Marine Biologist explains what fieldwork is ACTUALLY like


What does a Marine Biologist actually do in the field?

Dr. Mike Gil, Marine Biologist, shares in the video above his perspective on how fieldwork actually works. The viewpoint is from his personal experience, in the field of Marine Biology, and do match up with his friends and colleagues (as far as he can tell), but still feel free to take it with a grain of salt. 😉

So, what are the major factors that go into fieldwork for Marine Biology?

Fieldwork for a Marine Biologist is interesting because there’s this crazy catch-22 trade off that happens… You want to be very prepared when you go to the field to execute a specific plan. BUT as a field Biologist, and Ecologist in particular, studying something as dynamic and complex as a natural ecosystem, and one as diverse as a coral reef, you don’t want to be too engrained in a plan. If you do that, you could miss opportunities to go on tangents that could be incredibly fruitful and may enhance the original idea. The new direction could even eclipse it! Turn out to be better than the original idea.

There’s so much amazement that comes from observing natural marine ecosystems.

When you’re observing at such a high intensity. When you’re in the field constantly and watching nature happening, little things will come. Patterns will pop in that you haven’t noticed before or thought about. Even though you may have spent years studying this ecosystem.

So, one of the tradeoffs is how much should you follow the plan you came in with, and how much should you follow the observations and interests that come up?

You’ll want to include a lot of interesting aspects into your fieldwork, but you also need to replicate. A TON.

Whatever you’re doing, you need to do it a lot.

It could be experimental treatments, or behavioral trails (what Dr. Gil was doing in the field when this video was shot!). You need a lot of replication to be able to understand something clear, because nature is so variable.

So, there are tradeoffs and layers. Interesting stuff to ask vs. Sufficient replication to actually make some sense at the end of the day with your data…

For example, while in the Gulf of Thailand when this video was shot, Dr. Gil was interested in:

  • The social contexts of fish
  • The landscape context (how much the shape of the immediate coral reef effects fish behavior)
  • How much the focal species effects individual decisions

To dig deeply into any of these factors, you need a ton of replicates. Not surprisingly, your days can become very repetitive. (Dr. Gil’s students complain about this all the time, understandably!) Again, you’re trying to get a bunch of replicates so you’re often doing the same kinds of tasks over and over again so you get enough power to understand something.

It’s not just repetitive, fieldwork is dynamic

It can be a little funny that even though it’s repetitive, there’s some dynamism in figuring things out as you’re going (to some degree). You often don’t lock down your methodology until later than you originally might have thought you would. Then it’s a situation where you’ve figured out exactly how you’re going to do things, you do them, you are doing all the replications – experimental treatments, trials, surveys – but when you start out it’s new. So, you start out not being good at it, like anything in life when you first start. Also, as with anything else as you do it a ton you get better and better at it.

By the time you feel like you are a master! You are awesome at the methods! You’re on top and nothing is going to hold you back! You’ve figured out all the hang ups and ways to work around them…

Once you’re awesome, it’s usually time to leave

It’s time for the season to end. So, once you’ve got it locked in and are running out of time you’ve really got to make it count! Such are the trials and tribulations of data collection when you’re in finite field periods.

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