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A Biologist's Struggle   


December 5, 2017

By Kara Pitman

I thought I’d never say this, but I experienced a huge sense of relief when I finished the fieldwork component of my PhD this fall. I’ve always been the type of biologist whose identity is shaped by being in the field. I’ve only applied to jobs that had a significant field component. Heck, I chose my Masters program specifically because I was given the opportunity to spend six weeks each year at remote glacier environments in some of British Columbia’s biggest mountains. In the ‘off season,’ I would dream and reminisce about days in the field and start prepping for the next field season months in advance. However, something changed in me this year – I felt annoyed, tired, and generally a lack of excitement about being in the field. What was happening? Who am I as a biologist? Maybe it was due to the scare I had in the field last year (see Notes from the Field, 2016), maybe I’m getting older, maybe I want to keep the mountains and rivers, that I adventure to, just for playing, or maybe I am having too much fun in my newfound love affair with ArcGIS. 


Field biologists have probably heard at least once in their careers – “you get to go there for work?”, “you call what you do work?”, “you have a dream job”, “I wish I had your job” – and rightfully so. We are fortunate to explore some outstanding and often untraveled parts of this world, and call it work. Personally, I have woken up cozy in my sleeping bag to the sound of calling eagles welcoming me into a beautiful sunny day. Myself and field team have built indestructible bonds as we joyously prepare for the exciting adventure of collecting data, doing science. Once the field season is over, without a doubt I would find integration into society challenging – nobody else would get it. However, field work can also entail some suffering. I, very unfortunately have woken up not being able to open my eyes because, despite wearing a bug suit for 10 days straight, somehow the pesky black flies managed to mercilessly bite around my eyes swelling them shut. There were times when even the most high-end Gortex couldn’t provide refuge from the torrential downpours. I even found myself scheming ways to leave my field partner behind because I was so sick of them. But, I loved it all – fieldwork was just that good!


However, this year I found myself struggling to rejoice in fieldwork. While out in the field, I was wishing I was home with my partner that I love, playing in my garden, riding my bicycle, hiking local mountains for fun. I would dream about beautiful raster layers, high resolution digital elevation models, and results from my spatial analysis. The science I am currently doing looks at broad spatial scales, scales that can only be analysed using programs like ArcGIS. Maybe my lack of fieldwork excitement is due to an exciting shift in the science I am doing. Maybe that’s okay.


While I still am in a state of disbelief and conflict, admitting to not loving field work at this moment in my life, for now I will sit cozy at my desk. I will sip my warm coffee and excitedly delve into ArcGIS where I process data on glaciers, rivers, and mountains. I trust I will find that sense of field work adventure again, it’s in my blood. Right now, I’m just taking a fieldwork sabbatical.

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