Now that the “oooh, aaaah” part of my field work is out of the way, let’s talk a bit about doing research, shall we?
My PhD work is a component of a research program called the Northern Biodiversity Program. It involves several professors from several universities, about a dozen grad students, a postdoctoral researcher, and a multitude of private and public partners. The word that must best describe a project of this scope is: “collaborative”.
col·lab·o·rate intr.v. col·lab·o·rat·ed, col·lab·o·rat·ing, col·lab·o·rates
1.To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.
Although we all share the same overarching objective, our personal research goals and areas of specialization are quite different. On this trip to the Yukon, I traveled with: an arachnologist studying spider population genetics; a hymenopterist doing biodiversity inventories of wasps using molecular techniques; another arachnologist interested in the distribution and life history of a species of pseudoscorpion; and another hymenopterist working on parasitic wasps and their leaf-mining caterpillar prey. Me – I study beetles and am interested in functional ecology and food webs.
Our research questions essentially had zero overlap, with the exception of the locality: it’s what brought us together for this particular field trip. In a nutshell, it meant five different types of critters being targeted for collection using five completely different methods in five different habitat/terrain types.
This is the kind of situation that has serious potential to turn a group of nice, sane, rational adults into cranky, snarly, whiny ass-pains. It’s true. I’ve seen it happen. It’s very easy to get all “ME ME ME” in the field, wanting nothing more than to spend all your time basking in the glow of your own beloved study subjects, and getting royally snarky over any time “wasted” on other people’s work.
Happily, this is not what happened on my trip. I have proof:
Happy campers, L-R: Barb (wasps), Katie (spiders), me (beetles), Laura (wasps and prey), Chris (pseudoscorpions). Photo by Chris Buddle.
The smiling faces you see there belong to a group of people who understand how to collaborate. We took turns, helped each other out when our own work was finished or on hold, made concessions, compromised. We chatted about research ideas, approaches, and troubleshot. It was awesome.
My beetle collection techniques are primarily “passive”: I stick traps in the ground them come back later to collect the contents. Since I had a lot of waiting time between setting and collection (which everybody helped me do), I thoroughly enjoyed myself working with the others.
Yellow pan trap, with contents after a few days
We helped Katie catch wolf spiders by marching over the tundra and scooping them into a cupped hand or net as they scurried out from underfoot.
Laura and Chris help Katie search for wolf spiders
We picked caterpillars out of the “umbrella of science” after Laura whacked the bejeezus out of willow tree branches, catching critters as they fell into the umbrella held below.
Katie, Laura and Chris pick caterpillars out of Laura’s “umbrella of science”
We turned over hundred of rocks along creeks and found lovely little pseudoscorpions, helped Barb set up and take down her wasp traps, and I took photos of some of my teammate’s fascinating finds (always handy for papers or talks!).
A jumping spider – species yet to be determined!
One of Laura’s leaf-mining caterpillars (left), killed by a parasitic wasp larva (right). Two eggs laid (can you spot them?) indicate hyperparasitism.
Our willingness to collaborate made the trip enjoyable, the work smooth, and the inevitable challenges of field work less challenging. Although academic research seems to be an inherently competitive business most of the time, the benefits of working with others effectively and collegially make the extra effort, patience and open-mindedness very worthwhile.