Careers in Biology

Long field seasons: how to prepare for one

Planning for a long field season next summer? Here is some advice for you. 

Recently, Leticia Soares wrote a post giving advice to students who are planning their first field season. Well, let’s be honest, we all could learn a thing or two (or a gazillion, in my case) about having a successful field season. Together, we decided that this was a topic worth extending, and we invited a few friends from the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) to give us (and you) some extra advice. In a previous post, Robbie Hart gave us some food for thought while in the field. In this post, you can read Mari Jaramillo‘s tips on how to plan for long periods in the field. She is a PhD candidate who works with avian malaria in the Galapagos islands. That’s right, she works in the Galapagos!! (sigh). Mari is a student in Dr. Patricia Parker’s lab at UMSL, and you can read more about her work at the end of this post.  

Taken at Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

Taken at Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

If you are lucky, field work doesn’t only take place during summer. Depending on the nature of your project you might need to stay at the field for extended periods of time, which for a field biologist is not hard at all. The hardest thing is probably leaving; you may be so comfortable you may want to make it your home…

But at some point you ought to know when you have collected enough data. No need to start crying and pouting though, the preliminary analysis of these data will point you in the right direction in future field seasons needed to complete your project.

Planning for extended field seasons is not that different from shorter ones, there’s just a lot more of it! Start thinking way ahead of time about the things that may take a while to get and be proactive about it. Lists are crucial! Ask yourself what things are indispensable for your research, for your assistants and for yourself and write these things down on a field or personal notebook. Also, you and your advisor will be glad if you check the list, item by item, with them or with your teammates that have been to the field site before. You could also send a list of personal items to your assistants and colleagues so they too are prepared for the field conditions and make sure they know about things that they are going to live without, like fresh water or electricity. Now, it doesn’t matter where and for how long you are going if all items in your list are checked off, you are good to go! And if you didn’t include it in your list, after all the scrutiny…

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…the truth is you will likely be fine without it.

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Field conditions and protocols are different from place to place; make sure you get acquainted with the rules and regulations of the different parks or reserves that you will be working at. Embrace the rules! You may find some of these rules are a pain in the %#$, but there is usually a pretty good reason behind them. Most of my field experience comes from work in the Galapagos Islands. These islands are a world icon and for that reason the park rules are more strict and extensive than anywhere else I have ever been. But I wouldn’t worry; there is a whole lot to enjoy as a scientist in these islands that no one else ever gets to experience!

The stars of the Pacific sky. Credit: Jeisson Zamudio.

The stars of the Pacific sky. Credit: Jeisson Zamudio.

If your work involves being away and isolated for long periods of time, you need to think survival!

Cover yours and everyone else’s basic needs and you will have a happy team! This means: food and water, a well-equipped first aid kit, a comfortable and warm place to sleep, a stove, gas or fuel and cooking equipment, duct tape (YES! Duct tape is a must!), rope, and never forget the matches!! I usually take a bunch of lighters and carry them in Ziploc bags in different places. Trust me, you do not want your field team to be eating cold food for two and a half months! This leads me to something I forgot to mention (and my advisor reminded me of), notice I said a ‘bunch of lighters’, not just one? Always take a spare, especially for items that are important for your work!! There are certain places in the Galapagos where you can head to do field work and find yourself in real isolation; it may take hours (and hundreds of dollars) for boats to get there, if an important piece of equipment brakes you’ll be glad to have a spare one!

Also, make your own plan of what to do in case something unusual happens or in case of an emergency and make sure everyone knows that plan. When the basics are covered, give yourself and your team a place to talk about the research each day. I usually break the group into two-people teams that go out and work all day to come back to camp before sunset. We may or may not have a cooking schedule (I’ve recently learned big groups alaways need schedules), but we usually eat dinner together, talk about how the day went and plan for the next day.

Some field experiences may be overwhelming, especially if it is the first time in a new place or leading a big group of people. You’re usually very busy and constantly planning for the next step… but I guess my best word of advice would be to stop and look around. I mean, really look around. You may be working with a single species but give yourself time to observe its surroundings, its habitat and its interactions with other organisms. Field work is a whole learning experience on its own, take advantage of it. And learn from others too, listen to other people’s ideas and suggestions; some people may surprise you with their creativity.

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Lastly, know that things never go exactly as planned. When this happens, IMPROVISE!

Even if that means adding sea water to the rice because you forgot to bring the salt, holding your arm up next to the roof drain at 3am to collect rain water for cooking because they told you there would be water up in the hut and there isn’t, or brushing your teeth with noodle water. Aah! All the good things about field work!

