In Praise of Boring, Local Field Sites

When people discuss where they do their research, there can be a certain amount of field site envy (much as there can be system envy, as I’ve discussed before). Who, when hearing about field sites in Fiji, or Lake Baikal, or Costa Rica, doesn’t get a little jealous of people who work there? My favored study system – small inland lakes in the Midwestern US – does not generally elicit field site envy, on the other hand. But I love working on these little local lakes, and think there is much to praise about field sites that initially seem boring – and, particularly, about field sites that seem boring because they are close to home.

Why do I love working on local field sites? Well, for starters, they’re local. That means that I can spend a day out collecting samples, yet still be home for dinner with my family. My grad students, postdocs, and technicians can do the same. This is not trivial. As this recent post covers, leaving one’s baby to go off to do fieldwork is really, really hard. Terry McGlynn has touched on the difficulties of doing remote fieldwork with a family, too. Local fieldwork also means that, even if a grad student is supported on a TA, they can still do field work during that semester.

Another reason is that, when it comes down to it, those field sites that initially seem so glamorous in theory are often not always so glamorous in practice. When we hear about field work in Fiji, we may envision this:


(Photo credit: Joshua Drew)

and this:


(Photo credit: Joshua Drew)

What we don’t generally also consider is that doing field work in Fiji can mean sleeping on the floor of a rat-infested room. One grad student I know reported waking up with a rat’s foot in his mouth. I don’t know about you, but when I first heard about people doing fieldwork in Fiji, having rats crawl over me while sleeping was not the mental image I had in mind. More importantly, in some cases, travel to far-off field sites can involve very serious risks, both in terms of personal safety and infectious diseases. (Sadly, it is entirely possible for bad things to happen while doing local fieldwork, too, but, anecdotally, these things seem more likely while working abroad.) Concerns about personal safety at remote field sites can be particularly strong for some groups of ecologists, including women and LGBT ecologists.

On a less serious note: that picture of a Fijian reef above? Undoubtedly beautiful. But, in my opinion, so is this:


and this:


and this:


Those are all little lakes in Southwest Michigan that I worked on for my dissertation research.

Finally, it’s (often) easier logistically to do field work close to home. There is no need to worry about visas, political unrest, export permits, and the like. If you wrote a blog about your field research, you probably wouldn’t need to have a “red tape” label. Your field site is less likely to blow up. You are less likely to be unable to finish your research because of a coup. . . or to need to thank the Royal Navy for retrieving your samples from a war-torn region. (ht on that last example goes to Alex Bond) When permits are necessary, it’s generally easier to navigate the system to obtain them. And there isn’t a need to pack up the lab and move it somewhere else. If something breaks while we’re out sampling, it’s usually pretty easily replaced. And, if someone gets hurt while sampling, a trip to a local doctor or hospital is also much more straightforward when working close to home. (Fortunately, this hasn’t happened to anyone in my lab yet, though I did once drive a student to urgent care after she sliced her foot open while walking barefoot in a lake. Not fun, but not a major crisis.)

Am I saying that people shouldn’t continue to work in Madagascar, Tanzania, and the Arctic? No, of course not. There is very important work to be done there, and I’m very glad that there are people who do that work. But there is also important work to be done near home, and I think it’s worth singing the praises of boring, local field sites, too.

43 thoughts on “In Praise of Boring, Local Field Sites

  1. Good post! Although I do a lot of remote field work, I also really like local sites, for many of the reasons you mention above. Another key reason to use local field sites is that they can give opportunities for teaching. I.e., I have found that knowledge gained from doing research locally transfers very well to teaching opportunities. It gives additional perspectives (and experience) when lecturing about the local flora and fauna, and local ecosystems, but also when doing field trips with teaching, you have first-hand knowledge about the local sites.

    • Yes, this is an excellent point! When I was at Georgia Tech, I started working on a pond in Midtown Atlanta, pretty close to GT. Some of the Intro Bio labs then started using that pond for inquiry-based learning, which was great.

  2. Thanks for an interesting post. Another advantage of field work close to home is a reduced individual carbon footprint. Ecologists are, of course, a fraction of a drop in the human bucket. But our collective impact is in fact the sum of our personal choices. As you said, this is not to discourage or devalue remote field work – just to do some positive accounting for systems that are frequently passed over. Thanks again.

    • This is also a good point! I agree that this doesn’t mean people shouldn’t work on remote sites, just that it’s another bonus for local field sites.

    • And my field site is the computer on my desk! Which is a bit ironic because I got into ecology because I like being outdoors. I have to rely on teaching to get me outside now.

      • That definitely gets you the carbon friendliness, safety, and logistic perks, but probably makes it harder to call your ‘field’ site beautiful. 🙂

      • That is exactly how it went for me. Although when I switched from an architecture major to ecology, I think I also had the vague idea that ecology professors worked a few hours a week teaching and spent the rest of time walking through forests and turning over rocks in streams or whatnot…

      • “but probably makes it harder to call your ‘field’ site beautiful.”

