Tag Archives: women in science

#FieldworkFail

Recently, scientists have been taking to social media to share their stories of field work bloopers under the tag #fieldworkfail.  Things like dropping fecal samples on themselves, falling sleep while waiting for a turtle to arrive, only to be woken up by the curious turtle crawling over them, or darting a zebra and having it pass out in a precarious position.  Needless to say I have plenty of stories of my own so I thought I would share my top three favorite, or at least most memorable, field moments.

1) What’s crackin? 

At one point during my first field season I found myself spending a week’s worth of my mornings in Seattle’s International District between the hours of 5 and 7am.  Looking back, this was a bad idea.  So much so that at one point a cab driver pulled over to ask what I was doing and urge me, for the sake of my safety, to leave immediately.  But there were crows there and after months of time on the streets of Seattle I had developed an inflated sense of my safety and bad assery and decided to stick it out.  On one of my last mornings at this particular site, a women who I had previously encountered pan handeling took a seat on the bench next to mine, and proceeded to pull out what was unmistakably a crack pipe.  Unwilling to give up my data, I politely asked her to move but, much to my dismay, she didn’t seem very interested in listening.  High on crack, she then proceeded to do cartwheels over my peanuts and dance pants-less around my field site.  After a while she tuckered out and left me alone to do my work.  Looking back, I’m not sure if this was more a #FieldworkFail or a #KaeliLifeDecisionFail but it’s certainly not a field experience I wish to relive!

My unwelcome field participant spicing up my morning with some drug induced cartwheels

My unwelcome field participant spicing up my morning with some drug induced cartwheels

2) Sorry kids

During some of our experiments looking at the funeral behaviors, we would have volunteers stand around holding dead crows.  To protect their identity should the crows decide to hold a grudge, I had the volunteers wear rubber makes that covered their whole head.  One of my best volunteers was a fellow UW student, a mountain of a man who had a proclivity for wearing black and camo.  One of these field experiments was in Magnuson park which, if you live in Seattle, you know is one of our most curious parks.  It’s got all the features of a park you might expect like a play ground, soccer fields, trails that wander through peaceful restoration areas, but it’s also got some more curious features.  Old, WWII era airplane hangers, a block of abandoned school building and a few miscellaneous businesses just to name a few.  So when selecting a field site I picked a spot that seemed far from the potentially curious glances of parents or kids coming to enjoy a day at the park and instead nestled against one of the many buildings which appeared to have no foot traffic.  I was surprised then, when moments after starting our experiment a police car rolled up with its lights flashing.  Turns out the building I thought was rarely used was actually a pediatric dental office and I had planted my 6’6”, black and camo clad, dead bird holding, creepy mask wearing volunteer right under the side window.   Whoops!

Volunteers were required to wear signs after this incident...

Volunteers were required to wear signs after this incident…

3) Off with their heads!

During one of my preliminary field experiments we were looking at how crows respond to a mounted stuffed hawk.  We didn’t want them to see it before it was in position, so we would cover the bird with a piece of mesh camo fabric until moments before we were ready when a volunteer would run over and pull the cloth off.  Although the holes in the mesh were very small, as it turned out they were exactly the right size for the tip of the hawk’s bill to fit through.  One fateful day, my volunteer got more than she bargained for when the hawk’s bill caught on the mesh and the head ripped right off along with the cloth.  Unsure of what to do she balanced the head on the hawk’s shoulders and proceeded with the experiment.  All was well until right at the end, when one of the aggressively diving crows actually hit the hawk and knocked the head to the ground.   We’ll never know what was going through his or her mind at the achievement or what followed, but I like to imagine that on the block of 8th and Madison in downtown Seattle to this day juvie crows share in uncertain but excited whispers about the legend of the crow so powerful, it took the head of the a hawk in one fell swoop.

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Big Red is a little worse for the wear but she still gets the job done!

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Filed under Field work, Graduate Research, Just for fun

Notes from the field: That golden moment

I am a huge fan of podcastes of all kinds. Especially when I’m working a pair of very “avoidy” birds and I’m basically in for several hours of watching an unchanging pile of food on the ground, an earbud with a good story is the key to maintaining my focus on the sidewalk, rooftops and trees for any incoming birds. One of my favorite podcasts is The Story Collider which describes itself as “stories about how science touches people’s lives”. I highly recommend it for both science geeks and non-scientists alike, but I imagine it resonates deeper with those who feel engaged with science on a more regular basis. A common theme of these stories is “the golden moment”, and whatever that may mean for the storyteller. Which got me thinking: What’s my golden moment?

