Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

What or Who Is a Survey Scientist

 Susan Post


Does the word “scientist” conger images of someone dressed in a clean white lab coat, using a variety of glassware full of colorful, bubbling liquids? While that may have been an accurate description of perhaps a third of survey scientists 30+ years ago, the scientist of today is more likely to wear jeans and some sort of nice nature theme T-shirt during the days in the office. The field attire is usually field pants that dry quickly, an old nature theme T-shirt covered with a long-sleeved shirt, and a hat. Most of our jobs require that we are actually in the field. Perhaps Indiana Jones-type figures come to mind?

Ah, the field. To the INHS office staff or other colleagues that never get to experience “the field,” the term must seem a mag-  ical place where we disappear with tape measures, nets, plant presses, jars, bags, traps, PVC measuring squares, and a variety of other implements to collect data. They see us leaving with smiles, most always laughing and joking. When we return our clothes reek of insect repellant and sunscreen, there is usually a trail of dirt through the clean hallways of our buildings, and our data pages are smudged with stains or warped from the humidity, but we still are laughing and joking.  A colleague once quipped “the best day in the office is far worse than the worst day in the field.”

To be a field biologist is, well, special. We are an interesting lot, capable of incredible stubbornness in the face of adversity and always willing to do whatever it takes to collect “the data.” Ah the data, always first and foremost in our minds. Survey scientists know what it’s like to spend a frigid night in on open boat shocking fish, crawl through wet, dark cave passages as the sound of thunder rolls through the blackness, stare numbly in the hot, close forest at that last quarter meter transect of the day, or summit remote mountain passes in central Asia with nothing between them and disaster but a cranky, aging truck. Yet, it’s important to remember that field biologists (scientists) are just people, after all, but people who are living their dreams. 

How many people actually get to live their dream? As a child many of us chased butterflies, fished, hunted with Dad, or just explored the out-of-doors. We are still outside, but now answering important questions. What organisms occur along a certain corridor? How do we increase a certain organism’s population size? What is causing a species to decline? How many ducks migrate through Illinois? What is the best way to restore land back to its “original” state? How do we get rid of unwanted invasive species? The days “in the field” may be long, uncomfortable, full of tedium, but we are still out there, alone or in small groups, having fun in places where we have never lost our passion for discovery.

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