FAQ, and answers thereto #4

The latest in a light-hearted look at the search terms folks use to find The Lab and Field.


how much one make in giving a seminar in a university

Typically nothing.


pnas, predator publisher

While you may not like them, there not considered predatory sensu stricto.


as told by alex bond

Yes, it is.


i have nserc visiting fellowship but no supervisor

Well, you’ve been approved on the list. A government scientist needs to step up to the plate and look for a postdoc. Though the status of the program is a bit ambiguous.


how to seminar

Cookies. Coffee/tea. Speaker. Engaging. Listen. Think. Question. Beers.


journal “beware !! running more not as bad”.pdf

Never heard of them. Might send my next article though.


hipster font philosphical lines

Can you tell the difference between Arial and Helvetica?


saskatchewan flat land

All of it.


why librians gets always hurted?

Bad grammar and spelling?


journal paper on fixing of laboratory tiles

“Temporal lag between maintenance requests and renovation: effects of bulky lab equipment and overworked facilities management staff”. Forthcoming.


why academic library saves as a learning laboratory discussed

Sounds like an assignment question. How about: “Academic libraries saves as a learning laboratory because knowledge is found everywhere, even in books. And if anyone knows books, it’s librarians. They’re awesome.” You’re welcome.


data management in the ward

Keep those colours outta my Excel spreadsheets. Those need intensive care.


the reasons behind labrador dick’s extinction



tell me something about field work job

It’s fun.


how do publishers profit with open access

I’m not involved in any journal finances, but usually they’re subsidized by some external funding (e.g., from a large society), or they work on economies of (massive) scale.


lab captions

“Figure 1: door to the lab”

“Figure 2: lab coffee machine and tea station”

“Figure 3: why scientists should not consume food in the lab”

“Figure 3b: or beverages”


the name field bird found in african

the question order word in awkwardness


every summer breeding brazil

Hey, what you do on your own time is your own business.


swallow the birds



do i need a phd to become a ecologist




Return to Tristan da Cunha

Perhaps it’s wanderlust. Or maybe some kind of zugunruhe. But it’s that time of year when I’m about to ditch the comforts of modern living and head for the field. I don’t just mean a week or two, but several months. And what better place to go than the most remote inhabited place on the planet – Tristan da Cunha.


The village of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, the settlement on Tristan da Cunha

Sitting about 2800 km WSW from Cape Town, South Africa, this 12 km-diameter island is home to about 270 Tristanians. Aside from the main island, my work will take me to Gough Island, Nightingale Island, and hopefully Inaccessible Island (which, despite the name, is, in fact, accessible, but only during the confluence of good weather, good seas, and luck).

Last year was my first journey to the South Atlantic, and it was eye-opening. Aside from the fantastic (and novel) biodiversity, the visible impact of humanity was also in plain sight. Whether this was the mice on Gough that eat albatross chicks alive, or the deafening silence of the main island, it’s clear that though remote, Tristan is far from pristine.

So on Wednesday I begin the long journey for what I’ve dubbed on Twitter #TdCadventure. But not before another small adventure – the annual crew change at Gough Island.+

Panoramic view of Tarn Moss on Gough Island

Panoramic view of Tarn Moss on Gough Island

Along with the University of Cape Town, the RSPB runs an annual monitoring program on Gough that measures population size, breeding success, survival, and the effects of mice on a myriad of species. This year marks the 61st expedition to Gough, and so is dubbed Gough 61. Our team of 3 scientists will join the 5 staff of the South African weather station on the island for a 13 month posting. in September, we’ll relieve the Gough 60 expedition, and transition to Gough 61. It’s a hectic time, as we only have about 18 days on the island, and need to transfer skills, knowledge, and methods to the new team. Lots of long 18+-hour days, but also some amazing scenery, great company, much laughter, and for the last number of years, great success.

Tristan Albatross chick. This species is endemic to Gough and is greatly affected by introduced mice.

Tristan Albatross chick. This species is endemic to Gough and is greatly affected by introduced mice.