Conducting research in an urban environment, especially a study as conspicuous as mine, has it’s benefits and drawbacks. Drawbacks include: Confrontation over the study itself, people or pets unknowingly interfering with experiments, sometimes unpleasant or slightly risky work environments, etc. But the advantage is easily summarized: I get to engage with all kinds of people about my research. I derive and immense amount of joy from explaining my study to folks, especially in the company of children. There’s one particular moment in the course of the experiment, however, that stands out from the rest.

At a certain point in the study I have the masked person walking around instead of remaining stationary. Today I found myself conducting just such a trial and, frankly, these tests can be rather awkward. I can hear people whispering about the masked person, what they might be doing (often they don’t notice their “UW CROW RESEARCH” sign) and rarely are they emboldened enough to ask and, frankly, it’s probably for the best because I need my full attention on my birds during these tests (I’m working the camera while my volunteer walks around). As you can imagine, it can be a bit uncomfortable to cause such a stir and then just keep walking leaving people to scratch their heads (or think worse) about what they just saw. But occasionally the golden moment happens. That moment when they’ve noticed the mask, perhaps even read the sign and are eagerly discussing what a bizarre scene they’ve just witnessed with their companions when, boom, in comes the crow. Suddenly, without my needing to explain it, every onlooker can see precisely what’s happening: A crow knows that person and they don’t like them. An explosion of scolding, body language and flight patterns makes the target of their animosity well known. During these moments without any effort or intention, people are experiencing science. They’re watching crows and potentially learning something new about them. They will not know the full back-story to what’s going on of course, but there’s enough information laid right out there for them that conversations about crows and their intelligence and antics are inevitable. Suddenly the bird so many people ignore becomes the object of fascination and attention. These are the moments that I believe create changes in attitudes about crows and, more broadly, what science research looks like. These are my golden moments.

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Filed under Being a scientist, Graduate Research

Notes from the field: Reflecting on my first season

This year, my field sites range through the east side from Mercer Island to Kirkland.  My first field season, however, took place throughout downtown Seattle and included the ID, First Hill, the Central Business District, SODO, Belltown, and South Lake Union.  I went to high school on Mercer Island and, while certainly a victim of the “MI bubble” as we called it, generally felt pretty familiar with the west side.  I went into my field season last year anticipating to learn a lot about birds, which I did, but what I had not expected was to learn as much as I did about the city and the people it harbors.  In fact, I doubt there’s anyway to become more intimately familiar with the real identity of a city than to spend from dusk to dawn on its streets, just watching.

Watching from the same spot on the sidewalk for 2 or 4 hours, invites the attention of all kinds of people.  Lots of these are people who, come nightfall, remain on the sidewalk.  Partly what I learned from these interactions is that they too watch the crows, and delight in sharing their stories.  My favorite was someone who told me that the reason crows can be seen methodically wiping their bills on branches is because that’s how they mark their landing spot for next time.  I suggested that it’s likely a way for them to keep their bills clean and well manicured (like fingernails, bird beaks never stop growing), but he couldn’t be dissuaded.  It was such an ingeniously creative idea, I didn’t blame him for being so stubborn.  The other was a man who informed me that if it were up to him, we would be wiping out the crows.  “They attack the eagles and I just can’t stand for that, it’s unpatriotic”, he explained while wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with an American flag and a proud eagle head.

It wasn’t all positive, of course.  There was the woman at six in the morning in the ID who causally sat down next to me and started smoking crack.  Or the guy who sits on the walking bridge to the ferries who threw a stroller onto the street below where it landed about 3 ft away from me. But mostly it was just unintentional conflict.  Arriving to an experiment site with a desperate amount of limited time only to find someone sleeping the location I had established as the feeding/experiment site.  Or people eating the food I had set out.  That was tough.  How do you ask a hungry human being to not eat food off the ground because it’s for birds?  In some places I just started bringing snacks.  In others, folks with whom I had previously bonded with over the crows could address these folks by name and explain the situation for me.  That was easier but it still felt…bad.

