Friday, September 29, 2017

Now we wait

Doing research in the field requires a peculiar personality. As scientists, we have to be scrupulous and detail-oriented. We must take careful measurements and work hard to control the environment of our experiments. But the catch is that we also have to be able to live with outcomes that are beyond our control and care. When nature messes with our experiments in unpredictable ways, we have to let the consequences roll off our backs. Sometimes this means your plans are out the window, other times it means you have to redo a lot of work. But as a field researcher, you must remain adaptable under these imperfect conditions.

In looking back at the process of starting my field experiment this summer, I see it as a series of stages: site selection, data collection, plant transplant. Each stage had its own challenges. There was no manual for how to get through each stage successfully, nor any certainty that the problems I faced in a particular stage would even have solutions.

I can honestly say that I felt like I was kicked down a lot this field season. I would sit on the ground for a time thinking the worst had come, but always managed to stand and find a solution. When we finished our final transplant in mid-September, I felt a wave of happiness and pride.

On the day before I left Colorado, I went out to my sites one last time to take photos. I noticed a strange hole in a section of land we had just transplanted and eventually pieced together that it was perfectly hoof-shaped. The cows had started grazing on our sites.

I didn’t understand the implications of this for my experiment until I returned to Colorado this week and saw that over a third of my transplants had been heavily trampled to the point that I am unsure if the plants will survive.

Cows stage anti-science protest at ecological research site in Colorado

After all of the effort it took to stand after each problem throughout the summer, the feeling of seeing my work literally trampled was horrible.

When I bring this up to others, I am told simply (and somewhat reassuringly) that this is how science and experimentation is. It is often messy and prone to mistakes since we are standing on the edge of what is currently known. It makes sense that trial and error are fundamental parts of the scientific process, but when I hear presentations or read publications, I don’t learn of these parts. Why?

Perhaps it is because failure isn’t rewarded in science. Even while standing over a cow trampled transplant, my first thought as a second year graduate student was: how will this impact my timeline and my ability to publish? Only after that thought did I realize that the trampling doesn’t diminish what I accomplished or learned this summer. If anything, it teaches me more about the realities of field research and how to do better science in the future (i.e., the point of grad school).

On my drive home from Colorado, I listened to a TED Talk podcast called “Failure is an Option.” Fitting, right? But the podcast reminded me that trial and error is not failure; trial and error is learning. Failure is continuing down a path you have learned is unsuccessful. And my trial and error has not yet led me to that conclusion.

So now, we wait. We wait until spring to see if the plants survive. My brain starts ticking forward with possible solutions, plans, and ideas if they don’t. But I quiet it and, for a little while, I’m happy to just pause and wait.

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