How biologists are making fieldwork safer and fairer
Imagine being close to your colleagues 24 hours a day, far away from your home, under stressful and unfamiliar circumstances. Scientists have a name for this: fieldwork.
Conducting research outside of the lab is important for career advancement in some fields of science, but it presents a host of unique challenges. That’s why a team from the Pitt Department of Biological Sciences has developed a guide to making fieldwork safer and more equitable, especially for researchers from marginalized groups.
“Fieldwork is inherently risky,” said Elizabeth Rudzki, a graduate student at the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and lead author of the paper. “You have risks that everyone has to deal with, whether it be bee stings or the terrain or satellite reception, but you also have other risks that become an even greater concern for students who have a different gender expression, or are black or a person of color. If we want to increase diversity in the sciences, we also need to make the risks more equitable.”
The process at Pitt began about two years ago, when Dietrich School professor Cori Richards-Zawacki began bringing together a group of colleagues who were having conversations about equality in fieldwork. As director of Pitt’s Pymatuning Lab of Ecology, a research station in Northwest PA, Richards-Zawacki saw the need to gather a wide variety of perspectives on the kind of guidance needed for fieldwork.
“The field is a place where we still have a long way to go,” she said. “One of the things we wanted to do is talk about that potential for negative experiences and the things we can do to prevent them.”
Many field stations don’t have such a field guide, Richards-Zawacki said, and the ones that do tend to focus narrowly on things like first aid or accidents — and don’t deal with broader issues of identity and structural inequality.
After assembling a group of researchers with different career stages and identities, the team split into smaller work groups and spent just over a year refining their guidance. The team’s goals were also expanded to include other groups experiencing unique challenges in the field, such as researchers who are breastfeeding or caring for children.
The result is a document that not only serves as instruction for leaders in the field, but also as a way for students to engage with their mentors about their own needs. The researchers detailed their process, along with resources for other teams looking to compile similar guides, in a paper published Sept. 21 in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution.
For Rudzki, who experiences mobility problems, including guidance for the reception of researchers with disabilities was a priority. “Even if we focus on marginalized communities, society disregards disability,” Rudzki said. One example she gave was the need to provide coolers or mini-fridges in the field, which is beneficial both for those who rely on refrigeration for medicines such as insulin, and for parents who store breast milk.
Richards-Zawacki had her own share of tense fieldwork experiences as a graduate student in Panama. Even if researchers have all the proper permits and the support of local staff, some residents may be suspicious, and in Richards-Zawacki’s own lab, she now provides shirts and car dashboard signs that show what researchers do and why they’re there.
Now other lab leaders in the department have a tool to ensure they tick all the right boxes before they or their students enter a dangerous or stressful situation. Conversations like these are likely to become more frequent in the coming years, Richards-Zawacki said, especially as the National Science Foundation is considering a new requirement for researchers to provide field safety plans as part of grant proposals. “It’s clearly something that concerns a lot of people,” she said.
The publication not only features notes on the team’s process of putting together their manual, but also includes dozens of other resources for gathering different perspectives on the challenges of fieldwork — serving as a roadmap for anyone looking to have similar conversations in their own organisation.
“I hope what they get out of it is the value of thinking critically about who your team of experts will be, and making sure it’s a diverse group with as diverse opinions and perspectives as you can get,” said Richards-Zawacki.
Paper is about the safety of fieldwork for scientists from minorities
Elizabeth N. Rudzki et al, A guide to developing a field research security manual that explicitly considers risks to marginalized identities in the sciences, Methods in Ecology and Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.1111/2041-210X.13970
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