Fieldwork rocks

It’s that time of year again where many scientists head out into the field, from far-flung locations to local backyards. In recognition of the lengths that some scientists go to to get answers to questions that only the field can provide, we’re sharing stories of science from quaking earth, to roaring winds, to choppy seas, and beyond!

And, as a special treat, head over to our newsmagazine Eos for their special issue this month, Out of office, featuring some of our interviewees talking about their fieldwork experiences.

This episode was produced by Shane M Hanlon, and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Karen Romano Young.


Vicky Thompson:           00:00                Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:02                Oh, this is already weird. Hi, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           00:05                Hi. Yeah, I thought we’d change it up.

Shane Hanlon:              00:08                Oh, all right. I don’t know if I like it.

Vicky Thompson:           00:13                Do you have control issues?

Shane Hanlon:              00:15                Do I have control issues? The most rhetorical question anyone has ever asked me.

Vicky Thompson:           00:21                Okay, okay.

Shane Hanlon:              00:24                Perhaps I do, Vicky. Perhaps I do.

Vicky Thompson:           00:26                Perhaps. Perhaps. I think that’s a very strong, perhaps. Well, today too bad, because today I want to ask you a question.

Shane Hanlon:              00:26                Okay.

Vicky Thompson:           00:35                I want to ask you about Fieldwork.

Shane Hanlon:              00:37                Okay.

Vicky Thompson:           00:38                Yeah. So you were a research scientist that did work in the field, right? You worked in the field?

Shane Hanlon:              00:43                I did. Yes, I did.

Vicky Thompson:           00:45                Yeah. So what’s a memorable experience that you had while you were out in the field?

Shane Hanlon:              00:49                Oh, man. Yeah, that’s actually kind of hard to nail down. I didn’t go anywhere really exotic. I was doing a lot of my work in kind of rural Pennsylvania and rural Tennessee. I love being in the field. So a lot of my work involved, or part of my work involved, turtle trapping. And one way to trap turtles is basically you put out these things we call hoop nets, which are picture like a finger trap but it’s close to one end. The idea is that turtles go into this open end and they can’t quite get back out because of the way the funnel works. And so we’d set these nets up in ponds or whatever overnight, put bait and stuff in them, come back and get them. And I still do this to this day when I do my stuff in the field.

                                    01:36                But one time we went out as part of our project and we were collecting nets and I’m going through and I’m literally chest deep. I have chest waders on, chest deep in this pond, and there’s vegetation all around me. And my colleague, who’s a good friend, he said “Hey” and then he said some words that I can’t repeat on this podcast. But essentially so there’s a water moccasin about two feet to your right. And for those that who might not be aware a water moccasin is a snake. It’s a venomous snake.

Vicky Thompson:           02:14                Bad snake.

Shane Hanlon:              02:16                It’s a bad snake. And I’m a herpetologist, and so snakes don’t really bother me. Even venomous snakes aren’t… Like I don’t care about Copperheads or Rattlers, they’ll let you know if they’re there.

Vicky Thompson:           02:25                Yeah. Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              02:27                Water moccasins are mean. They are like-

Vicky Thompson:           02:27                They’re fast in the water, right?

Shane Hanlon:              02:33                They’re very fast. They’re kind of stocky, they’re like a thick snake. And again, this is anecdotal and whatever, but they’re the only snake I’ve ever had kind of chase me. Very kind of territorial. And so literally I’m chest deep and I look to my right and literally two feet away-

Vicky Thompson:           02:54                Oh my God.

Shane Hanlon:              02:54                Almost staring at me is this very venomous snake just kind of looking at me. I don’t know if it was looking at me, but facing my direction at least. And I’m holding this kind of trap really awkwardly and I just freeze. And we probably stand there for 30 seconds and it doesn’t sound very long, but count to 30 and think about that.

Vicky Thompson:           03:16                Yeah, that’s a long time.

