How COVID-19 has transformed scientific fieldwork | Science

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Katty Huertas

Just before dawn in the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve, a patch of Ecuador’s lush coastal forest, Abhimanyu Lele unfurls a tall net between two poles, then retreats out of sight. A half-hour later, he and a local assistant reappear and smile: Their catch—10 birds that collided with the net and tumbled into a pocket along its length—was a good one. The pair records species, measures and photographs the captives, and pricks wings for blood that can yield DNA before releasing the birds back into the forest. The data, Lele hopes, will shed light on how Ecuadorean songbirds adapt to different altitudes and other conditions.

The third-year graduate student at the University of Chicago (UC), who returns next week from a 10-week field season, was delighted to have made it to his destination. In a typical year, thousands of graduate students and faculty fan out across the world to tackle important research in climate change, fragile ecosystems, animal populations, and more. But the pandemic shut down travel, and fieldwork can’t be done via Zoom, depriving young scientists like Lele of the data and publications they need to climb the academic ladder and help advance science. Now, he and a few others are venturing out—into a very different world.

They are the exceptions. “Most folks have never been able to get back out there,” because COVID-19 continues to spread in much of the world, says Benjamin Halpern, an ecologist with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “They are just waiting.”

At the American Museum of Natural History, which mounts about 100 international expeditions a year, “Travel to countries still having trouble [is] just not going to happen,” says Frank Burbrink, a herpetologist there. “This is the longest I’ve ever gone without catching snakes since I was 12 years old.” The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History likewise “is not putting people overseas,” says Director Kirk Johnson.

Some institutions are allowing international travel on a case-by-case basis, but the process can be a frustrating one. “I’ve just been given clearance to go to Ecuador, but not to one province where two-thirds of my field sites are located,” says Michael Ellis, a graduate student at Tulane University who is studying environmental and human factors that affect where Ecuador’s birds live. The loss of fieldwork is pushing Ellis to reconsider his research focus.

Researchers are quick to say their frustration pales in comparison with the losses many worldwide are enduring. “The personal disappointment was completely dwarfed by the scale of the tragedy,” says Kristina Fialko, another UC graduate student who was 3 days from planned fieldwork in India to study sunlight’s effects on visual communication in warblers when her university deemed the trip too risky and pulled the plug in May. She will make do with a literature review and local fieldwork to stay on track for getting her Ph.D. next year.

Despite their efforts to adapt, for untenured researchers and graduate students, delays can be career breaking. Two years “is an eternity,” says Shannon Hackett, an ornithologist at the Field Museum and one of Lele’s unofficial advisers. Because fieldwork must often happen in a narrow time window—during a mating season, say, or a seasonal migration—a few months’ delay can mean a lost year of work.

Lele was set to start his first season in March 2020 when the pandemic locked everyone in place. So instead, he helped teach undergraduates remotely and wrapped up papers about earlier research. It was “a difficult time to be productive,” he recalls.

Ever the optimist, Lele began to lobby his advisers last fall about heading to South America again. “This conversation did not go anywhere,” he says, but then came the vaccines for COVID-19. He and many in the biology department lucked out and got shots in January: The university had leftover doses from its campaign to protect its health care workers. After that, “My advisers did not need convincing,” Lele says. He still had to detail the precautions he would take to ensure his safety and that of local collaborators. But Ecuador and the university agreed, and he landed in Quito in late May. “I have been feeling a deep sense of relief and satisfaction to be working on the substance of my dissertation at long last,” he says.

Still, he couldn’t escape the pandemic’s shadow. In the remote Ecuadorean forest, Lele could easily limit his exposure to other people. But none of the local staff at the reserve’s field station had been vaccinated and all wore masks and kept distanced from each other. For the first month, Lele did all the shopping for the group and later had to cope with local colleagues who were casual about COVID-19 precautions.

Thousands of kilometers away, “I have a twinge of worry every day,” Hackett says. With the pandemic barely under control in Ecuador, Lele might still get sick, she says, or face antiforeigner sentiment. Hackett thinks her heightened concern for students doing distant fieldwork may persist even after the global pandemic subsides. The crisis has reminded her of the instability in many countries and the immense stress on her mentees, she says.

The pandemic has also created a disparity that may be slow to abate: Vaccinated U.S. scientists working domestically can now easily pursue the project of their dreams, whereas those seeking to venture farther from home often cannot. “We are having a very successful field season this year,” says Robin Hopkins, a plant evolutionary biologist at Harvard University who conducts fieldwork in rural Texas. Already, two of her students have spent 1 month measuring plants and collecting seeds and other material to grow in the lab, without leaving the United States.

Kevin Langergraber, a primatologist at Arizona State University, Tempe, has continued his work on chimps in Uganda, but with a change that could prove lasting: He and colleagues have set up a quarantine “camp” 2 kilometers away from their main camp. Each newcomer spends 1 week there before starting fieldwork, to reduce the risk of transmitting disease to the chimps. They expect to continue the practice when COVID-19 finally recedes, to guard against other infections.

Others are seeking new ways to do fieldwork remotely. Harvard deep-sea biologist Peter Girguis, for example, couldn’t get to sea to test an idea for generating electricity by harnessing methane bubbling up from the sea floor, as the ocean research fleet sponsored by the National Science Foundation was still grounded. So, he hired commercial remotely operated vehicle operators to help retrieve a seafloor instrument platform, which has a mass spectrometer and other sensors that measure methane flux.

As a generation of young field researchers considers whether and how to change course, Lele is grateful to not be among them. He will soon be settling back into Chicago, reams of samples and data in hand. And he’s eager to make the most of what he has gathered. “Making this trip happen required putting a lot of people to considerable trouble, in Chicago and especially in Ecuador,” he explains. “I really do not want their efforts on my behalf to be for nothing.”

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