Reflections From the Field

Reflections From the Field

Bethany Williams

As I’m wrapping up the final months of my PhD (wow!), I’ve been feeling very sentimental about the three summers I spent in the field. Lake Nabugabo, Uganda was my home for almost five months across 2018, 2019, and 2022. I spent hours by the swamps and rivers, and cruising across the lake catching my favorite haplochromine cichlid,  Pseudocrenilabrus multicolor. This amazing fish is unperturbed by extreme environmental conditions like severe hypoxia and is found across the Nile River basin. P. multicolor was the superstar of my dissertation research on the effects of multiple stressors on reproductive physiology and behavior. Now the science may be what takes us to the field, but I have to admit, the people are what made it fun!

When I look back at my time in Uganda, I will remember the science, the safaris, and the snake that almost fell on my head (true story). But I will also remember the people I worked with over my three field seasons there.  Some of my favorite memories are eating dinner together under the light of the stars and the Milky Way—sunset comes early at the equator. At those dinners, we would chat, watch movies, and get caught up on the day’s vervet gossip. Those monkeys are pretty cute, but one stole a chapati out of my hand in 2018, so I still have my reservations on them (never forgive, never forget). The 2022 summer field crew must hold world records for the longest game of pool and the number of goats chased out of a field station. In the months I spent on station, we celebrated birthdays, did yoga in front of the lake (to the alarm of the vervets), ate our weight in chapatis and rice, went for swims in the lake, walked through the village, and generally lived a life that few  people get to experience.

The opportunity to do research in a foreign country, let alone a region of the world you have always dreamed of visiting, is an incredible privilege. If I have learned anything during my PhD, it is that I’ve been incredibly lucky to conduct my research in Uganda. The local field assistants kept us safe, taught us about the lake, the language, and the culture. They pointed out which ants would bite and which catfish had venomous spines. While waiting on our minnow traps, we swapped stories and shared snacks (ginger biscuits, g-nuts, fresh jackfruit, and sugar cane come to mind). We talked about music: Carrie Underwood and Justin Bieber were both surprise hits among the field assistants. They made our work possible. To put is simply: Mutebi, Kiberu, Sseggoya, and Geoffrey—Mwebale nnyo (“Thank you”).

Now the theme of this blog post is nostalgia, but it would be wrong to not at least give a mention to the tough parts. A lack of running water, refrigeration, and reliable electricity combined with long days, homesickness, scary insects, venomous snakes, and navigating language and cultural barriers can be exhausting. Safety first, science second! We have to take the good with the bad, but at least in the case of field work, there is plenty of good to go around!

It is a rare thing to realize how lucky you are in the moment. But that is what my experience doing field work in Uganda gave me. It was in the mornings on station when I would watch the sun rise over the lake, a cup of tea in my hand, while monkeys played quietly around me. The moments in the field when we would find a chameleon or a frog and suddenly become kids again. The mornings in the village when I would go for a run and suddenly be in a race with giggling children on their way to school. The moment on safari when the driver stops alongside a lion. Teeth suddenly look so much larger and the safari van so much flimsier. You realize the world is more beautiful and dangerous and precious than you ever imagined. I could go on, but you get the idea…

So, whatever you do, wherever you go, have a sense of humor. If you’re doing field work in a foreign country, children will probably laugh at you (and you’ll probably deserve it). Have back up plans for when things don’t work. Be safe. And most importantly, enjoy yourself! One day before you know it, you’ll be like me, back in the lab, but wishing you were in the field.

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