Shane Hanlon:              03:16                And eventually it just kind of doesn’t see me as a threat or whatever and swims away, and I get out of there very quickly. And I’ve come across many of those. It’s where I was, I was in Memphis, it’s not uncommon to see them. But that’s quite literally the closest I’ve ever come. And snakes, again I’m a herpetologist, I’ve dealt with snakes, but snakes are not my thing.

Vicky Thompson:           03:38                No.

Shane Hanlon:              03:40                Just the surprise of it was let’s just say memorable. So yeah. It was fine, but not an experience I would love to recreate. And I will say happy living in our area now we have a handful of venomous snakes, but that is not one of them.

Vicky Thompson:           04:03                Not ones that are going to be creeping up to you on the water.

Shane Hanlon:              04:06                Hopefully not.

Vicky Thompson:           04:07                Probably.

Shane Hanlon:              04:08                Yeah. I don’t want to come eye to eye with one anytime soon.

Vicky Thompson:           04:13                No, thank you.

Shane Hanlon:              04:19                Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Vicky Thompson:           04:29                And I’m Vicky Thompson.

Shane Hanlon:              04:30                And this is Third Pod from the Sun.

Vicky Thompson:           04:36                Well, that was fun. I like being the one that asks the questions.

Shane Hanlon:              04:39                Yeah, right? It’s pretty great. But for now, it’s time for me to take back over.

Vicky Thompson:           04:46                Oh, right. So this is the part where you go, “We’re talking about field work because…”. “This prompt was because…”.

Shane Hanlon:              04:57                Oh my gosh. All right. Well it’s going to sound silly now when I say it, but all right. So we’re talking about field work today because it’s that time of year when many who do field work are out in the field. And Eos, our news magazine here at AGU, has a special issue out right now called Out of Office, featuring all sorts of stories about scientists in the field.

Vicky Thompson:           05:21                I really like that, Out of Office.

Shane Hanlon:              05:25                I know. I knew they were doing a special issue, but I didn’t realize that that’s what it was going to be called. And you know that I appreciate a good pun here at Third Pod. So in the spirit of being out of office and in the field, we have a preview today of our next miniseries Fieldwork Rocks.

Vicky Thompson:           05:43                Oh, clever.

Shane Hanlon:              05:47                I love puns so much. Oh my goodness. All right. So sit back, relax, and take a trip to the field with us.

Joris De Raedt:              05:59                So I’m Joris De Raedt, I’m from Belgium. I’m a full-time scientific illustrator. I’ve been that for the last 10 years. Yeah, I’ve been always interested in nature and drawing. And yeah, I mostly work for a nature reserve, visitor centers, magazines, books, also private commission now and then. But I mostly do identification drawings of fauna and flora. I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember, really. And yeah, my interest in the natural world was sparked at a very early age as well, because my parents were both teachers and we traveled a lot. I remember when I was a kid, I always could sit in front of the car because I was great at spotting things, so I had to sit in front. And one point I thought I saw some sand walking when we were driving through the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. And it turned out to be my very first chameleon I saw. And I was also very inspired by natural history plates and 19th century explorers and the art they made. Especially the aesthetic part of the plates, like the combination of the illustrations and the typography.

Ally Peccia:                   07:18                I’m Ally Peccia, I’m a graduate student at Columbia University and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Sara Whitlock:              07:27                But how did you come to be on this particular expedition?

Ally Peccia:                   07:31                I applied for it, put a project proposal in. Each scientist also has to propose their own project based on what they might expect the materials drilled to be. And then ended up getting accepted. Had a little bit of cold feet. It’s a big commitment, it’s two months on a ship. It was, in our case over Christmas, over New Years. So I was definitely nervous, but everybody who I work with said, “Oh, no, no. You have to go. Once in a lifetime experience. Absolutely make it happen”. And it was worth it. So yeah.

Luan Heywood:             08:04                My name is Luan Heywood. I kind of have two titles. One is I work onshore at Texas A&M and at a research institute called the International Ocean Discovery Program. There I work as a research associate, but more importantly, for most of my job, I sail on the research drill ship JOIDES Resolution where I sail as a marine science technician.

Sara Whitlock:              08:31                What do you think some of the top scientific findings are from work done on the JR?