Then, when the S.A. Agulhas II departs Gough, it will deposit me back on Tristan for another 2 months where we’ll hopefully accomplish our delayed survey of the endemic Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, and deploy autonomous acoustic recorders to get a handle on what nocturnal burrow-nesting species are on the main island.

Adult Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. They are endemic to the Tristan group, and the largest population is on the main island.

Adult Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. They are endemic to the Tristan group, and the largest population is on the main island.

The internet is fairly poor, so don’t expect much, but I’ll try to put up a few blog posts. You can read about last year’s adventures here: Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.


Being out or an ally at scientific conferences – UPDATED

The Ecological Society of America is holding its 100th annual meeting this week in Baltimore (congratulations!), and they’ve added something that I think is fairly unique (at least I’ve not seen it before) – ribbons to append to your name tag that identify you as a council member, session chair, or, interestingly, a rainbow ribbon with “ally” written on it.



This got me thinking a bit about LGBT participation at scientific conferences. Some organizations/conferences have an LGBT section (mostly informal), and occasionally I’ve seen notes pinned to the conference notice board for “OutGroup” off-site get-togethers (OutGroup being a rather tongue-and-cheek pun for out LGBT attendees).

I should say that I’ve never been at a conference with any sort of official (or unofficial… at least that was broadcast to attendees) LGBT event. So when I saw Josh Drew’s ally ribbon, I thought that could be an interesting idea, especially at a conference like ESA, where there are 8000 attendees or so.

Back in 2005/6, I ran a campus “Safe Space” program, running workshops and distributing safe space stickers for students to put on their dorm doors, and less frequently for faculty/grad students to put on their office doors. Our biggest concern was that the program be genuine, and participants be somehow vetted. We accomplished this with an hour-long workshop and some take-away literature.  The ESA ribbons can be obtained at the registration desk, and I suspect that given their public display (alongside attendees’ names) that the lack of vetting won’t be a problem.

Conferences and scientific societies are increasingly becoming aware of the social issues around their meetings, and many now put in place codes of practice (you can see the ESA’s here, which includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender, but not gender expression, which needs to get fixed).  I couldn’t easily find the equivalent document for the British Ecological Society.

Most of the conference I go to are much smaller – a couple hundred people at most. Consequently, they don’t have codes of conduct, or rainbow ribbons, or an OutGroup get-together. That makes me sad.

So, here are a few rambling thoughts on what scientific organizations (and their conferences) can do to support their LGBT members:

Have an LGBT section

Putting LGBT scientists in touch with each other is huge. I didn’t (and still don’t really) have any LGBT scientific mentors that I can look to for professional advice or mentoring.  I think having LGBT mentors is incredibly important, and there are some organizations that are going down this road – the National Organization of Gay & Lesbian Scientific Professionals (NOGLSTP), for instance, but their representation in ecology & evolution and outside the United States is small/non-existent.

Even if this is something unofficial to start, societies encouraging their LGBT members to get together will make those members feel welcome, and hopefully more likely to be more active in other aspects of the organization.


Have an LGBT event

This is, of course, much easier if there are already active LGBT members who can aid in organizing it. Networking is a major aspect of scientific conferences, and people I’ve met at conferences have become friends, collaborators, and close colleagues. Most, if not all, of these relationships have been forged at lunch/dinner/the pub/wandering around the poster session and not sitting in a lecture theatre listening to a talk.

Some conferences have informal groups (I think the Evolution conference had an “Out Group”, but can’t find the link) where folks met for drinks one evening.

If the society has other “interest groups” for subsections of the discipline, or other groups, follow the lead of what they do. If not, start something!


Be mindful of LGBT members when planning meeting locations

This is particularly important for international meetings. There are 75 countries where homosexuality is illegal, mostly in Africa, the Middle East, and South/Southeast Asia. Everyone decides for themselves what their comfort level is, and for me, these 75 are right out.


