I just lost a full replicate in my field experiment. That’s what we field biologists like to call “a bad day.” Of course, I’ve lost replicates before, and it’s always hard, but this loss seems particularly pointless. You see, all of my field sites had to be in urban areas for this experiment, which meant getting permission from a lot of different people. Any time you work on someone else’s land, you’re privy to their whims, and it’s not ideal for field biology. In this case, I thought I had a land owner’s permission, but she changed her tune four weeks into the experiment and demanded I get rid of the plot because it looks “weedy.” That’s right…I lost a full replicate because someone complained that one of my plots is ugly.*
This field season has been a real challenge. I knew it would be going in…I was awarded the grant money in mid-November and my proposal outlined two field seasons, but I was in Kenya until mid-February, meaning the earliest I could possibly get rid of everything I owned and move to a new country was the beginning of March. Once I arrived, I had to go through all the normal stresses of moving to a new country plus I had to learn fast where I could find sites, supplies, and plants for my experiment. None of those things went well.
The first challenge was to identify sites. In field biology, we try to get a minimum of four replicates, to ensure that we can detect significant differences between treatments in spite of extremely high environmental variability. Each replicate has the full complement of experimental treatments. Obviously, the more replicates the better, but when you’re doing a full cross field experiment, four is often the human limit to the experiment.
I managed to get four sites, but none were ideal. All were behind high fences with locked gates…an artefact of living in a big city, I guess**. And three of the four are locked and completely inaccessible on weekends, which makes watering and tending to the plots all the more difficult.
I’ll tell you the story of my struggle to get plants some other time, but suffice it to say I spent all of Easter weekend on my hands and knees in the mud and pissing rain digging up plants to transplant into my plots. Since I transplanted them in, it’s only rained significantly once…this is apparently an unprecedented feat of nature in Ireland, I’ve been told many times. I’ve also been told not to ever expect it again. In the meantime, I’ve been cycling 120 miles a week (in nasty aggressive city traffic) to water all my sites. That is good exercise too; basically, I deadlift 20 litres of water to four plots, each about half a kilometre away from the water tap. Sometimes, I water all the plots twice.
As a result of the transplant stress and ridiculously dry weather, I’ve been watering constantly at all my sites, fighting to keep my plants alive. I even have grown big tough calluses on my hands from…carrying watering cans. (Feels kind of dorky just typing that out.)
So imagine my dismay when this woman called one of my plots ugly and demanded I tear it out and reseed it with grass. Losing one plot in a replicate means I lose the full replicate, because I can’t have all of the treatments represented.
I think if I ever get the chance to do urban field work again, I’d like the luxury of being able to say “no thanks.”
*If you’re an attractive person, you’ve never had to deal with this kind of reaction, but for me it’s pretty normal. People are a lot less likely to let you hang around when you’re unattractive. That goes for me and my “weeds” both. (That’s okay because us weeds are more attractive to bees, even if we’re not attractive to humans.)
**The security guards all know me well at this point.