Tuesday, July 29, 2014

thesis field problems

I found an old post here regarding field difficulties during the course of a PhD. Although my grad school research was not as extensive or long-term (just a MS, not a PhD), I too had a field-based project that ended up changing mid-stream because of logistical problems.

First, the organization that was funding my research decided that what they really wanted was an evaluation of an entirely different material. So I tossed all of the papers I'd been collecting and started over. Then, once I'd developed a plan for the fieldwork and had finally figured out a million logistical problems for actually pulling it off, the field site epically flooded and I had to redesign everything. Then I had to cut the data collection short because of a large, single minded, chewing creature (probably a porcupine) which developed a taste for a particular, critical piece of infrastructure and returned every night, probably 30 seconds after it heard me leaving. Rodenticide was not an option.

If I'd been going for a PhD, I would have had more time to straighten out all those problems and collect more data. Or maybe I would have started with something even more complicated and encountered a whole new batch of issues. I can laugh about my star-crossed project now, but my mid-grad school doldrums had me convinced I was never going to get the damn thesis off the ground.

Friday, July 25, 2014

fieldwork and harassment

How common is harassment for field scientists? Chris Rowan recently discussed this paper on sexual harassment of field workers. The paper is focused on academic field experiences, but I'd like to address the issue in terms of environmental (industry) experiences.

I have not been the target of sexual advances or harassment by any managers, superiors, or advisors. But those folks have rarely been in the field with me anyway. I've never been bothered by subcontractors - I've certainly run into folks with, ah, interesting attitudes, but they've never made a pass at me or made me concerned for my safety. After all, if they scare me enough, I'll yank them off the site. I've only had one coworker who made me uncomfortable (mentioned here).

My main problems have been with the random people I've encountered.

I've been harassed in two types of situations:

1. In the middle of nowhere. I may or may not have a coworker on-site, but even if they are technically on-site, they may not be in immediate visual/audible range. I may get harassed by local ATV riders/hunters/other locals, but usually they're just passing through. With that said, it's definitely more scary when you're more or less on your own.

2. back corners or quiet areas in otherwise busy residential/industrial zones. This is where I get the persistent scary harassers (usually male). I'm technically not alone, but there's a higher concentration of people with too much time on their hands and who want to test the line between "creep her out" and "send her running/yelling for help".

How can you avoid those sorts of situations in the field? The jerks out in their native habitat don't pay attention to your organization's sexual harassment policies and procedures. The only advice I have is to make sure you have a field buddy, and to make sure that it's understood that it is a health and safety requirement. And if it's your coworker, supervisor, or some other site worker who is the problem, make sure that the issue is escalated to the appropriate parties and properly addressed. After all, a field buddy isn't much use if you have to fend them off instead of the bears/ticks/angry locals.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

blog regularity

I've been able to post more regularly for a while now, and I attribute that to a few specific changes:

1. Every time I have a thought for a blog post while working in the office, I write it on a post-it note. Then I immediately stuff it in a pocket and bring it home, where it gets added to a pile of other post-it notes. I do something similar in the field or while in transit - I rip off a square of scrap paper and bring it back to the hotel (or back home, if I don't get around to writing it right away).

I used to write long posts in my head while I was having technical difficulty/was getting annoyed by something, but I'd have a long day or get distracted and would forget them by the time I was actually sitting at a computer, ready to type. Now I just collect my pile of little pieces of paper and sort through them when I'm ready. This leads to the other change:

2. I used to get home from work, scan through all my usual reading, and try to come up with something new and interesting from that day to react to. The problem was that it made blogging into a chore when all I really wanted to do was decompress and start dinner. It also lead to my production dropping off a cliff if I'd had a hard day (or month). So now what I do instead is take advantage of my schedule: my sweetie sleeps in on the weekend, and since I'm a morning person, I'm awake, alert, and undistracted then. It's the perfect time for me to write long, complicated posts. I still write posts during the week, but I've been freed from the feeling that I have to come up with something on any given day.

Bloggers, do you have a particular writing routine that seems to work well for you?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

business cards

Ask a manager has a recent post up regarding business cards, and the discussion reminded me of my own business cards.

I have always received business cards in giant packs of 500 or so. And I've been known to use that many cards. I treat them just like I treat headache pills and feminine products: you never know when they'll come in handy, and they're easy to add, so I have a few tucked into my field bag, my purse, my laptop bag, the center console in my car...

I use business cards for everything. Meet a new subcontractor manager, regulator, or other stakeholder in the field? Hand them a card. Have a site visitor? Giving them a card is a good way to prompt them to hand over theirs, so you have their contact info. Start a new logbook? Tape in a business card in case it's lost (or you forgot your fax number and someone important wants to know). Need to coordinate/get something from a local resident, business, or municipal office? Drop off a card. Meet someone at a conference? Exchange cards. Have a brilliant idea for a blog post or remember some critical task to add to the to-do list and don't have something to write on? Instant, back pocket-sized scratch paper.

Two things I don't have on my business cards: a photo of me, and my cell phone number. The first is just not used in the environmental biz, and the second is only given out (scribbled on the back of the card) to people who may actually need it to contact me in the field. Vendors, miscellaneous people who want to know what I'm doing, and random conference attendees just get the business card sans cell phone.