The ally ribbon

The experiment at ESA is intriguing, and I’ve asked folks to let me/teh internetz know what sort of reaction/interaction it elicited, if any.  I’m genuinely curious. I see this as being a potentially useful thing at larger conferences, like ESA, where there are many more nameless faces.  Even if no one comes up to say anything, having them visible can be incredibly valuable. Like the Safe Space program I coordinated, just having the stickers on the doors can send an important message, and is very important even if no one explicitly comes in looking for a safe space.


In a perfect world, though, we wouldn’t need any of these things. But we’re not there yet. And like I said, these are just my thoughts.  Things that I think would be useful to my professional career, and that I’d like to offer other early-career scientists. Not everyone would find these useful/relevant, and that’s ok. We’re all products, at least partially, of our time and culture, particularly when it comes to LGBT issues, and have different needs/wants/challenges/solutions. But let’s start somewhere.

Have you been to a conference with any LGBT events/groups? What else would you like to see at both big and small scientific meetings?


Update – 12 Aug

This tweet from Ms. Dr. Joseph Simonis indicates that she was mis-gendered when introduced for her talk by someone wearing an ally ribbon. Not cool. The ribbons were freely available at the registration desk, apparently, so there appears to have been no vetting/training/standard-setting for those sporting them. Also not cool. When tags like “ally” are given away with no level of quality control, they are self-ascribing someone’s status. Being an “ally” means different things to different people, and it’s clear from the case above that the expectations from the LGBT* community differ from what some self-described allies think. This is a dangerous mix, and throws the utility of the ally ribbon right out the window.

When I ran the safe space project, we made sure those sporting the sticker on their doors met some minimum level of competence and shared values. This is immensely important, or else the trust just isn’t there and it’s a make-the-ally-ribbon-wearing-folk-feel-good exercise more than anything else. And that’s dangerous and unproductive.

It would be great to get some LGBT* folk involved with the ESA to run/help run a workshop pre-meeting if these ally ribbons are going to make a repeat appearance. I, for one, am free for early August 2016 in Fort Lauderdale. Let’s chat, ESA.

Some lessons learned from 10 years of sciencing

As I highlighted back in December, 2015 is my 10th year as a practicing scientist. I’ve not reflected on this milestone all that much, and with the field season sneaking barrelling up on me, I thought I’d change that. To start, some thoughts on lessons I’ve learned about Science™ since I began in 2005.  This isn’t advice, or necessarily representative, for everyone, but a reflection on my experiences.


Things take a long time

Longer than you think.  In fact, Scotty’s advice to multiple estimates by a factor of 4 is not that unreasonable (miracle worker or not). Whether this is the amount of time to hire a field tech, publish a paper, get reimbursed, write a paper, get results back from the lab, or nearly anything else involved in professional science, chances are you will underestimate how long it takes.  Even now, 10 years in, there are still things that take longer than I had expected. One day I might get it figured out. Hopefully in the next 10 40 years.


There are far more excellent scientists than there are jobs

I’ve seen this from both ends – as a job applicant, and as the person hiring. And it covers the gamut from field techs to grad positions, to postdocs, to term jobs, to permanent positions.  Yes, there’s a degree of stochasticity, but to chalk it all up to chance does a disservice to the applicants and the folks hiring.  It’s bloody hard when faced with 60+ applications for 2-3 positions to separate the “Yes” pile from the “Definitely Yes” pile (and then the “Absolutely Definitively Yes” pile). I don’t have the answer to this problem (I don’t think anyone really does).


Relocation sucks

I moved 225 km between B.Sc. and M.Sc., another 1700 km between M.Sc. and Ph.D., a massive 5500 between Ph.D. and postdoc, and over 6300 from postdoc to permanent job. None of them were stress-free or all that enjoyable. That’s about one third of the way around the world at the equator just in relocation (to say nothing of field travel, conferences, visits home, … I am now an Airport Pro™).  Because of the intense competition for jobs (or just plain lack of them in the first place), scientists often move long distances between positions. This is tough. As someone who grew up in small-town-suburbia of the Maritimes (if there is such a thing), I found it challenging to get established, forge new friendships, and feel “at home”. Based on our three big moves, I’d guess it takes me about 2 years each time. And it still sucks.