On the other side of the spectrum were the people on their way to work or who were renting the pricy downtown apartments who “see you everyday and just can’t figure out, and now must know, what you’re doing”.  They too were delighted to tell me about crows.  Mostly they insisted I come to their house because “there are more crows at my house than anywhere else in Seattle.”  But they could also problematic, and usually in ways that threatened the whole seven day experiment and not just a few minutes of it.  I am now an expert at identifying the sometimes surprisingly subtle line in the sand between public and private property in a city.  When you’re throwing food on the ground, or asking masked people to stand around, this distinction can mean the difference between a successful experiment, and security being called and days of wasted work.  But even on public property, food on the ground is in a constant state of peril.

Something I don’t know if a lot of Seattlites are aware of are the omnipresent human street sweepers.  I’ll never forget watching the 2013 LGBTQ pride parade (well, less watching than quickly walking by it between trial sites) and feeling such pride and joy that so much proactive passion has paid off in this state, only to return to Belltown at five the next morning to find the sidewalks covered in apathetic rainbow garbage.  But, like clockwork, the street sweepers came out to erase the evidence of people so figuratively and literally intoxicated with activism they forgot about the other battles to care about (like the planet).  The street sweepers themselves were always a roll of the dice.  Some would not hear one word about leaving my pile of food for the experiment while others laughed and obligingly kept moving.  Many grew to recognize me as I moved on from one site in the city to another and would happily use it as an opportunity to take a break from work and engage with someone who would give them the time of day.

Then there are all the stories of people who span the spectrum.  I listened to two men emerging from the 5 Point at 5:00am, causally exchange a story of witnessing sexual assault (and doing nothing).  There was the time I overheard a group of people talking about a friend on their way to jail over what, suffice it to say, was a graphic murder.  They were not happy once they discovered I was filming during this conversation.  Not on purpose, but their conversation was in the line of fire for filming my experiment site.  This was maybe the most danger I was ever aware I was in during my field season.  But some calm(ish) explanation of my research diffused the situation and led to, you guessed it, crow stories.  Then there was the guy who, unaware that the woman he was talking about was standing near him concealed in one of the experimental masks I use, proceeded to annihilate me personally to a friend.  He was certain that that woman who is usually always here “watching birds” was a lazy, entitled piece of shit who is wasting her parents money.

Excuse me, I'm doing a research study, will you please wait here while I take of this mask?  And watch my camera?  (Shortly after this photo was taken I had professional looking signs made)

“Excuse me, I’m doing a research study, will you please wait here while I take of this mask? And watch my camera?” (Shortly after this photo was taken I had professional looking signs made)

But stories like those are less common.  What really demonstrated the spirit of the city to me were the dozens of people who, after being approached by the muffled voice of a creepily masked person, agreed to watch my video camera while I ran to remove the mask.  You see, the most important piece of data I collect is the time it takes the birds to return to the food site after the “dangerous” person leaves.  If it consistently doesn’t take them long then I can surmise that the presence of this person isn’t resulting in a change of feeding behavior.  If, on the other hand, I show that their feeding behavior dramatically does change then I can say that seeing people associated with dangerous things like dead crows or predators causes birds to avoid areas they hang out in, even if those areas are good food resources.  Ideally, I had a volunteer be this person, and maintained my position a ways away as the friendly feeder person who innocently stands around watching the birds eat.  But volunteers were in short supply, and sometimes I had to show up to an experiment site, throw out the food as myself, the friendly feeder person, and then run to a hiding spot and don the mask.  At the end of the exposure period I needed to leave to remove the mask and collecting this key data point was contingent on finding a person willing to hear me out while I wore this crazy mask, wait for what, to them, was an unknown amount of time, and, critically, not steal my video camera.  Over the course of my field season I asked dozens of people of all stars and stripes (I was on too critical of a timeline to be judgmental or picky) and not one of them ever bailed or took my camera.  Like I said, I received an unexpected education of this city and the result was learning that the vast majority of people here are in fact extremely wonderful.

And bathroom codes.  I know the code to every Starbucks bathroom from SODO to SLU.

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Filed under Being a scientist, women in science