Now all I need are cards that stay looking nice after they've spent an extended period in the bottom of my bag or been dropped in a puddle, or have been shuffled through with my grubby hands prior to handing them off...

Monday, July 14, 2014

on-site pets

I've known several people who regularly brought their pets (dog/cat/other) with them for fieldwork. It's not something I would do, but it can work out under a few conditions:

1. The animal in question is docile/well trained and likes to be right next to/perch on the shoulder of its owner. No bolting!

2. The animal likes travel, or at least is easygoing enough that it doesn't care one way or the other. If it would be happier/more secure at home, then don't drag it around!

2. The fieldwork doesn't involve any heavy equipment or other major mechanical hazards.

3. The site is either secluded or contained in some way (i.e. not dispersed throughout a neighborhood or industrial area).

4. The presence of a pet is not going to ruffle any client or stakeholder feathers.

5. Nobody in the field crew is allergic to/petrified of the animal. Usually this works out ok if the pet owner has his/her own vehicle so that nobody else is subject to hair/dander/feathers/loose critters. Or if the coworker honestly doesn't mind. I used to spend long  (6 hour +) drives with a coworker's animal, but I don't have allergies and I like the buggers so it worked out ok. Other people were seriously put out by it and it was a big black mark against them in the office/in their career.

I have had plenty of sites where a leashed dog/shoulder loving parrot/trailer hamster would be fine. But pet owners should keep in mind that an on-site pet may be viewed as charming/totally ok by most people, but that a certain percentage of the population will find it incredibly unprofessional. It's best to be extremely careful and to take into account political considerations if you want to take your pet along.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

summer shirts

I've written a number of posts on winter gear, such as this one on layering and this one on wool shirts and this on shoes. Now that we've officially moved into summer weather (regularly above 80 F) in the northeastern US, I thought I'd address the Great T-Shirt Debate: natural (cotton) or un-natural (polyester)?

Polyester/rayon/nylon/whatever blends are generally cooler and lighter. They also dry out well. However, they don't wash well: any dirt gets pretty much ground in there permanently, and mine smell distinctly of sunscreen (and probably sweat, although the sunscreen is most noticeable) even after being washed multiple times. Also, they don't hide anything underneath, and I have to wear a distinctly, ah, supportive and thick sports bra in order to not be indecent in them, which kind of negates the "cool" part.

Cotton t-shirts tend to be heavier. They don't dry out all that well, and will stay damp for ages if you've been sweating in them. However, they're also safer if you (or a contractor you're overseeing) are doing any welding, grinding, or other hot work, because sparks that land on them may smolder and scorch them, but won't melt them to your flesh.

So what do I go with? It depends on the weather. If it's going to be brutally hot out or I know it's going to rain the whole day, I'll go with non-cotton t-shirts. If there's a chance for passing showers or I want to give the serious sports bra a rest, I'll go with cotton to prevent any issues with the shirt becoming see-through. I also think that cotton layers better, with minimal static if you have to peel something off. So when I'm in the field, I bring a few of each.

I think most of the contractors I've worked with are all-cotton, but that may be because cotton t-shirts are cheaper and are more permanently silk-screened with the appropriate company logo. If you do a lot of fieldwork, do you have a preference for one or the other?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

firing contractors

A comment on the previous post raised the issue of "firing" drillers/drilling companies. We all have different tolerance levels for bullshit from contractors. I look young (read: inexperienced), I'm a bit of a crier, and I can be a perfectionist about the standards I hold the contractors to. This may lead you to think that I kick drillers off-site left and right.

Au contraire. I may be young looking, picky, and sensitive. But I'm also stubborn and forever convinced that I can work with/around anyone. I also haven't worked with that many drillers or other contractors who were unsafe and insubordinate, so if I have to stand on someone and nag them to wear their PPE (personal protective equipment), invite field safety audits (by my firm or theirs), stop them every 20 minutes to change what they're doing, and extend the morning tailgate meeting to an hour-long roundtable discussion, then that's what I'll do.

For projects I manage, I would be a lot more proactive about booting unsafe/difficult drillers, because I wouldn't expect the people working for me to put up with what I'll put up with. I've never had an issue with drillers/other subcontractors on projects I've managed, though. That's probably a numbers issue - I've worked with many more individual drillers/contractors than projects I've managed.

I have not fired or been involved in projects that fired drilling companies. We work out the end of the contract and then go our separate ways. The largest investigations tend to go in phases (and be contracted in phases) as we look at previous results and adjust what the next phase should entail. And that usually means sending out new specifications, and going through the bidding/driller selection process again. That's the point at which I take a hard look at the drilling company's performance. Did we just have one bad egg (and I can request someone else), or is it a larger bad management/culture issue? Maybe we pick someone new next time. If we routinely have problems with a particular drilling firm, we drop them from the bidders list.

I've had very few individual drillers and firms that were unsafe/insubordinate/unable to do the work. Maybe I've just been lucky, but I think that as the environmental industry matures and consolidates, the "rogue" firms and drillers have been pushed out, and the number of "firings" have decreased.