Some people are jerks (but most are amazing)

Just like everywhere else, some people involved in science are jerks. Some like to pontificate from upon high. But there are far more, in my experience, who are supportive, fantastic, and encouraging. Just like Real Life. Shocking, isn’t it? Illegitimi non carborundum, I always say. Forge links with good people, and when jerks do show up, you’ll at least have someone to rant to.


There is no shortage of cool amazing science that needs done

I have, on several occasions, been searching for a reference for something in a paper I’m writing, only to come up empty. “Someone should do that” I quip to myself. Sometimes it’s good for that someone to be me.  There’s heaps of science, from natural history to histology to physiology to statistical and mathematical biology to be done.  One person obviously can’t do it all, but a team of the right people can do some pretty cool things. I’ve collaborated with many of these people and it’s been fantastic. Not only does the science get done, but we both/all learn heaps in the process.


Collaborate. Often. But carefully.

This sort of follows on the last point, but I think it bears repeating. As a grad student I sought out a couple of external collaborations or otherwise got myself involved in projects outside my thesis, which was a great experience. Many of these collaborations have continued for years, and been highly productive.  But a small minority have been dead ends, but that’s OK as long as I’ve learned why they stalled. In some cases, it’s been everyone’s other commitments, while in others, it’s just dropped off the radar of all involved. Very rarely (only once?) have I ended up “burned” by a collaboration gone south.


Each career stage has been the best of my career (for different reasons)

As a M.Sc. student, I had the opportunity to explore research for the first time. As a Ph.D. student, I had the stability to dedicate 4 years to a series of related questions. As a (NSERC-funded) postdoc, I had the freedom to plot out my own research program. Now as an NGO scientist, I’m involved in shaping policy and on-the-ground conservation.  Each also had/has their downsides, but these have been/are outweighed by the good things.


Productivity isn’t just measured in papers published

My first draft of the paragraph above included that my postdoc was “the most productive time”, which just isn’t accurate. I’ve been productive for 10 years, but in different areas. Some of it has been in publishing, but some has also been in teaching, developing curricula, contributing to larger projects (particularly when I was a postdoc at Environment Canada, and here at the RSPB), supervising others, and learning new tools.  Just as each career stage has been “the best” in different areas, each has been productive in its own ways.


I have some more thoughts on some of the particularly frustrating parts of the last 10 years (job searching, publishing, and our professional culture), but will save those for the next post.

How to apply for a field job

I’ve hired well over a dozen field technicians in the last 10 years, and have just wrapped up this year’s recruitment.  Below are some thoughts on what you can do to increase the likelihood of success in a job competition, and also some advice on whether to apply in the first place.  You should also read this advice from Auriel Fournier, which hits many of the same points.  Like Auriel’s post, these are things I look for when I’m hiring; other places likely differ.


Don’t be generic

I receive a fair number of what I call “Dear Sir/Madam” applications.  These tend to go along the lines of “Dear Sir/Madam, I am interested in applying for the advertised position in your organization”.  It’s rather obvious that little thought has likely gone into the application, as it doesn’t mention the job, organization, or other details specifically.  This “fire broadly and see what sticks” approach is a waste of time.  It’s not that difficult to personalize job applications, even within a generic framework, and “Dear Sir/Madam” applications go to the bottom of the pile.


The skills

Most job postings are looking for people with a given skill set, whether it be bird banding/ringing, data management, blood sampling, or operating specific equipment.  It’s important in your cover letter to go through each of these and demonstrate how you fit the criteria.  The first thing I do when advertising a job is make a spreadsheet with all the different skills I’m looking for.  When I start looking through applications, I check off which of the requirements each applicant has.  Your chances of getting an interview and being successful are very small if you have the necessary skills or experience the job is looking for (or you don’t clearly demonstrate these in your cover letter).

Use the same wording as the job advert. If the job requires someone with bird banding experience, a paragraph/sentence about how long you’ve been banding, which species/species groups, and roughly how many individuals would be a useful thing to include.


