What it takes to be a field assistant

Field work is team work. Biologists are dependent on helping hands when it comes to data sampling in the wild. When my field work was rather short (1-3 weeks), I always found some volunteers amongst my colleagues or students. But who is willing to help for 8 weeks in a row or longer? Tons of work, crappy salary…anyone? „Let me quit my job, I’ll come with“, Simon replied to my message. First thing that qualifies you as a superior field assistant: dedication.

One thing us field biologists have in common is that we’re extremely enthusiastic about our work. Thus, we need field assistants that share our passion. In my case: fish, more specifically cichlids from Lake Tanganyika. „I’ve had Tanganyika cichlids at home when I was little. Always wanted to go to Lake Tanganyika“. Having had Simon with me was like winning the lottery.

Requirements to help during field work at Lake Tanganyika include the following: experience in diving and handling fish, strength to carry hundreds of buckets with water and fish (fucking heavy), being handy especially for setting up cameras over the ponds, handling compressors, gensets and so on, being creative cause nothing ever works like planned, incredible frustration tolerance and a lot of humour.

Simon in bed with Malaria

Working in a country like Zambia also comes with strenuous conditions (heat heat heat!!!!) and diseases. Never ending insect bites, leeches sucking your blood, malaria, diarrhoea, the list goes on.

Being fit is an additional must because the work is highly physical. We spend a lot of time at huge concrete test ponds that don’t have stairs to enter. So you need some artistic abilities to work around that (it’s actually life threatening but if you don’t worry too much it’s fun).

Campbell flying over the Ponds

My latest field assistant Campbell was clearly a monkey in his past life. Often I just closed my eyes when he jumped from the edge of one pond to the next (3 meters), two full buckets in his hands. In the end, all went extremely well and we collected a huge data set!!! Well, flying is faster than walking.

Short union…three weeks being all together.

Other skills I was blessed with in my field assistants were: opening locks for which we lost the keys, smoking two cigarettes at once, doing night dives to catch specific fish even after a 12 hours working day, drink a lot of alcohol (if something went terribly wrong or insanely right).

Guys!!!! You are amazing and this project wouldn’t have been possible without you. I am more than grateful for everything you’ve done for me. Field assistants are indeed the hidden figures but the true soul of each biological project that is connected with data sampling in the field.

Published by caribiologist

Postdoc at the University of Basel, Switzerland

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