What To Do When Sh** Hits the Fan, a.k.a. Alternative Research Plans for Field Biologists

Grad students everywhere have had their best laid research plans stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year has been particularly challenging for animal biologists whose research requires them to travel to other countries to conduct fieldwork. I’ve had many anxiety-ridden virtual conversations with colleagues whose study animals can only be observed once in a blue moon, when the bells ring twice, under a cloudless sky. Some grad students have had to adapt their dissertation research projects. Others have used this time as an opportunity for self-reflection and found peace in letting go of dream projects. When we start our PhDs, we labor arduously to formulate testable hypotheses. Part of that process involves identifying alternative hypotheses that might otherwise explain a particular phenomenon. Yet we spend very little time developing alternative research strategies if things don’t go according to plan. If there’s one thing I hope we can normalize for future graduate students, it’s that shit will hit the fan. The story that follows is a true account of my worst field season ever, three years before the pandemic.

drawing of the idiom shit hits the fan

During my first summer in grad school, I had plans to spend three months chasing after gorillas in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Instead, I spent those three months chasing after a travel visa. Needless to say, I was disappointed. I had prepared for all sorts of contingencies. My field site was located in a remote montane tropical forest in DRC where I would have limited access to water and electricity. I had all my field gear squared away. I had purchased nearly 5 kilograms of rechargeable AA batteries for infrared camera traps. I packed doubles of everything, from laptop cables to headlamps to binoculars. Socks for days. First aid kit, contact lens solution bottles, tampons. Check, check, check. In the end, all this preparation was for naught. An hour before my flight, I found out that my very expensive research visa, painstakingly acquired over a year ago, was no longer valid. Panic! Palms are sweaty. Knees weak. Arms are heavy. All those plans I wrote down? It was over now.

Most summers in the field, I get to take photographs of gorillas and the forest. However, during my first failed field season I apparently only took a single photo. “Here, you observe a field biologist’s camping equipment, sitting silently on the floor of her room. Watch as the equipment quietly gathers dust over the next three months, while the researcher waits for a visa that never arrives. Nature, at its finest…” said David Attenborough, never…

My PhD advisor and I spent 15 minutes frantically reconstituting our field trunks filled with equipment. He departed for the airport without me, leaving me with assurances and positive reinforcement. He told me, it’s okay. I just needed to send my passport back to the embassy. Our contact in DRC had made a mistake, but, don’t worry Neetha, things like this happen. I’ll see you in Congo, soon. I waited until the airport shuttle was no longer visible before I allowed myself to cry with reckless abandon. Real talk: I cried for a solid half hour, perched on a yellow and black plastic trunk containing a jumble of cables, camera traps, batteries, rainboots, and test tubes. You never see grad students crying in those university brochures or lab website photos. But let me assure you, we do. Some studies suggest that the average grad student is several times more likely to experience feelings of anxiety or depression compared to the general population. Yet we rarely talk about these issues with prospective PhD students. Academia is so hostile to emotional expression, that I felt ashamed as I sat there, silent tears streaming down my face.

A drawing of a black heavy duty plastic storage trunk with a yellow lid surrounded by falling tear drops

I called my parents and recounted my tragedy. I told them, half sobbing, that I had wasted my entire morning preparing my bed with freshly-laundered sheets. “I ha-had planned to do *sob* so many things *sob* and now I can’t even leave *sob sob sob*” My father, ever the optimist, told me that at least now I had a clean bed to rest on, before planning my next steps. I almost laughed. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since starting grad school, it’s that you always, always, always have to look for the positive when shit hits the fan. And, since I study poop, shit hits the fan quite a lot.

I didn’t end up getting a visa that summer, and I did not collect any data that season. However, an unexpected research project landed in my hands. My advisor had put me in touch with collaborators at a primate sanctuary in DRC. They needed someone to work on a computer simulation for a wildlife reintroduction program. In conservation science, reintroductions involve releasing animals—often ones raised in sanctuaries or zoos—back into their natural habitats. For animals like gorillas, this is complicated by several factors. Great apes are long-lived, have lengthy gestation and nursing periods, and live in family groups with complex social dynamics. Before releasing a group of gorillas willy nilly into the forest, it’s important to estimate the success rates for different scenarios. Reintroduction success can be measured in different ways. Our goal was to determine how many released gorillas would ensure a 0% chance of extinction over 50 years, while considering random events that affect demographic processes such as birth and death. This sort of analysis is called a population viability analysis (PVA) and is increasingly recognized as an important tool for wildlife reintroduction programs. Since I suddenly had some free time on my hands, my advisor figured I could be put to work.

A drawing of a graph with population size on the y axis and time in years on the x axis. At time t = 0, if we release two gorillas into a habitat, how large will the population be in 50 years? tiny icons of gorillas and an increasing trend line on the plot.

I didn’t know the first thing about PVA’s. I had learned about them tangentially in classes, but I’d never worked on one myself. This was my first year in grad school, so the impostor syndrome was hitting hard. I hit the books. I learned about all the biological parameters needed to simulate population projections. I read article after article on animal population modeling. I searched for the life history data (i.e. birth and death rates for gorillas of different ages) which I would need to plug into the computer code that I also had to write. I couldn’t have done any of it without my advisor, who communicated with me intermittently from the field. Three years later, this project has now become an important component of my dissertation.

Here are three things I learned that summer that I wished someone had told me before I started grad school:

  1. Learn how to code. As an animal behaviorist, or any scientist for that matter, there will come a time when you will need to use some kind of programming language to analyze your data. If you don’t have access to data, look for open-source datasets or reach out to your advisor for help. This is especially important as we gear up for another summer in which many field researchers are still unlikely to conduct their planned research.
  2. Settle in the discomfort of crying or otherwise expressing all those emotions you tend to lock away. Being stoic does not necessarily make you a better academic. If we can normalize sadness (or any other complex emotion) in academia , we might start to address the grad student mental health crisis that challenges even the most cheerful among us. 
  3. Recognize that alternative plans are not failed plans. You may even learn a whole set of skills you would otherwise never have acquired. Like the animals we study, we find a way to adapt to adverse conditions. Due to COVID-19, we’re all experiencing marked changes to the way we conduct our research. We have adjusted our expectations and work priorities. Let’s normalize that acceptance beyond this pandemic. And if your best laid PhD plans are ruined, get a good night’s rest on a set of freshly-laundered bed sheets. I promise, you’ll wake up feeling better.

Neetha Iyer is a PhD candidate in her fifth year in the Department of Anthropology at UC Davis. Her research interests include social behavior, movement ecology, and infectious disease dynamics. She is also a strong supporter of student-worker unions and believes in the strength of collective action for institutional change. She will eagerly talk to you about primates, poop, parasites, and worker protections, so hold onto your lunch. The last time she cried was a few weeks ago, after video calling with her 1-year-old niece who can now identify different bird species: “tan”, “barn”, “owl”, “qua”, “vow vow”, and “penme” (tanager, barn owl, regular owl, duck, vulture, and penguin). 

[Edited by Maggie Creamer]

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