Location & wage

The assumption is that, if you’re applying for a job, you would accept the position if it were offered.  I was advised in grad school to “apply for everything”, which is not a strategy I recommend.  As a postdoc, I had no intention of working in the US, so I didn’t apply for any jobs in the US. Doing so was a waste of my (and the hiring committee’s) time.  Likewise, if you have no intention of accepting the position at the wage advertised, then don’t apply.  This is usually determined by an internal salary scale or the size of the grant.


Follow instructions

In my most recent job competition, I asked for a cover letter, CV, and 3 references (with phone numbers) as a single PDF, yet about 15% of applicants didn’t follow this requirement.  Multiple files, different formats, only 2 references, no phone numbers, … you name it.  Not only is there likely a good reason for these sorts of requirements, but it can also act as a screening mechanism, much like Van Halen’s “No Brown M&M’s” clause – if you didn’t follow these instructions, it doesn’t bode well for the rest.


Check with your referees

I don’t like wasting referees’ time, so it’s unlikely that I’d contact them if you weren’t being interviewed (which generally means you have a good shot at the position).  So make sure your referees are current, and can speak to your strengths for the job required. This might mean (gasp, shock, horror) that your referees differ depending on the job.  While I appreciate that your 3rd-year invertebrate anatomy prof can speak quite highly of your academic abilities, are they the most suitable person when applying for a field job?

Make sure your referees also know you’re applying, either for a particular post, or just generally on the job market, so that they’re aware they may be contacted by potential employers.

I don’t simply ask referees “So, how was X at doing job Y for you?”  I’m interested in their take on your strengths and weaknesses, whether they’d hire you again, and how you stack up against others that held that sort of post before, for example.


The interview

If you’re being interviewed, it generally means you have the technical skills to complete the job to the required standard, and the decision is down to other factors, such as personality, how well you’re likely to get on with other team members, or how you’d react in various situations.

Before the interview, think about what questions are likely to come up.  I’m less likely to ask you about your technical skills (I can generally assess those from the application package).  I generally propose a few scenarios, followed by asking “What would you do?”  There’s no wrong answer, and some of the questions may not seem relevant to the job at hand, but they will tell me something of the person that a CV and cover letter can’t convey.

I’m also very likely to ask what you think your greatest weakness is.  This isn’t an attempt to weasel out your flaws, but to get your perspective on your own professional development.

During the interview, take notes of what was asked, and your general answers. This will help you prepare for other interviews in the future, and the task of writing the questions down can help solidify your answers.  You should also be prepared to ask some questions of the interviewer about the post, or the process.  This shows a certain level of engagement with the application, and that you’ve given it thought between the application and interview.

If the interview is by phone or Skype, pick a quiet room where you’re unlikely to be interrupted by pets, family, traffic, or other disturbances, and do your best to minimize any technical glitches.  If in person or video conference, dress professionally.


There are many other posts about job interview tips and tricks, and these are just a few that I’ve had come through my mind in this latest round of recruitment that might not be covered as extensively elsewhere.  I think it can be summarized by these three points:

  1. Demonstrate explicitly in your application how you satisfy the criteria
  2. Provide referees who can speak to the pertinent aspects of your career for the position
  3. Be calm, professional, and engaged with the interview process


It’s as easy* as that!


Footnote – “fit”

My biggest frustration on the job market was being technically qualified, and being interviewed (or at least long-listed), but in the end unsuccessful because of “fit”.  This can be used for any variety of reasons, some more unsavoury than others (like the exclusion of women or people of colour), but for many field jobs, it’s an important aspect as living/working conditions are likely to be very close/demanding, or for a long period of time in isolation. Having a team get on well with each other is very important.  “Fit” should only be considered once the technical skills have been assessed.


Footnote the second – online presence

Chances are, I’ll Google long-listed applicants in a professional capacity (are you on Twitter, or Google Scholar? Do you have a website?). I won’t stalk you on Facebook (though other employers may).  Be aware of what you put online.

— — —

*a bit tongue in cheek. For each job, there are far more qualified applicants than there are positions, so try not to despair if you’re not successful.

