Fieldwork for All

Eager young scientists dream of careers outdoors, studying and protecting wildlife and ecosystems. To succeed, they need something that’s proven elusive: a feeling of safety.
A woman wades into a rocky river in a vast old growth forest.
Anna Le at the Salmon River. Photo: Celeste Noche

As long as scientists have been exploring the natural world, they’ve encountered dangers. In their quests for knowledge, for instance, Alfred Russel Wallace and Ernest Shackleton endured disease, harsh weather, and dangerous wildlife. Such perils harmed them and hampered their journeys or even halted them altogether—as when Wallace fell ill with recurring malaria in Indonesia in 1858 and when Shackleton’s ship Endurance froze in the ice in 1915, forcing the crew to abandon their polar expedition.

Since then, we’ve gotten much better at mitigating the kinds of dangers that nature throws at scientists in the field. Manuals outline how to avoid injury, from wearing appropriate gear to taking antimalarial medication, and federal agencies require special training for handling chainsaws and driving forklifts and motorboats. To deal with minor medical emergencies, many employers offer basic first aid, CPR training, and even wilderness first aid for staff and interns. And today’s biologists have strategies to minimize physical safety risks, like using “push poles” to put distance between themselves and sharks. They also generally hew to the mantra “safety in numbers”: they work in pairs or more when possible or, when going solo, track destinations and expected return times and check in regularly via phones or radios.

Yet there is growing recognition that some people face greater safety risks than others—and these stem not from the nature of the job, but from who they are. For women, Black, Indigenous, people of color, those who identify with minority religions, and LGBTQIA++ individuals, being secure is about more than avoiding snakebites or boating accidents. They face a real threat of being physically, emotionally, or psychologically harmed by people they encounter in the field or by their own colleagues.

The dozens of scientists from marginalized groups interviewed for this story shared an array of disquieting ways in which they have been made to feel unsafe and unwelcome when working in the outdoors. They’ve been followed. They’ve been harassed. They’ve been sexually assaulted. They’ve had law enforcement called on them. Implicitly and explicitly, they’ve been told they don’t belong in fieldwork.

Graduate student Murry Burgess carries the weight of these concerns with her every day. In mid-2020 she began visiting a barn in rural North Carolina to investigate how Barn Swallow chicks respond to artificial light. As a Black woman who is familiar with how racism and sexism can play out, she’s nervous about working alone in a remote, conservative place. So she takes extra precautions: She carries a pocket knife and pepper spray; brings her pit bull mix, Loki, along whenever possible; and texts somebody when she leaves for the site and arrives home. “I’m always concerned with being a young Black woman in this space,” Burgess says. “I have to think regularly about work and about personal safety.” That’s a burden other researchers, including her predominantly white, male colleagues, don’t have to shoulder.

Early-career scientists like Burgess are now pushing their institutions and other employers to recognize this inequity—and, most important, to address the disproportionate risks they face in the field. By redefining field safety to encompass both physical and emotional protection, the scientific community could not only make fieldwork more welcoming for those who have long been excluded or pushed away, but also help ensure they succeed.

The most well-known scientists have historically been men with the privilege of funding and the luxury of time to undertake expeditions. Over the past several decades great strides have been made in diversifying scientific fieldwork: Women now attain about 40 percent of doctoral science degrees, and Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans earn 12 percent, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF), a major research funder. The higher the degree, however, the fewer women and minorities who achieve it. While these students may drop out of the academic pipeline for myriad reasons, such as family responsibilities and financial need, a lack of safety can play a role.

Media investigations and a handful of scientific studies point to a widespread problem with sexual harassment in the field. As High Country News and other publications have reported, for instance, women working at federal parks, monuments, and historic sites across the country have alleged on-the-job sexual harassment, assault, and gender discrimination. A 2014 study found that 64 percent of 666 surveyed scientists who conduct fieldwork experienced sexual harassment, and one in five reported being sexually assaulted; the majority were female students, most often abused by crew members or people senior in rank. Fewer than half recalled a code of conduct or behavioral rules posted on-site. Of those who reported an incident, 19 percent were satisfied with the outcome of subsequent investigations.

A female ecologist interviewed for this story is one of those data points. (Audubon agreed not to name her out of concern for retaliation.) While she was a volunteer field assistant on a remote island, an employee groped her and tried to persuade her to sleep in his room. Others witnessed the event and didn’t intervene. With a supervisor’s encouragement, she filed a complaint, which was never reported to upper management. She, however, was ultimately banned from the island. Since then she has suffered from sleepless nights, nightmares, anxiety, and severe depression. She worries she’s lost her chance to become a seabird conservationist. “You should be able to be comfortable and safe and be able to pursue research in these awesome places without feeling like you don’t belong,” she says. “Science is for everybody, and it should be inclusive.”

Yet fieldwork is inherently riskier for many individuals. Cacey Wilken, a queer conservation biologist formerly with Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center in Nebraska, says people often assume they’re a woman. They had mostly supportive coworkers, but they tamped down their queerness when working with private landowners. Wilken’s job, which included prescribing fires for prairie restoration and applying pesticides to control invasive plants, naturally carried risk; trying to be their authentic self in the field on top of that was fraught and emotionally taxing. A 2022 study found that LGBTQIA++ people are nine times more likely than non-LGBTQIA++ people to be victims of violent hate crimes. “I have a lot of rainbow things,” Wilken says. “But I leave those in my office.”