Luan Heywood:             08:36                The scientific discoveries of the JOIDES Resolution have been hugely influential in our field. Some of the first expeditions were drilling these transects across the mid-Atlantic Ridge, which helped confirm the theory of plate tectonics. Some early expeditions were done in the Mediterranean that lended great evidence towards the Messinian salinity crisis, which is where the Mediterranean closed and dried up and formed these thick beds of evaporates, salts and gypsums. The discoveries of the JOIDES Resolution have really shaped the way that we think of microbial life in the deep ocean. This has really come out in the past 20, 30 years. Everywhere we look on earth, we find microbial life. And some of the most extreme and environments that have been sampled are samples that we got from the JOIDES Resolution.

Heather Holbach:          09:40                So my name is Heather Holbach, I am on the research faculty at Florida State University. But I’m also a cooperative institute employee with NOAA through the Northern Gulf Institute, which Florida State is a member of. And that is to work with NOAA’s lab down in Miami, the Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological Laboratory.

Molly Magid:                10:04                I am really curious, is the eye of the storm… What is that? What is that experience to go in it? You’re probably one of a few people, maybe more than a few people, but a handful of people who’ve been inside the eye of a storm. So could you describe that?

Heather Holbach:          10:24                There’s really nothing like it. The eye wall is typically where you get the most turbulence in the storm, and so you go from this region of really heavy rain streaking across your window and potentially a good bit of turbulence. Not all storms are very turbulent, but a lot of the stronger ones are. Or storms that are changing strength tend to be. But you go from this really bumpy ride to all of a sudden there’s no clouds out your window, it clears up and it’s so smooth. And it happens in a split second. It is the most crazy experience, but it also helps you understand what’s happening if you’re on the surface, how quickly that changes and how you need to be really careful if you are on the ground in the eye because when you go back out the other way that change happens just as fast. You go from super smooth, sunny, potentially clear skies to howling winds in a matter of minutes. So that’s one of the things we always try to remind people is you need to be really careful because those winds will pick up really quickly and can surprise you.

Margaret Boettcher:     11:52                My name is Margaret Boettcher, and I am an affiliate research professor at the University of New Hampshire. Well so the pandemic ended up giving us some interesting challenges because we had put out these seismometers, so we dropped the seismometers over the side of the ship and left them there. And so about three months after we deployed our seismometers, the magnitude 6 that we were expecting, 6.1, occurred. And at the same time the pandemic set in and it really became very unclear whether we’d be able to go back and retrieve the seismometers before their batteries ran out. And we really need their batteries so that we have very good timing for the clocks on these instruments, otherwise we can’t get the details of the timing of the seismic waves is essential in order to figure out where the all the little earthquakes occurred and all the details of the seismic waves.

                                    12:52                So we needed to collect them within 12 to 14 months of when we deployed them. And unfortunately our location is very remote and it’s quite far from especially any US port. So we were deemed a very high risk experiment, and it wasn’t clear that we’d be able to go. But we did have this very valuable data, we knew the earthquake occurred and we wanted to be able to see all of the patterns of seismicity surrounding it. So luckily we were able to go, there were many different iterations of when we’d go or where we’d go, who would go on board. And in the end we just had one scientist, the chief scientist, John Collins, who is also the lead of the Ocean Bottom Instrument Center. So he’s really the ideal person to go on this cruise because we were picking up our 51 seismometers and redeploying them. So it was quite an OBS, Ocean Bottom Seismometer, heavy cruise. So we were very lucky to do that.

Shane Hanlon:              14:08                Vicky, do these stories, or at least snippets of stories, give you a sense of longing to potentially have been a field a scientist?

Vicky Thompson:           14:20                I think so.

Shane Hanlon:              14:21                Yeah?

Vicky Thompson:           14:21                No, I like being out in the world, out doing stuff.

Shane Hanlon:              14:24                Out in the world.

Vicky Thompson:           14:25                Right? Like doing actual hands on things. Yeah. And what about you? Do you miss it?

