-level research positions pay next to nothing so you have to have a certain level of financial security just to start out in the field. But even if you know the jobs exist, and even if you have figured out the finances somehow, you still have to have the confidence to go for it, and that can be difficult. It’s easy to think that you don’t know enough to start research, or that everyone else must know more than you do.
So this is How I got into research: or, I promise you are not less qualified than I was, so just go for it.
Last night, my university’s campus suffered a power outage, possibly due to the theft of copper grounding cables. Everyone—well, everyone not trapped in an elevator—was ordered to evacuate campus, which turned out to be a good call, because a backup generator then exploded, spitting flames two stories high. (No one was seriously injured.)
My scientist colleagues and I, while worrying about the trapped elevator people and the explosion, had one more thing to sweat over: our samples. If the freezers in our building go down, they can take years’ worth of research samples with them. One of my labmates had just returned from the field the previous day, and all of her summer of work was potentially thawing out that night.
Today, the country has a government outage. The government shutdown is already having widespread effects, and these will only worsen if it continues. I am lucky in my experience of the shutdown compared to most people: I am not losing the food stamps I depend on or the wages I have earned, for example. But the effects are still shocking. This morning I received this email, from the government office that issues banding permits and bands to people like me who band birds to study them:
A few months ago, my labmates who study chipmunks enlisted the help of one of my pet mice to test-run a chipmunk-monitoring device that they are hoping to use in the field this summer. That went well, and now they’re calling on another one of my mice for a simpler test: to see how long the glue they’re planning to use will keep their device attached to rodent fur. They want glue that will stay attached long enough for them to get good data, but not so long that the monitor becomes a permanent part of a chipmunk’s life.
Since chipmunks spend a lot of time in burrows, we chose my most burrow-loving mouse, who likes to spend all of his time hiding underneath things. He was not pleased to be forced out into the open.
Porter with the test chip glued to his fur
So far he hasn’t seemed to care a bit about the chip. However, he is quite annoyed that I now dig him up daily to check whether it is still attached. He’s not really a people mouse.
PLEASE just leave me alone.
In order to make sense of the data I collect, I use statistics. The statistical tools available for data analysis these days are pretty incredible, leaps and bounds ahead of the simple, classical statistics like chi-square, which worked great – if you had perfect data.
Field biologists like me don’t have perfect data. We have really, really terrible data, from a statistical perspective. We have unbalanced sample sizes, measuring 15 birds here, 21 here, 9 there; we have data with weird things in common, like measurements from different groups of nestlings, some of which are siblings; and we always have tons of noise in our data – because it was weirdly rainy that year, and also hot, and also the oak trees put out more acorns than usual, and that one chick was from a runt egg, and…
Excuse me, I generate only AWESOME data.
“You work in a museum and you don’t collect? At all?” My officemate glanced up from labeling specimen tags to give me an incredulous look.
“Yep,” I said.
I work in a museum filled with hundreds of thousands of specimens, and I do not add to them. I do not collect: i.e., “sacrifice” (kill) birds in order to add them to the museum’s collections. Many researchers would consider this to be poor teamwork, even poor manners – here I am measuring bills, benefiting from others’ collecting work, and not contributing! What is my problem?
Dark-eyed Junco specimens that I have measured
As I mentioned before, I don’t get to be out in the field interacting with the juncos right now. I am, however, making use of the other juncos: the ones that don’t fly away, don’t stress out when I handle them, and are always there when I go to look for them. The ones that live about twenty feet from my office.
I work in a museum, remember?
The other juncos
Two of my labmates study chipmunks. Recently they have been working with an engineer to develop a small tag that they can attach to a chipmunk to record the chipmunk’s movements. This, if it works, will let them “see” what the chipmunk is doing without actually watching–and bothering–the chipmunk, which would be great: one of the difficulties of behavioral ecology is that, for animals as for subatomic particles, observing the thing often affects the very nature of that thing.
Part of developing this tag is being able to check how well it works. Unfortunately, our lab doesn’t have any chipmunks just hanging around on which to test the tag. So instead, for an unofficial, exploratory test run, we recruited one of my domestic mice.
Oreo the freelance science mouse
The field season is mostly over. My field assistants are back in classes; my mist nets are packed away. (Many thanks to the people who kept us fed and equipped by donating a total of $1450 to this field season!) It’s grant-writing, lab work, and data analysis season now.
Well, almost. I really want to know what the juncos do when summer ends. Our working assumption is that they migrate down the mountains to escape the worst of the winter weather, but we don’t know how far they go, or when, or, really, if they do that at all. So this week I went back to look for them.
SOSA, photographed on his territory earlier this year, was nowhere to be found. Photo by M. LaBarbera.