        What if I put up some pictures of Fiji? Seems like the best of both worlds. 🙂

    • On the other hand, if you work at some international field sites, you can hire local people inexpensively (though at generous wages for a local) and have them sample year-round on your behalf. For example, I have long-term year-round datasets from Costa Rica that were collected at a fraction of the cost of what it would I would have had to paid a trained technician to do on the campus of my own university. And this helps out the local economy and people of the place where I work.

  3. And you forgot that if we as biologists really are interested in elucidating the general principles of life, it shouldn’t matter if the research locale is exotic or not.

    • I agree! Given how common urban and suburban habitats are, you could even argue that, depending on your goals, it might be more important to study them.

  4. I don’t think anyone mentioned money yet? It costs me $8 to drive to my field site from my house, and I don’t have to pay to stay at a field station. Better than paying many thousands of dollars in travel, room, and board!

    • Yes, money, for sure! How did I forget to include that?! It was on my list at one point, but I apparently forgot to put it in the post. Not having to pay for airfare, housing, etc. definitely can save money.

    • This is one of biggest issues for us these days…roundtrip tix are anywhere from $900-1800. It’s becoming harder and harder for students to fund their work by pulling together small grants.

    • Well since you asked, I do ‘urban ecology’ (population dynamics of urban tree pests). When I’m working near my institution there are some very distinct advantages related to proximity and travel time. However, when I’m outside my home area my costs tend to be higher as I have to house my assistants in hotels rather than field camps and pay a per-diem that allows them to eat a decent meal. I’m also less likely to run certain kinds of experiments since the chances of demonic intrusion by resident H. sapiens is higher in urban areas. Pluses and minuses, just like everywhere else I suppose.

      • Ah, yes, demonic intrusion by H. sapiens. Not a nice aspect of local field work! Our new set of study lakes here in Ann Arbor all have public access, which is going to make it more problematic if we want to set up experiments. I probably need to work harder to find a lake that doesn’t have public access, just so we have a good site for experiments.

      • On the other hand, I once had a student whose site was a remote alpine meadow far from any roads or trails. So demonic humans were no problem–but demonic ground squirrels kept stealing the markers for his plants. IIRC, he tried a bunch of different things before coming up with markers that the ground squirrels would ignore.

        We should probably do a post on this at some point–ask people to share the most amusing or unexpected “demons” to have interfered with their field work.

      • That would be an excellent post! I imagine most field people have at least one story along those lines!

  5. Great post – I really like this thinking, and it makes me feel better about my own local fieldsites. An additional plus for me of having my work be local is that it is easier for me to connect with local decision-makers, policy-makers, and journalists. I’m in their time zone, I can meet them face-to-face, etc.

    Though I must say that my dissertation fieldwork (which mainly involved digging holes in suburban lawns and talking to homeowners) involved far too many people for my socially-awkward self and far too little ‘natural’ beauty relative to other gorgeous local lakes my fellow students worked on.

    Thanks for getting a nice conversation going.

    • My father was my field assistant for two years in grad school, and he was so much better than I was at chit-chatting with local fisherman!

      And, yes, being close to local decision makers is another great advantage. Glad you liked the post!

  6. The irony of my research is that I went for a local study system close to where I lived for my PhD. It meant that I could fund my work independently with a few PhD grants every season and was convenient for so many of the reasons mentioned above. Now we know so much about the system it is relatively easy to keep asking questions and doing research there. However, I am currently based over 6000km away from the ‘local’ field sites that we work in. So we have the all challenges and expenses of travel, etc. to go hang out in old-fields in Upstate NY! Sure they have their charm but they don’t really conjure the same images as Fiji… I’m working on developing some truly local systems here in Sweden as my PhD student continues to do fieldwork in the US. But I guess my situation highlights some of the challenges of choosing a system in ecological work: the more you know, the easier it becomes to do research and there is often a lag time before a new system starts producing results. With the pre-tenure (and even sometimes post-tenure) moving about that scientists do, your local study system can become not so local.

    • and that can actually be a benefit when looking for the next job – work at very local sites during my N American post-doc represented ‘international experience’ to search committees in the UK, and when they’re looking for any little difference between candidates that definitely helped.

    • Part of why I moved to UMich was to be closer to good field sites. . . but the two proposals I have in now both involve working on lakes in Indiana. It’s a little funny, really, but it made much more sense to do the work there.

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  8. One great advantage with using local field sites is that I easily can go back when the experiments fail. I usually bring wild trout from a nearby stream to the lab for testing behavioural hypotheses. Unfortunately, this year my first batch of fish had a nasty infection with them from the field, and most of them died. So I went out and got new, healthy, ones. I imagine that this may have been a bit more difficult if I had worked with Trinidadian guppies…

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  10. Love this post! I myself do my field work very close to home (the closest pond and stream are a mere three minute walk from my office), and I think there’s something to be said for getting to know your own home on a very intimate level. I can tell you when people might expect to see water scorpions in the pond or why the stream lacks invertebrates that SHOULD be there, and it’s because I’m there often enough to see the seasonal shifts, the flooding, etc that lead to the patterns I see in the water. It’s super fun to go far afield to do work too, but I love knowing a lot about the little bodies of water that I see everyday. It’s like I know this little secret that no one else knows – and it’s right there in our own backyards!

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