If I were to ask you, describe a scientist, what would you say?
My impression is that people think of someone in a lab wearing a white lab coat with goggles and messing with glassware full of colored liquids.
Google the word “scientist” and you get images like this…
You can try it yourself!
However, scientists, especially in field biology, like the authors of this blog, are often not found in lab coats, but rather they often look like this:
In my career in science, I have spent more than half my time outside the lab, out “in the field”. So what do I mean when I say out “in the field”?
Well sometimes I literally mean out in a field!
But usually this term of being “in the field” means being outside in the ecosystem of interest, performing research.
In fact the modern disciplines of field biology which include ecology (in which I work) and evolution, were born from observations made by skilled practioners of natural history, people who like Carl Linnaeus, Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace.
These scientists spent much of their lives outdoors, observing and recording what they saw, today we call these studies “observational,” to distinguish them from experiments. These observational studies led (and continue to lead) to hypotheses about how the world works, including those of island biogeography (see my post on fireflies), trophic cascades (see my post about coyotes), and evolution (see my post on camouflage).
The modern day observational study may require some high tech equipment, like a Li-Cor 6400 which can measure how plants are responding to their environment.
Other times the techniques aren’t much different from those used by scientists of the past.
For example, much of field research is simply surveying an area to see what plants and animals are present (a quick way to do this is a Bioblitz – see Jill’s post).
However, when I say “simply” I don’t mean “easy”. The logistics of reaching and studying in remote areas like the arctic circle or deep in tropical forests, can be quite complicated (read these excellent accounts of research – in the Yukon and in the tropics.
However, field studies are incredibly important. For one thing, much of the world’s biodiversity is still yet to be scientifically described and identified and even when we know what organisms are present the interactions between organisms and between organisms and their environments are still mostly unknown.
Also, such observational studies are where hypotheses are generated. These hypotheses are then tested through a variety of experiments, when possible, and when not possible, mathematical models and computer simulations can be used.
Here is how such a process might work.
Say I take a walk in the woods and I notice that on one side of the trail there are some beautiful purple flowers, but on the other side of the trail there are none.
Wondering why this might be, I first hypothesize that maybe the conditions on one side of the trail are better for the purple flowers than on the other side. To test this hypothesis I measure environmental variables on both sides of the trail. Do both sides have the same amount of sun? Rain? Is their soil the same?
I decide to do an experiment in the lab (or greenhouse in this case). I take the soil from both sides of the trail and I plant purple flower seeds in both types of soil (in an experiment these would be called soil treatments) and grow them in identical conditions of light and soil moisture.
If I do not get a difference in my greenhouse experiment and the purple flowers grow equally well in both soil treatments, I may need to do a field study to further explore this question. Maybe it is a matter of dispersal and the seeds of the purple flower are only landing on one side of the trail. Or maybe competition with other plant species are different on either side of the trail. These questions may be best answered directly in the field.
However, if they grow differently in the soil treatments I might have the answer to my question. The purple flowers are likely on one side of the trail only because the soil is more favorable for them there. But as ecosystems are infinitely more complex than laboratory (greenhouse) conditions, it may still be informative to do the same experiment out in the field, to corroborate my greenhouse findings.
In recent decades, more elaborate field experiments are being perform, some on a global scale. One of my first science jobs in college included work on the FACE project in Oak Ridge, TN, where scientists manipulated the environmental variable of carbon dioxide (CO2) to see its impacts on a stand of sweetgum trees.
FACE projects have been performed around the world to compare results across different ecosystems which also allow scientists to determine the generality of their findings. In other words, can we say that an increase of CO2 has the same impact everywhere? Or do different ecosystems have varying responses?
Turns out that finding universal truths in ecology has not been easy. The beautiful diversity of life also means that ecosystem processes work very differently in different ecosystems, making predictions tricky. This is why research on both the large landscape scale and on the small local scale are both needed. And this is why my colleagues and I will keep returning to the field!