Science is an art

“Friends don’t let friends take arts” – t-shirt I saw frequently as an undergrad


We have set up a dichotomy (or multi-chotomy) that separates science from other academic pursuits – arts, social science, humanities, commerce, fine arts, … – but I think that does a disservice to students, and to scientists.

Long ago, one could obtain a Bachelor of Arts in Biology, and the liberal arts tradition ran deep in the science curriculum.  Liz Coleman gave this great TED Talk on how to revitalize the liberal arts in universities.  But with the push to expertise, narrow the focus and emphasize technical skills, we lose something.

The dominant mechanism for information delivery has become the scientific paper.  A short, contained piece, often boringly written, and devoid of stylistic prose. Attempts to introduce anything aside from emotionless, “objective” technical jargon are weeded out by reviewers and editors.  Gone are the days of speculation where scientists present ideas, without first ensuring that p < 0.05*

Recently, Meg Duffy asked on Twitter for a list of authors ecology & evolution students should know.

What came was, rather, a list of the “classics”. But can one know about Lotka and Volterra without knowing about them? Just as we are more than our papers, shaped by our personalities, experiences, and circumstance, so were they.  The book Modelling Nature by Sharon Kingsland provides a narrative for the history of population ecology.  I posit that the development of ideas, and the people behind them are better understood in this narrative style rather than reading n lengthy scientific papers that do not discuss their context, importance, or authors.

It’s a story. People remember stories.

But because it’s not a “textbook” in the strict scientific sense (one filled with facts, references, and presented as largely black-and-white information), it’s not often considered in science courses.

We do the science we do because of what’s come before. The context in which we “do science” is built on its past.  I think this is particularly evident in conservation biology.  Without A Sand County Almanac, or Silent Spring, we’d be in a very different place.  Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson taught us about land management, toxicology, predator-prey interactions, behaviour, policy, and more. And they did it by telling stories.

We like stories because they follow an arc, a path, that begin somewhere, and end somewhere else. And because we experience it, like a walk in the woods, we can more easily recall it, perhaps because it invokes similar spatial and temporal memory.  A paper, by contrast, would be like stepping into the transporter on the Enterprise, and ending up on a foreign planet. It takes a long time to figure out what came before, and how it has affected the present.  In science, we call this “knowing the literature”, and we often do a pretty poor job of it.

So why not have a book (not a textbook, but a book) in class? Teaching evolution? Stephen Jay Gould has several on offer.  Conservation Biology? I’m firmly in the Aldo Leopold camp.  If you can’t find one, give some serious thought to crafting your own narrative.

Narratives, and stories, are written with emotion, evoke responses, and present interesting ideas that would get whittled out of any scientific paper. But they are no less useful (and I’d argue perhaps more useful) for understanding scientific ideas. This is part of the liberal arts tradition.

So if you’re trying to teach a new concept, think of the stories you can use. We tell stories every day (“What did you do on the weekend?”, “Have you heard about X in the news?”), and we’re darn good at it. It’s an art that we, as a species, collectively mastered, and there should be more of that art in science.


*or whatever quantitative test statistic you want

The allure of islands

Recently, Sarah Boon wrote about her search for silence on Vancouver Island, which reminded me of some of the reasons I enjoy island work so much.  Islands have a cultural allure – cut-off from the mainland, isolated, occasionally uninhabited – and for the majority, they are “elsewhere”.  Immersing ourselves in the natural world is becoming challenging. There are simply more people with greater means of “getting away”.

When living in Newfoundland, a friend remarked that she used to love camping, but that it had fallen out of favour recently. Surprised, I asked why. “You’ve got to go farther and farther into the woods to really get away” she replied. The incursion of the partying, 4×4-driving, fashion-“field clothes”-wearing demographic was simply too great.  This is not to set up a sense of conflict between True Outdoors-folk™ and those who take less pleasure in discussing cross-gate-loading of carabiners, but highlights that the make-up of those in the backwoods is shifting. It’s fantastic that more people are going out to see nature (if that is indeed their goal).

But islands are still the domain of the explorers, the adventurers, the discoverers. They are steeped both in history and in the unknown.

