PFTC5 post-course blog post

Photo credit: Brian Enquist

In entering this course, I had set goals to understand how to organize and conduct an efficient and successful field campaign, to learn about the natural history and ecology of alpine grasslands, and to walk away with a high-quality scientific product. In some ways I was successful in meeting these goals, and in others less so. During this course, I definitely learned a lot about coordinating a large and efficient field campaign – I was particularly stunned by the amount of logistical effort that goes into coordinating 40 or so people working in a remote location, but I was also impressed by the ability of people to self-organize, take on responsibility, and work efficiently for the good of the group. I was also very fortunate to learn tons from locals about the ecology and natural history of the region, and to come away with a few new plant families in my mental herbarium.

COVID-19 threw a big wrench in the gears, though, and our ability to carry out our work was substantially affected. Our time in the field was cut off, and our working group was not able to gather even half of the data we had initially planned on acquiring. The data we did gather was very high-quality, and combined with data from previous campaigns it is very informative, but it doesn’t quite stand on its own as a scientific product.

However, I also learned other things that I didn’t set out to learn. For example, the international collaboration with people from many different backgrounds and languages was incredible and at times quite challenging, but absolutely a necessity to do this kind of work, and it was amazing to get to see that in action and participate in it first-hand. I also have new appreciation for the challenges associated with working in very remote locations, with limited access to supplies or information from the outside world, and with limited facilities and resources. I also learned a ton about trait-based ecology, and had a great time meeting other researchers from around the world and learning about their work.

I even felt that COVID-19 provided its own learning opportunities. None of us were prepared for the rapidity with which the situation escalated, nor did we expect to have to deal with it when we were in a remote field site, largely out of contact with the rest of the world. Going through this experience and seeing how people reacted, how the leadership dealt with the situation, and how the events unfolded for all of us was extremely valuable, I think, even if it didn’t feel great at the time. Although it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be doing fieldwork during a pandemic again, other kinds of emergencies do happen, and knowing what works and what doesn’t work in an emergency situation at a remote field site will be incredibly valuable knowledge if I ever find myself in a position to lead an expedition similar to this one.

On a more personal level, I learned that I can maintain my calm in emergency situations, and that I am not deterred by this crazy situation – I still want to be in the field and do science, even if it means dealing with emergencies and occasionally being stranded in a hotel in a foreign country. I believe in the value of the project that we, collectively as ecologists, are engaged in, and global crises such as these only serve to remind me of the urgency of that project.

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