Monday, August 4, 2014

Did I say local field work? Going international!

One of my earliest posts here was about why I enjoyed local field work (and some of the pitfalls of it too). Well, I'm writing this post from Calvinia, South Africa, a location that is definitely not local for me. I am here as part of my postdoc work, collecting data on plant functional traits  in one of the most diverse floras in the world with a group of about eight people. As the postdoc on this project I had to do quite a bit of leg work before getting here related to examining existing data from the region, putting together species lists, helping to determine optimal sampling locations, etc. Fortunately, because the research team I'm with has carried out several similar studies in various parts of South Africa, most of the challenging logistics were worked out by others with much more experience. To that end, all I really need to do is learn how to drive a standard, on the left side of the road. But putting together a species observation list and sampling location plan was definitely a new experience for me. When I started a few months ago, I had imagined that I would have to have things planned out roughly to the day, as our time is limited and the area we are covering is vast. I quickly learned that what we're after is more of a sketch of a plan. What that means is that most every night I'll sit down with the botanist in our team and help him decide on the best spots to sample the next day. And our species list is getting updated daily - checking off what we've observed, dropping some species, adding others. Really, the key is to be flexible. However, this flexibility requires preparation. It's best if I can load up the vegetation survey data a colleague collected several years ago in a matter of minutes, and the hours of examining these data before hand has definitely helped me to navigate it on the fly.

Planning considerations aside, scientifically the most important part of this trip is for me to just get out into these incredible plant communities and to experience the field and lab work involved in our project. I've been spending the past year organizing, cleaning, and analyzing data collected in previous years without fully understanding what the system looks like. I've read a lot about it, but have never seen it with my own eyes. Now I can better understand some of the ambiguities in our datasets. For example, I've now held a specimen in my hand and had the thought "what the heck is the leaf on this thing?" This experience is absolutely invaluable for me while I'm wrapping up some of the analyses I've started, and moving forward with new ones. I'm hoping to have a few posts on some of my insights (or causes of confusion!) during the rest of this trip.

On a personal level, this trip is also my longest international trip, and I gave a lot of thought into packing, and trying to be minimal about what I brought (even if I did most of my packing the day before I left). I didn't want to bring anything I wouldn't use (except my small first aid kit. I'm ok carrying that around without using it). So far it's working out well. I promise more biologically relevant pictures in the future, but for now, here's a pic of what I thought I would need for multiple weeks of field work. (Note - Nessy, the green monster, didn't come. The shoes are my wife's (though I'm told they are comfortable). And yes, one of my carry-on items did end up being the Leaf Area Meter. I'll try to sucker one of the other group members into dragging it home!)