How COVID-19 Has Transformed Scientific Fieldwork | Science
Just before dawn in the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve, a patch of Ecuador’s lush coastal forest, Abhimanyu Lele deploys a large net between two poles, then retreats out of sight. Half an hour later, he and a local helper reappear and smile: their catch – 10 birds that collided with the net and tumbled into a pocket along its length – was good. The couple record species, measure and photograph captives, and prick wings for blood that can produce DNA before releasing the birds into the forest. The data, Lele hopes, will provide insight into how Ecuadorian songbirds adapt to different altitudes and other conditions.
The third-year graduate student at the University of Chicago (UC), who returns next week from a 10-week field season, was thrilled to have reached his destination. In a typical year, thousands of graduate students and faculty deploy across the world to tackle important research on climate change, fragile ecosystems, animal populations, and more. But the pandemic has interrupted travel and fieldwork cannot be done through Zoom, depriving young scientists like Lele of the data and publications they need to climb the academic ladder and advance science. Now he and a few others are venturing into a very different world.
These are exceptions. “Most people have never been able to go back,” because COVID-19 continues to spread across much of the world, says Benjamin Halpern, an ecologist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. . “They are just waiting.”
At the American Museum of Natural History, which organizes about 100 international expeditions a year, “Travel to countries still having problems. [is] it just won’t happen, ”says Frank Burbrink, a herpetologist there. “This is the longest time I have ever gone without catching snakes since I was 12 years old.” Likewise, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History “doesn’t put people abroad,” said director Kirk Johnson.
Some institutions allow international travel on a case-by-case basis, but the process can be frustrating. “I just got permission to go to Ecuador, but not to a province where two-thirds of my field sites are located,” says Michael Ellis, a graduate student at Tulane University who studies letter carriers environmental and human who Birds of Ecuador live. The loss of fieldwork prompts Ellis to reconsider his research direction.
Researchers are quick to say that their frustration is paltry compared to the losses many suffer around the world. “Personal disappointment was completely eclipsed by the scale of the tragedy,” says Kristina Fialko, another UC graduate student who was 3 days away from scheduled fieldwork in India to study the effects of sunlight. on visual communication in warblers when his university deemed the trip too risky and unplugged in May. She will be content with a literature review and local fieldwork to stay on track to earn her doctorate. Next year.
Despite their efforts to adapt, for non-tenured researchers and graduate students, delays can put an end to their careers. Two years “is an eternity,” says Shannon Hackett, an ornithologist at the Field Museum and one of Lele’s unofficial advisers. Because fieldwork often has to take place within a narrow window of time – during a breeding season, for example, or seasonal migration – a delay of a few months can mean a lost year of work.
Lele was due to start her first season in March 2020 when the pandemic left everyone stranded. Instead, he helped teach undergraduates remotely and wrote articles on past research. It was “a difficult time to be productive,” he recalls.
Still optimistic, Lele began pressuring her advisers last fall to return to South America. “This conversation went nowhere,” he says, but then came the vaccines for COVID-19. He and many in the biology department got lucky and received injections in January: the university had doses left over from its campaign to protect its healthcare workers. After that, “My advisers didn’t need to be convinced,” Lele says. He still had to detail the precautions he was going to take to ensure his safety and that of local collaborators. But Ecuador and the university accepted, and he landed in Quito at the end of May. “I felt a deep relief and a great satisfaction to finally be able to work on the substance of my thesis,” he says.
Still, he couldn’t escape the shadow of the pandemic. In the remote Ecuadorian forest, Lele could easily limit her exposure to other people. But no local staff at the reserve field station had been vaccinated and all wore masks and kept their distance from each other. During the first month, Lele did all the shopping for the group and then had to deal with local colleagues who were flippant about COVID-19 precautions.
Thousands of miles away, “I have a pang of heart every day,” says Hackett. With the pandemic barely under control in Ecuador, Lele could still fall ill, she says, or face anti-foreign sentiment. Hackett believes his heightened concern for students doing remote fieldwork may persist even after the global pandemic has ended. The crisis reminded her of instability in many countries and the immense stress of her mentees, she said.
The pandemic has also created a disparity that may take time to resolve: Vaccinated American scientists working in the country can now easily pursue the project of their dreams, while those looking to venture further from home cannot. often cannot. “We have a very successful field season this year,” says Robin Hopkins, a plant evolutionary biologist at Harvard University who does fieldwork in rural Texas. Already, two of his students have spent a month measuring plants and collecting seeds and other materials to grow in the laboratory, without leaving the United States.
Kevin Langergraber, primatologist at Arizona State University, Tempe, continued his work on chimpanzees in Uganda, but with one change that could prove to be lasting: he and his colleagues set up a quarantine “camp” two kilometers away. their main camp. Each newcomer spends 1 week there before starting fieldwork, in order to reduce the risk of disease transmission to chimpanzees. They expect to continue the practice when COVID-19 finally recedes, to guard against further infections.
Others are looking for new ways to work in the field from a distance. Harvard deep-sea biologist Peter Girguis, for example, was unable to go to sea to test an idea of generating electricity by tapping into the methane bubbling from the seabed because the ocean research fleet sponsored by the National Science Foundation was still on the ground. So, he hired remote-controlled commercial vehicle operators to help recover a platform of seabed instruments, complete with a mass spectrometer and other sensors that measure the flow of methane.
As a generation of young researchers in the field wonder if and how to change course, Lele is grateful that she is not among them. He’ll soon be settling down in Chicago again, loads of samples and data in hand. And he’s eager to make the most of what he’s amassed. “Making this trip required putting a lot of people in considerable difficulty, in Chicago and especially in Ecuador,” he explains. “I really don’t want their efforts on my behalf to be wasted.”