 

 

About Mari Jaramillo: I am an Ecuadorian biologist and have been doing field work in the Galapagos since 2008. I began as a field assistant in different projects with PhD students from Australia and Germany. I eventually ended up working with Dr. Sharon Deem, DVM, and Dr. Patricia Parker in a project under the Wildcare Center for Avian Health in the Galapagos Islands of the Saint Louis Zoo. Then I was awarded one of the scholarships for two Ecuadorian students established by Dr. Parker, Dr. Hernán Vargas and The Peregrine Fund to complete a master’s degree working with the Galapagos hawk. My master’s project (at UMSL) studied the impacts of ungulate (mainly goat) eradication on the diet of the Galapagos hawk on Santiago Island. This project required me to lead big groups of people to an uninhabited island for long periods of time (up to 2 1/2 mo) and very hard work. For my PhD I switched back to work with avian diseases. I’d like to break down the disease dynamics of avian malaria in this somewhat isolated archipelago to understand which are the main players in transmission and what is its effect on the endemic avifauna. However, I return to Santiago often to lead field seasons for the long term monitoring of the hawk population run by Dr. Parker in collaboration with Dr. Vargas and others (GNP, CDF).

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Careers in Biology: Curators, what they do and how they do it

What is the role of curators in herbariums and museums? Do curators have to do research? Do they apply for grants? How stressful is their job?  These and more questions will be answered in this post of Careers in Biology, in which Dr. Charlotte Taylor explains her job as a curator of the Herbarium in the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT). The summary presented here was prepared by our guest blogger and PhD student Haydée Hernández, with contributions of the UMSL grad students Priya Maharaj, Vona Kuczynska and Alicia Marty.

In this column of The Naked Darwin, you will find interviews with outstanding professionals that have devoted their careers to different fields of Biology. Here, they share their expertise in their career, and we hope our readers can gain from the knowledge and advice they will share. The interviews are performed by students from the University of Missouri-St Louis, who are taking the seminar “Careers in Biology” offered by Dr. Parker.

 

WordCloudCuratorsDr. Charlotte Taylor’s research focus is in floristics and systematics of Neotropical and Malagasy plants of the family Rubiaceae. This interview session with Dr. Taylor was particularly exciting, because although most people have visited museums and botanical gardens, few know what happens behind the scenes. Curators are important personnel of these interesting places. They are the managers of the herbarium’s (or museum’s) collections and are content specialists that are responsible for species identification and the species’ geographical data. This interview was, therefore, a good opportunity to learn more about their job.

Dr Charlotte Taylor is a curator of the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT). Photo by Kate Lawless, MOBOT.

Dr Charlotte Taylor is a curator of the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT). Photo by Kate Lawless, MOBOT.

Can you walk us through a typical day as a curator? For example, the percentage of time spent in the field, in the office, or in educational outreach.

” I first start by taking my morning coffee, this is essential. My main duties are the identification of plant specimens, description of new species and taxonomy.”

Dr. Taylor also assists people from the different places in the tropics with specimen identification and verification. For instance, she recently received 150 boxes from a “blank area on the map” (a place that has been poorly explored), in this case the MOBOT Peru Project, filled with plant specimens that need to be identified. After identification, the next step is to compile the species data in a database for analysis. Geographical, community diversity and composition analysis are a few things that can be done with the data obtained. Dr. Taylor works closely with different personnel to perform these analyses, such as ecologists and conservationists working at the MOBOT. She also does field work, which can be either mind numbing or exciting, depending on the project and the location.

She explained that the main output of the work as a curator highly depends on the mission statement of the institution you work with. In the case of the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT), it relates to field exploration, research and conservation. Other museums allow curators to do their own independent research.

We previously had a talk given by Dr. Kellogg regarding project funding. How does the gathering research funds process work when you are a curator?

A MOBOT curator is responsible for a project, such as organizing flora or doing surveys of an ecological area, which is funded by the Institution. Yet sometimes curators can be responsible for the funding of the project, which means writing up proposals. Depending on the institution, curators will run projects in which they are interested. This is indeed very important, because institution-wide projects often have large grants or institutional funding, but smaller personal projects require curators to obtain their own funding through grants. At the MOBOT, Dr. Taylor has a specific set of duties that do not require her to apply for grants, but she has the option to apply for grants for her own research. She usually spends 10-20% of her time writing up grant proposals. However, there is much more pressure for grant writing in other museums, where the primary mission is cutting edge research and publications. Dr. Taylor has applied for and received her own funding in the past, and this has allowed her to manage her projects as she likes.

