The School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR) prides itself in offering experiential field-based learning opportunities through our courses, activities, and events; however, not all people have the same lived experience prior to joining or while part of our community, which can impact their sense of safety and belongingness and long-term career readiness. Here, we acknowledge and address concerns of safety and inclusion for members of our community and related ENR professions while in the field.
What is “the field”?
What do scientists, researchers, and practitioners mean by saying they are in “the field”? In short, “the field” indicates a location outside of “the lab” or classroom. For example, someone studying how ticks are transmitted among livestock might seek permission to go onto farmers’ properties off-campus for purposes of sampling in “the field”. A fish ecologist might be in “the field” when they travel to a different country, live at a remote research station, and spend several months sampling fish from swamps. A social scientist studying food insecurity among people from different socioeconomic backgrounds might reference “the field” when going door-to-door in urban and rural areas to conduct in-person interviews or surveys. A park and protected area researcher may be in “the field” when collecting behavioral observation data related to food storage practices of people camping in national parks. Students might even be in “the field” for a shorter duration (e.g., less than 1 day) during a classroom field trip or outdoor lab.
No matter the discipline, “the field” means being away from typical indoor settings. Because of this change of location, all people face risks and challenges associated with being in the field. For example, when in the field, people may experience extreme weather (e.g., hot or cold temperatures, snow, hail), uneven terrain, unfriendly people, wild animals, or other considerations. However, researchers new to being in the field may have less experiences (and lots of questions) about using specific equipment or data collection techniques. Alternatively, new researchers may not know what personal field gear to bring or wear, resulting in feelings of being an ‘outsider’ or exclusion if others respond negatively to the differential lived experiences. In addition, anyone can potentially experience negative interpersonal dynamics when in the field (e.g., harassment from classmates/peers or members of the public).
That said, we also acknowledge that underrepresented minorities (URMs) in the sciences often experience more and greater risks when working in the field because of how others perceive and respond to their identities. For example, a woman conducting field work alone may feel uncomfortable when approached by a group of men. As another example, a landowner or recreationist may stigmatize a scientist working in the field due to their skin color – a serious concern for many people identifying as Black and/or Indigenous due to the historical context of racism and land dispossessions in the U.S. These concerns can extend to additional racial and ethnic groups who are in the minority in any given area. Additionally, people with differing abilities and body sizes may have physical access considerations or concerns around how they might be perceived while doing field work (e.g., people being judged as “too young”, “too big” or “too little”, “not strong enough”, “not from here”, or “not looking like a scientist”). Finally, people with ‘hidden identities’, which can include neurodivergence (e.g., people with mental health concerns, people with Asperger’s or PTSD, and more) or members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and more [LGBTQIA+] community, may also have serious concerns about access to amenities, treatment by members of local communities or government officials, etc.
We work hard in SENR to alleviate the challenges we can and prepare our students for the range of experiences they may face. Having fieldwork experience is nearly a “rite of passage” for some disciplines (e.g., geosciences, anthropology, wildlife biology, aquatic sciences) and related career paths, so we are changing the narrative of who belongs and is capable of field work, and making field experiences more accessible to everyone. Below we provide information, resources, and an evolving action plan to increase safety and inclusion for at-risk individuals doing fieldwork as part of their academic training. Our three overarching goals are to:
1. Develop an inclusive field culture through trainings, workshops, resources
2. Provide experiential opportunities and access to/knowledge of appropriate field gear and field culture
3. Create adaptive field safety and inclusion guidelines for research and teaching, and socialize faculty, staff, and students to the guidelines.
Acknowledging field safety and inclusion concerns for at-risk individuals
“At-risk individuals include minority identities of the following: race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity and/or religion.” (Demery & Pipkin 2021)
To move toward a safer and more inclusive field experience, we recognize and acknowledge the elevated risks and challenges faced by at-risk individuals. In Figure 1, we outline some of the challenges that at-risk individuals face depending on their identities and the people, places, and additional influencers they may interact with as part of their fieldwork. Demery & Pipkin (2021) document the following examples of the experiences of at-risk individuals in the field,
“police have been called on them; a gun has been pulled on them (by law enforcement and/or local community members); hate symbols have been displayed at or near the field site; the field site is an area with a history of hate crimes against their identity (including ‘sundown towns’, in which all-white communities physically, or through threats of extreme violence, forced people of colour out of town by sundown [Lowen 2005]); available housing has historically problematic connotations (for example, a former plantation where people were enslaved); service has been refused (for example, food or housing); slurs have been used or researchers verbally abused due to misunderstandings about a disability; undue monitoring or stalking by unknown and potentially aggressive individuals; sexual harassment and/or assault occurred.”
Note that sometimes, and especially in field stations where researchers will often stay for long periods of time, the harassment comes not necessarily from interactions with the public, but from other researchers, supervisors, peers, staff, administrators, etc. working at the site (Clancy et al., 2014).
We also recognize that there can be significant disparities in access and barriers to involvement for URMs in the opportunities that lead to familiarity with fieldwork practices and cultural norms that one can only learn from spending time in “the field”. For example, youth who spend time at nature-oriented field camps, go camping or hiking with family and friends, take swimming/sailing/canoeing lessons, etc. will inherently have a better sense of the gear or equipment they should bring to the field to make their experience enjoyable and safe from environmental challenges. People with these earlier experiences (which function as a form of privilege) often gain a comfort level working in these environments compared to people who did not have access to these experiences. As an example, a student who has little to no experience hiking but is required to do so for their graduate fieldwork, may show up with a pair of tennis shoes that don’t provide adequate durability or protection from the elements (e.g., ticks, rain, cold weather, uneven terrain).
