Much of ecology requires field work, and this often means travelling to exciting places. My husband, who studies forests, spends a lot of time trying to convince undergraduate students that ecology is not all about travel and adventure in exotic locations. It means a lot of time doing boring things in labs or working out complex statistics in front of a computer. And then he swans off to Portugal, Malaysia, Australia, Russia, Mexico, Tanzania… just to name a few of his destinations in recent years.
For my PhD, my field work was at Silwood Park in Berkshire, so not exactly the sort of glamorous setting many budding ecologists dream of. It was a good option for me though – Silwood is a great place, the study system was well established, I could easily pop to the site for maintenance or to collect data whenever I needed to, and I could still go home most weekends. I spent a lot of time in the field, but usually just doing routine tasks like watering or taking soil moisture measurements. It is also true that I have spent a lot of time doing fairly boring things in the lab (sorting biomass, sieving soil, washing roots…) or hunched at the computer trying to make sense of the data I collected.
That’s not to imply that my PhD has been all mundane tasks; I’ve had a lot of fun and learned a lot of cool methods too. However, for the past two months, I’ve finally had the chance to do what my husband usually does and disappear off to a foreign country for work. I have been working with collaborators at the Hawkesbury Institute for Environment at the University of Western Sydney.
I’ll write more about the HIE and what I’m doing here later, but suffice it to say, despite the new location, the work pattern remains much the same. I’m still working full time, though more like 45 hour weeks than 50-60 hour weeks. I’m still spending most of my time in the lab or in front of a computer rather than outside in the sun, and when I have been in the field, it’s been at an experiment very similar to the one I worked on at Silwood rather than out in some remote forest or something.
The myth of the ecologist disappearing to unexplored wilds for research that looks more like a holiday will be maintained though, as I am much more inclined to photograph my weekend adventures than my long days of pipetting. So below are a few inadequate photos of some stunning, wild landscapes around New South Wales (plus a rather charismatic water dragon for good measure). Just remember that ecology is hard, often tedious work… We’re just luckier than most with where we get to do the hard, tedious stuff.