Staying Connected in the Field

The field site where I am working this summer is nestled between a farm and Duke Forest and is just across the street from a school. I can actually hear kids on a playground while I am working there. Such a short distance from suburbia, this field site offers the opportunity to take full advantage of the capabilities of my smartphone, a tool that I could not be more thankful for.

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I know that my fellow Amherst alumna, Ambika Kamath, wrote two posts about smartphones in the field (here and her second post, here), and I would like to speak to it from my own perspective. My first experience using a smartphone in the field was during a summer field job for the vector-borne disease lab of the Yale School of Public Health, a job which involved spending days scouring the forest floors of eastern Connecticut for ticks. I had just finished up my sampling at a site and headed back in the direction of the car…or so I thought. I called my labmate when I realized that I had definitely gone the wrong way and told her to beep the horn so I could follow the sound. Evidently, I was so far off track that I could not even hear the horn blaring from where I was in the forest, and to add insult to injury, I looked down at my GPS to find that it was dead. The Google Maps app on my phone saved the day, and I am pretty convinced that I would have been roaming that forest for hours if I could not rely on my phone to get back to the car.

Now, a few years later, I am a first-year graduate student in the middle of my first field season of graduate school this summer. My lab focuses on disease ecology, and this summer, I am be focusing on a grass species and one of its fungal pathogens. Our field site has many grass species affected by many different parasites, and let me tell you, when I was first trying to learn how to differentiate among them, I thought it was a lost cause. Luckily, my labmates graciously worked with me at the end of last summer to show me the tricks for telling them all apart. However, at the beginning of this field season, 9 months after that initial lesson, my memory was really put to the test. Finding myself in the field on my own most of the time, I would have been really slowed down without my iPhone. I have been able to confirm the host and pathogen species I am observing by sending many picture messages to my labmate or looking up images over google. If I did not have that luxury, I would not be able to be as independent with my work, as I would be limited to working when my labmates are also in the field.

In addition to using my phone as a means of determining what I am looking at in the field, I have also shifted to recording my data directly on my phone! I started out my field season by recording data down on paper while I was working and transferring that data to spreadsheet after I got back to my field site. Now, I record my data directly on my google sheets app (and I would definitely be happy to hear about other apps people use for data collection!). This is a lot cleaner, as my paper data sheets often became quite messy as I crawled around in the grass and dirt, and allows my data to be backed up instantly.

The abilities to remain in communication with my labmates while working in the field and record data that is immediately backed up have been really important to the productivity of my field season. These are only just a few uses too, as smartphones give access to up-to-date weather information, field guides, emails, and many other things that could be useful while doing fieldwork. And, of course, having Spotify and my favorite podcasts handy have certainly made these hot North Carolina days in the field a little more bearable.


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