In addition to a possible lack of experience due to opportunity differentials, the expense of quality field gear is prohibitive to anyone experiencing poverty or other forms of constrained income. As an example, a student who was recently offered a scholarship for a field-based course (to pay tuition) that would provide necessary field experience for their career path (i.e., the “opportunity”) had to turn down the scholarship because they couldn’t afford to purchase the list of specialized personal gear required to engage in the course. As other examples, students with disabilities may require additional or more specialized gear (e.g., hearing aids, assistive technology for increased mobility) that would lead to an even greater cost burden. Feelings of exclusion and/or being unprepared for the realities of field work can also have a negative impact on mental health.
How can we achieve safer and more inclusive field experiences?
First and foremost, we commit to improving safety and inclusion in the field for our community by providing training, resources, and support of at-risk individuals. This commitment requires recognition of the additional risks posed to these individuals when preparing for and partaking in field work and encouragement of action on the part of everyone in our community. Examples of how we can achieve this include:
1. Fieldwork orientation & training
- Provide wilderness first aid and safety training
- Provide cultural awareness briefs (e.g., for students traveling to international destinations, remote areas, urban centers, etc.)
- Host field preparation workshops to answer questions, such as what personal field gear is needed, how it’s used, and how to acquire the gear without breaking the bank
- Create a field gear closet (lightly used gear that has been donated, take what you need, leave what you can)
2. Develop instructional strategies for implementing safer and more inclusive practices in SENR courses
- Conduct specialized training for instructors and GTAs who teach courses with field components
- Host optional mini-field trips at the beginning of the semester to give an overview of what to wear, how to wear it, how to maneuver and get to field sites, etc.
- Develop online content or modules to showcase various field sites (e.g., aquatic sciences) and highlight ways to address/prevent risks relevant to that site
3. Fieldwork planning
- Host discussions between supervisors and students/staff to identify risks, develop strategies to mitigate risks
- Create schedule/travel itinerary
- Draft living documents for reporting schedule, check-ins
- Develop and communicate a reporting mechanism so that anyone could safely report if any instances of harassment arise
- Develop and publicize a code of conduct, often unique to each field situation but should include baseline language adherent to the OSU’s student code of conduct
We are committed to creating more safe and inclusive field experiences for all - if you are keen to help us in this process, please contact Dr. Suzanne Gray (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Field Safety and Inclusion Resources
- Field Research Safety Training (Kent McGuire)
- CFAES Field Teaching & Research Safety
- OSU Field Safety Research Information
- FIELDProject – UC Berkley
- Safer Science - Cornell
- Field Research Safety – University of California
- In the field – AdvanceGEO Partnership
- Confronting Barriers to inclusion – The Geological Society
- Confronting Barriers to inclusion: Workshop resources – The Geological Society
- Out in the Field – The Wildlife Society
- Safety and belonging in the field: A checklist for educators
- Ten Steps to Protect BIPOC Scholars in the Field
- Excluded from the lab
- Support animals in the lab
- Scientists push against barriers to diversity in the field sciences
- I AM one of you – a gay wildlife biologist’s perspective on our profession
- Beltran, R. S., Marnocha, E., Race, A., Croll, D. A., Dayton, G. H., & Zavaleta, E. S. (2020). Field courses narrow demographic achievement gaps in ecology and evolutionary biology. Ecology and Evolution, 10(12), 5184-5196.
- Bowser, G., and C. R. Cid. 2021. Developing the ecological scientist mindset among underrepresented students in ecology fields. Ecological Applications 31(6):e02348. 10.1002/eap.2348
- Burmann, L.L., Matthew C. Kelly, Chelsea Schelly & Tara L. Bal (2022) Formative Interests and Pathways to Natural Resources Careers among Historically Underrepresented People, Society & Natural Resources, 35:3, 260-280, DOI: 10.1080/08941920.2022.2028046
- Clancy KBH, Nelson RG, Rutherford JN, Hinde K (2014) Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102172. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102172
- Demery, AJ.C., Pipkin, M.A. Safe fieldwork strategies for at-risk individuals, their supervisors and institutions. Nat Ecol Evol 5, 5–9 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-01328-5
- McGuire, K.L., Richard B. Primack, Elizabeth C. Losos, Dramatic Improvements and Persistent Challenges for Women Ecologists, BioScience, Volume 62, Issue 2, February 2012, Pages 189–196, https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2012.62.2.12
- Morales, N., K. Bisbee O’Connell, S. McNulty, A. Berkowitz, G. Bowser, M. Giamellaro, and M. N. Miriti. 2020. Promoting inclusion in ecological field
- experiences: Examining and overcoming barriers to a professional rite of passage. Bull Ecol Soc Am 101(4):e01742. https://doi.org/10.1002/bes2.1742
- Nelson, R. G., Rutherford, J. N., Hinde, K., & Clancy, K. B. (2017). Signaling safety: Characterizing fieldwork experiences and their implications for career trajectories. American Anthropologist, 119(4), 710-722.
- O’Brien, L. T., Bart, H. L., & Garcia, D. M. (2020). Why are there so few ethnic minorities in ecology and evolutionary biology? Challenges to inclusion and the role of sense of belonging. Social Psychology of Education, 23(2), 449-477.
- Sharp, G., & Kremer, E. (2006). The safety dance: Confronting harassment, intimidation, and viiolence in the field. Sociological methodology, 36(1), 317-327.