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How about fieldwork and traveling as a curator?

 According to Dr. Taylor, young scientists working in the country where the samples are being collected primarily do the majority of fieldwork. Scientists and curators from the museum will occasionally travel and work alongside other field workers.

 In your job, how do you share your findings of new species and their locations?

 She writes as many papers as possible for publication in scientific journals, regarding the new species found. The MOBOT does a great job in terms of sharing information: TROPICOS is the MOBOT’s database that is used to upload project data on specimen information, literature references, and images. TROPICOS used to be an internal database, but has now become publicly available (you can access it at www.tropicos.org), and it is also used within the MOBOT to verify information from outside sources and ensure data accuracy.

How about innovations in the type of Museum work you do?

 Dr. Taylor expressed the need to integrate new technology into the museum work. Currently they use high-resolution scans, which are magnified, copied and printed, and then are used as reference in the museum. New positions are occasionally created for database work, data analysis, GIS work, and predictive modeling. These types of positions require plant/biological knowledge, as well as specific technical skills.

 Does one need a MS or a PhD degree to become an entry or senior level curator?

 Entry-level personnel are usually assigned specific topics consistent with their expertise, typically from their graduate research. A Ph.D. is required as a tool for projects that require heavy outside funding, even though people holding MS or BS degrees also work in other capacities in these projects. For example, individual projects have research assistants that help in data processing, specimen handling and identification and some may even have smaller projects; these assistants may have BS or MS degrees.

 What are the criteria for advancement?

 She explained that unlike other jobs, in Museums there is not much competition, and likewise little room for advancement. There are assistant curators, then associate curators and finally [full] curators, and in some institutions, senior curators. Advancing to the next level typically happens with time and may not always come with a salary increase. Other people can also switch to more administrative roles or take a position at a University.

What is the typical salary range (entry and senior level)?

 Salary can range from about US$30,000 to as high as US$250,000, with an average of US$40,000-60,000 per year. Some museums offer tenure positions, and generally administrative positions are higher up on the pay scale than curators.

QuotesCover-pic82What is the job security like as a curator?

Many people stay within the museum for life, and because of this, there is generally a low turnover rate in these positions. However, this depends on the institution. For example, in a sister organization, personnel in the molecular section have been denied tenure for not securing grants and publishing. Publishing may not always be mandatory, but Dr. Taylor views publications as her form of success and tries to publish as often as possible.

 How do you determine a curator’s productivity?

 Productivity is mainly in the form of publications: such as floras, identification guides and papers in scientific journals. In her job, the samples she receives are mainly from previously unexplored areas; this allows her to publish papers on approximately eight or more new species per year. However, Dr. Taylor estimates that she discovers 20-30 new species each year, but the publications associated with those sometimes require more time than what she has available.

 

How long does it take you to become an expert in the field?

 This is not something that happens quickly. It took her about 20 years before she got a handle on her area of expertise. She started out with relevant knowledge, and slowly learned more throughout her career and gradually became more comfortable and confident with her results, and identifying specimens quickly.

 How demanding is your job?

 She believes it is not as high pressure as a University setting. However, you have to learn to pace yourself because there is a lot of work, and there are no large breaks such as spring and summer vacation. Many curators work on weekends and devote extra time to their personal research, but you can limit yourself to 40 hours a week if you want.

Finally, to all readers out there, if you find yourself interested in pursuing this career and want to get some hands-on experience, Dr. Taylor shared information regarding volunteering at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

First of all, she explained that this requires a commitment of regular work, from two hours up to a full workday in the museum once a week. Interested persons can contact the volunteers’ office and they are matched with personnel according to their interests. Another possibility is to directly contact Dr. Peter Hoch, MOBOT Graduate Director, and he will spread the word to people who are looking for a volunteer. Another option for you is to directly contact a curator by finding their information on the MOBOT website. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/

I hope this has provided you with useful details into the life of herbarium and museum curators. As you read, one of their main duties is species identification, but they are also able to do their own research, and although they do not travel much, they can visit the sites where the species come from and collaborate with other professionals such as ecologists and conservationists. What do you think about this choice of career? Is it for you?

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About Haydée Hernández: I am a PhD student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in Dr. Robert Marquis Lab. My main interests are ecological interactions and their role in community structure. I believe that pollination and herbivory are fascinating processes that are able to change ecological communities. I also enjoy reading and delving into the fascinating worlds that books can provide.