Dr. Allyson Jackson
Assistant Professor, Environmental Studies, professional couch sitter.
A sprained ankle has me stuck at home today while the crew is out catching bugs, so I figured it’s only fair that I contribute a blog post to all the great ones that the students have been writing.
Last night, Veronica asked me something along the lines of “so be honest, will you ever do another field season with only undergrad help?” I think she may have been picking up on my frustration that is mostly based on me getting hurt and not being able to totally help with things (and enjoy being in Maine – who actually wants to be stuck on the couch in the summer?!).
But it is true that running this rather large and complex field season with only undergrad help is challenging… but I honestly wouldn’t do it any other way. Putting aside the fact that Purchase College only has undergraduates and I don’t have a ton of grant money to get my work done (both of which makes it hard to hire grad students or technicians), I really like that I can give everyone their first true field job experience. This is important for two main reasons:
First, students need to see if they really like being field biologists. I think we all get into field biology because we like being outside and we romanticize that field work will be like a National Geographic article – exciting and colorful and life changing. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s just awful. Instead of choosing to be outside, you HAVE to be outside – even if it’s hot, even if it’s cold, even if you would rather sleep in. I always say if you are doing fieldwork well, you should be doing exactly the same thing over and over again, which actually can be very boring. We have the luxury this summer of working in beautiful Acadia National Park, but I still get tired – tired of PB&J, tired of early mornings, tired of wading through muck that wants to suck you in, tired of living in the field house. This lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but I find, for me, the excitement of learning something that no one else knows, based on data that I fought through weather and exhaustion to collect is enough to keep me going year after year. I think bringing undergrads with me on this journey allows them to see if they really would like this lifestyle too. The earlier you get over the romantic view of fieldwork, the better you can plan your career goals.
Second, I feel it’s my moral obligation to help the next generation of biologists. I got here because mentors throughout the years took chances on me – starting with the research opportunities I was given when I was an undergraduate. Field biology and environmental studies are difficult fields to get into because it always seems like jobs want you to already have experience before they will hire you. But how do you get that experience if no one will hire you??? We try to provide skills training in our lab courses but there really is no substitute to working on a real project and having a mentor who will speak to your abilities. So I see it as my role to provide these early experiences so that my students can get their little wader-clad boot in the door and make it to the big time.
So hopefully I will be off this couch and back working soon. But I also feel like the undergrads are getting a whole new experience where they really are the technicians on this project. I can imagine them being asked in a future job interview about this summer and they can say “well at first I was just an intern, but then my professor maimed herself and couldn’t get off the couch so then I was the field boss”. Who knows, maybe that will get them the job!