Shane Hanlon:              14:29                No. Yeah, I know that’s really funny. I do, but I am happy with where I’m at now. And frankly, I do get this opportunity every summer to teach a field course, undergraduates in disease ecology, which is what I actually went to school for, for a few weeks. And that actually starts pretty soon. Not when this episode… But shortly after when this episode will be coming out. So that definitely scratches that itch.

Vicky Thompson:           15:01                I feel like you just made another joke. There’s probably a lot of mosquitoes out in the field. A lot of bug bites.

Shane Hanlon:              15:06                And a ton of ticks. Yeah.

Vicky Thompson:           15:08                Oh.

Shane Hanlon:              15:08                One thing that my students really love, because it’s a disease ecology class so we talk about things like Lyme and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, tick diseases, is that we literally go walking through a field one day with the intent of basically having as many ticks as possible get on them.

Vicky Thompson:           15:29                I feel like you have to sign a waiver.

Shane Hanlon:              15:32                Your face right now. Well they’re not wearing shorts. It’s the very kind of you have your light colored pants on and you tuck them into your socks, and all of the protocols are observed.

Vicky Thompson:           15:46                Nope. You need a waiver. You need a counselor to be available at the end.

Shane Hanlon:              15:49                A counselor?

Vicky Thompson:           15:50                Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              15:50                They’re just ticks.

Vicky Thompson:           15:51                Wouldn’t you feel buggy? I would feel buggy for the rest of my life. I would never.

Shane Hanlon:              15:54                Oh, yeah. No, that’s a thing. It depends on when we do it in the course, it’s just like when it falls out. But what I’ve noticed that when we do it early in the course, in the three weeks, anytime we go into the forest or a field with high grass or anything… And me too, frankly, even though I’ve been doing this for a long time. But they’re a little more attuned to-

Vicky Thompson:           16:17                More careful.

Shane Hanlon:              16:21                This has gone off the rail.

Vicky Thompson:           16:22                Oh my gosh.

Shane Hanlon:              16:23                So with that, we’ll just end it there. And that is all from Third Pod from the Sun.

Vicky Thompson:           16:30                Thanks so much to you, Shane, for producing the episode. And big thanks to our numerous producers for this upcoming series.

Shane Hanlon:              16:38                And thanks as well to Collin Warren for audio engineering, and to Karen Romano Young for the artwork for this episode.

Vicky Thompson:           16:45                We’d love to hear your thoughts on the podcast, so please rate and review us. And you can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app, or at

Shane Hanlon:              16:54                Thanks all, and we’ll see you next week.

Vicky Thompson:           17:02                Can the image for this one be like… What’s the thing? Like fieldwork rocks, fieldwork rocks.

Shane Hanlon:              17:10                Like Cleveland Rocks?

Vicky Thompson:           17:11                Cleveland Rocks. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              17:12                Do you want Drew Carey in our picture?

Vicky Thompson:           17:15                But that’s from something, it’s not just like… Isn’t it like an album or a song?

Shane Hanlon:              17:21                It was, yeah. I think it was a song before the Drew Carey show.

Vicky Thompson:           17:25                Yeah. Oh yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              17:26                But it’s famous because of the Drew Carey show.

Vicky Thompson:           17:31                Sure. I mean anything Drew Carey touches turns to gold.

Shane Hanlon:              17:34                Which is the wildest sentence that I think anyone has ever said. You know what I mean? Ask anyone. Ask anyone in Gen Z who Drew Carey is and they’d be like, “Who are you talking about”?

Vicky Thompson:           17:47                Wait, by The Presidents of the United States of America?

Shane Hanlon:              17:52                Oh yeah, you didn’t know that?

Vicky Thompson:           17:53                No, I guess I’ve never heard the actual song.

Shane Hanlon:              17:56                Yeah, they’ve had three hits. They had Peaches, they had Lump, and they had this.

Vicky Thompson:           18:02                Lump is a good song.

Shane Hanlon:              18:02                Lump is a great song. Everyone loves Peaches, Lump is so much better.

Vicky Thompson:           18:05                Lumps really good.


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