One of my formative island experiences came in 2004 while working at Cape Enrage, New Brunswick, on the shores of Chignecto Bay.  Further up the bay was Grindstone Island, which is now managed by the Nature Trust of New Brunswick. For the previous two years, two friends and I discussed kayaking there from the mainland.  It would be a tough paddle, and had to be timed with the tides.  This was the days before Google Maps (at least it was for me), so we relied on survey charts and published tide tables.  One August afternoon, at about 3pm, we launched from Mary’s Point, and were on the island a little over an hour later.

Paddling out

Paddling out

The one landing beach on Grindstone Island

The one landing beach on Grindstone Island

Grindstone Island lighthouse in August 2004

Grindstone Island lighthouse in August 2004

Grindstone was home to a lighthouse from the 1850s, but was decommissioned in 1985.  During our visit, the lighthouse and keepers’ houses were in a state of disrepair.

But why did three of us spend two years dreaming of subjecting ourselves to a very difficult paddle to go see falling apart buildings? Because we knew no one else who had kayaked there, and because it was there.



With the seeds sewn, I quickly became an “island junky”.  Two years on Machias Seal Island in the lower Bay of Fundy while I did my MSc, and then a move to Newfoundland (a larger island, but an island nevertheless).  But nothing could prepare me for the challenges, the hardships, the memories, and the love I found on Kiska.


Sitting far out in the western Aleutian Islands of Alaska, Kiska is an island with a fascinating past. Occupied for thousands of years by Aleut communities, it was largely abandoned by the early 1800s.  The outbreak of World War II saw an American weather station established in 1941, and it was one of two American islands occupied by Japan (the other being Attu, to the west) from 1942-1943.  Today, Kiska is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and his home to millions of auklets (small seabirds related to puffins), but also introduced rats – this was to be the focus of my 4 years of work.

Kiska is large (over 270 sq. km), volcanic, and isolated. A large lava dome also formed in the late 1960s also meant jagged lava rocks that would tear your boots and pants to pieces if you weren’t careful.  We did 11-weeks on Kiska each year, with no resupply, and mostly canned/dried food, relying on rainwater as any natural source was tainted by volcanic emissions.  After my first “big” hike in 2007, through what would become a regular route, I literally asked myself what I had gotten myself into.

Landing "beach" at Kiska. Not for the faint of heart.

Landing “beach” at Kiska. Not for the faint of heart.

Our wee camp. Tents and a weatherport.

Our wee camp. Tents and a weatherport.

The 1960s lava dome in the distance; photo taken from about 1800' up the volcano

The 1960s lava dome in the distance; photo taken from about 1800′ up the volcano

The summit of Kiska Volcano - 4004' above sea level

The summit of Kiska Volcano – 4004′ above sea level

Again, why?

Kiska is a place of immense beauty, and the work we did there had not been done before.  We, quite literally, were going to places on that island that no one had ever been to before.  Stepping where no one had stood before. That’s pretty powerful.


Despite there significant differences, these two islands (and my experiences there) share many characteristics.  First and foremost, I visited them with friends, and that shared experience, through hardship, success, and completing the task before us made our friendships stronger.  Second, and relating to Sarah’s post, they were remote and isolated. No phones (cellular or otherwise) aside from the sat phone (at $1.50/minute), no internet, no television, no distractions.  Complete and total immersion (sometimes literally), for better or worse.  I have spent considerable portions of my life in the absence of anthropogenic noise. Now living in England (where you can be no farther than 3 miles/5 km from a road at any time), I am inundated with noise.

But not for long. These days, I venture to the most remote inhabited island in the world, Tristan da Cunha, and spend 3 weeks in joyful natural bliss (and hardship) on Gough Island. The stark differences between my current and future locations make each more intense, which can be both good and bad.

Panoramic view of Tarn Moss on Gough Island

Panoramic view of Tarn Moss on Gough Island

Postscript – there’s a pervading sense of machismo around field work that I’m certainly not advocating. Field work is tough, hard work, but so is lab work, modelling, writing, administrating, … tough work, not matter the context, can be just as rewarding.