Field work: A testament of character


By Conner Philson

Getting to know someone, truly, is not an easy feat. Sure you could date or have been friends since primary school, but better yet, you could go to the field together…

It was in the dead of night when our small power boat broke down in the middle of the Galapagos archipelago, miles from land, and even further from humanity.

I was part of a team studying the evolution and adaptive radiation of Galapagos land snails. This required us to sample snails on even the most remote islands. In doing so, our team found ourselves on the northern most island in the archipelago, the uninhabited Pinta. Our week on the island went seamlessly. The snailing was some of the best we had seen, which means lots of snails and lots of data! The camping was brilliant, mostly because the absence of light pollution resulted in a splattering of stars across the gas clouds of the Milky Way that I had only seen in photoshopped photos. However, not everything can go to plan; getting back to the main island, Santa Cruz, was a bit of a challenge.

One of the many species of the Galapagos land snails. Photo by Dr. Christine Parent.

On the way to pick us up, one of the two motors on the boat gave out. This resulted in a few hours delay in our departure, which meant we would be boarding in high tide. As there is no port/dock on the island, we would have to wade out to the boat where it was precariously anchored to the lava rock and get pulled onboard. The high tide made this all the more tricky. Luckily, we all made it aboard safe and sound.

Though a few hours later than expected, we were relieved to be on our way to a jumbo pizza and a shower. It must have been a few hours into the bumpy ride when the remaining motor began to sputter, leaving us nearly dead in the water. This required us to call in a rescue as we were tossed around in the open seas. I learned the ocean is very peaceful in the absence of the loud engine, though it’s an eerie peace.

Once a second boat arrived, the real adventure began. Under only the cast of moonlight, we had to jump from one boat to another as they crashed together, pummeled by the force of the midnight swells. With some good timing, we all made it to the new boat, mended the first boat enough that it could crawl its way to port, and headed full speed to land. I knew our team was tough, but how we collectively handled this situation as one, through exhaustion, hunger and seasickness, only strengthened our bond.

Whether your field companions are new colleagues or longtime friends, the experiences you share are illuminating to a person’s character. Field work requires resiliency, plasticity, and adaptability; three traits you won’t easily pick up on from conversations in lab or over a drink. I’m one of those crazy people who like when things go (slightly) wrong; a type-2 fun type of guy. The unexpected has yielded my fondest memories from the field. I seemingly always remember more about the people I was with during these moments, and how they carried themselves, than I do my own experiences. I like when things go wrong because it’s a test of us all and how we respond and conduct ourselves. Afterall, they say actions speak louder than words.

To step on my soapbox: Field experiences, in sickness and in health, across language barriers, and throughout the world will bring you closer to those around you. Next time you go to the field, or even for a walk in the park, take a step back, appreciate the natural world, but especially the people around you. Learn from them, learn about them, but always remember, they’ll be doing the same to you.

Conner’s camp on Pinta Island.

Disclaimer: We traveled within the Parque Nacional Galápagos (Galapagos National Park) as registered scientists with proper research permits. It is illegal to access, or attempt to access, protected or restricted areas in the Galapagos. It is also illegal to collect biological material or touch live animals without a research permit. Please abide by all signs, rules, and laws when at the Galapagos Islands.

*Photos by Conner Philson unless otherwise noted.

About me:

I’m interested in how the environment shapes animal social behavior and evolution. Luckily for me, this means my office is the great outdoors. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to travel domestically and internationally to ask questions about behavior and evolution in just a few short years since realizing not only I wanted to be a biologist, but that I could be a biologist. As much as I love the science, I am driven by the people I get to meet along the way, the experiences we share, and the conversations we have. That’s why I decided to write this short piece on the non-scientific value of field work.

I’m a new PhD student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA and will be in the field over five months a year at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in the high alpine of Colorado. I can imagine there will be many more stories to share with Science Outside’s readers in the future.

Conner Philson

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