Boots on the Ground: The Importance of Field Work

As a biologist, the field is an exhilarating place and in biology the term “in the field” refers to a multitude of places. For a marine biologist, the field is not only the oceans or shorelines but laboratories or museums as well. Same for any particular field of study in biology. But, actual “in the field“, boots on the ground-kind of work in places where natural functioning ecosystems exist is paramount to our overall understand of life on our planet. Nowadays, this type of work is often perceived of as “old fashioned” or somehow and erroneously as not very important in the face of new impressive technologies. And as our large-scale technologies advance, field work conducted by wildlife biologists becomes more and more undervalued. And I have definitely seen this in my own experiences as a field biologist. As E.O. Wilson points out in his book Half-Earth, taxonomists are dwindling right alongside many species. But it is not because there are fewer species in the world, in fact there are many more species waiting to be discovered than we could even imagine. It is simply that field taxonomists are not being prioritized as they are believed to be not as important and thus many like myself, find it harder and harder to find meaningful work in the field.

In my latest WILD ROOTS episode, I had the great fortune of being able to discuss this topic with a former Professor of mine, Eli Greenbaum, PhD while also discussing his book the Emerald Labyrinth. His book is a fantastic narrative about his early field experiences in the Congo to discover exotic herpetofauna. Dr. Eli Greenbaum is an evolutionary geneticist and herpetologist who very clearly understands the importance of taxonomists role in biology which he explains in the episode.

Personally, I have had disheartening experiences in which the field work I’ve conducted for a particular job was blatantly under-appreciated. This was made clear in multiple ways. The most disheartening reason I discovered was that the entity in which I work for didn’t take into account seriously, the actual findings I was sent out to reveal because it interfered with conflicting and destructive interests. If the field findings were indeed considered seriously the industry involved, which operates seemingly with a blindfold for ecological concerns, would lose profits. This experience was extremely revealing to me as I saw first-hand, the far too prevalent model of “profit over preservation” take place. So for me, the experience was a soul-crushing one. And perhaps I’ll elaborate on that account in a future article.

That experience only fueled my existing love for the field. Being in the field is an enthralling experience for me! It is where I find my spirit to be especially heightened. This great love for the field drives a lot of what I do, who I work for, what I tell others and how I live my life. While reading Greenbaum’s Emerald Labyrinth, I’d found my heart racing in anticipation of new discoveries right alongside Greenbaum in his quest to find new species in Congo’s unexplored regions. The book was in itself a thrilling adventure that consumed my being and love for the field. Yet, too often this type of work isn’t valued or understood to many outside the realm of field biology and is often perceived as “strange” and time-wasting. But I must stress that the type of work conducted by biologists like Greenbaum is extremely important. This is because biologists like Greenbaum are the ones making biological discoveries and solving genetic mysteries that are so important to our understanding of the natural world. Why does this matter? It matters because we are of the natural world. Trends in wildlife decline directly affect our way of life. Our secure future depends on a healthy biosphere in which we all (humans and all non-human animals) live.

Emerald Labyrinth is an exciting book and one of my new favorites! It is quite the page-turner. And ranks up right along the narratives of other great biologists of our time like Jane Goodall, E.O. Wilson and George Schaller, just to name a few. If your love for the field is as strong as mine, I urge you to read this book and join in on Greenbaum’s field adventures.

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