Hate crimes, particularly against Black people, have surged in recent years. Abbi Turner remembers, as a child, witnessing police mistreat her Black father. So she was apprehensive in spring 2021 when a police car rolled up at the tree farm where she and two colleagues were catching American Robins for her graduate work at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The officer, responding to a call about people “possibly casing a house,” demanded identification and an explanation of their activities. Turner stayed silent, shocked anyone would suspect wrongdoing; she was wearing field clothes, a backpack, and binoculars and carrying a tackle box with banding gear. Her white coworkers answered questions, and the officer finally allowed them to carry on. “It really terrified me,” she says. “It made me afraid to do something I love.” Now, when alone in the field, she worries about what might happen: “I used to think: I’m going to work with birds; I don’t have to worry about people.”

Viridiana Martinez also thinks about skin color frequently while sampling songbirds for avian malaria. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Martinez learned English in part from PBS nature shows. She excelled in school, earned college scholarships, and is wrapping  up her graduate degree at Texas A&M University this summer. Encountering racism in the field, where she expected to be treated as a professional, is draining. Her work often requires her to pass through border-control checkpoints. She tries to have at least one white field technician in the car with her, and she advises them on how to answer questions about her activities that ranchers and border patrol inevitably ask. She also prepped an undergraduate who worked on her project and is likewise the “wrong color” for situations they might encounter. “Even though it’s really hard, I like showing that we can be scientists,” Martinez says. “But I’m tired of feeling that way.”

The added strain pushes some young researchers out of fieldwork entirely. Anna Le jumped at the chance to survey Oregon streams by canoe after she graduated as a fisheries and wildlife sciences major from Oregon State University. Throughout college, in addition to working up to 20 hours per week to cover tuition, she’d taken no-pay or low-paying positions to gain experience and was thrilled to land a job in her field. But Le quickly came to dread climbing into the canoe. Some days, miles deep in riparian landscapes, her sole colleague lashed out verbally, cutting her with hateful comments sometimes directed at her Asian American identity. “I was in fear of my safety,” Le says. After one particularly distressing day of countless such microaggressions, an anxiety attack caused Le to pull over on her drive home. Worried about making the situation worse, she waited until the gig ended to tell her supervisor about the abuse. The experience was one of several that dimmed Le’s enthusiasm for becoming a fisheries biologist. Now she works in environmental education. While it isn’t the career Le envisioned, she feels physically safer teaching youth in the outdoors.

Fieldwork can’t be separated from larger societal problems. The threat of racism, harassment, or worse is impossible to eliminate fully, just like fluke physical accidents can always occur. But there is rapidly growing recognition that employers can take stronger actions to prevent many incidents and prepare for what they can’t prevent, says Steve Smith, founder of Experiential Consulting, which provides outdoor programs with risk-management guidance.

More and more groups, he says, are realizing that field safety guides, best practices, and trainings must go well beyond physical risks. Smith helps organize seminars around this idea through his company and his past work chairing the Wilderness Risk Management Conference and with youth-oriented groups like the Student Conservation Association. He also advised the National Audubon Society on developing a safety initiative over the past three years that gives equal value to training staff for weather emergencies and prepping them for the anxieties that may affect crew members with marginalized identities.

Conservation-oriented groups can’t diversify their organizations without this kind of thinking, Smith says: “Social justice is a risk-management issue.” If organizations want to remove barriers to help scientists thrive in the field, he says, they must recognize that physical, emotional, and psychological safety go hand in hand.

That reality is at the center of a new grant requirement the NSF put in place this year. The agency allocates billions of dollars to fund 12,000 research projects annually at colleges and universities across the country. In a pilot program, some biology and geoscience funding proposals involving fieldwork must include a submitted plan to address “abuse of any person, including, but not limited to, harassment, stalking, bullying, or hazing of any kind, whether the behavior is carried out verbally, physically, electronically, or in written form; or conduct that is unwelcome, offensive, indecent, obscene, or disorderly.” In short, grantees must now have policies to ensure safer, more inclusive work environments—or their projects won’t get funded.

“I think it’s a great wakeup call,” says Melissa Cronin, a conservation ecologist who earned her Ph.D. from University of California, Santa Cruz last September. As a graduate student, she worked with undergraduates as part of a program to develop diverse leaders in conservation. Countless students shared stories about how the harassment and assault they experienced discouraged them from pursuing careers in ecology. “It’s a mountain of incidents,” Cronin says. In 2018 she and two other researchers founded a nonprofit, now called FieldFutures, that trains students, researchers, instructors, and staff in how to prevent, intervene in, and report sexual harassment and assault in field settings. The group’s 58 certified trainers have given more than 500 workshops to 8,000 attendees. “I can barely keep up with it,” Cronin says. “I think it’s just a testament that there’s a ton of demand, and people really want to solve the problem but don’t know how.”

Like Cronin, other graduate students have been leading the charge to fill that gap. Central to their approach is the idea that it takes a larger community to foster safe and harassment-free field environments. Historically underrepresented scientists can’t do it alone. “We have this antiquated system of field safety that just tells people: Deal with it if you want to be taken seriously,” says Amelia-Juliette Demery, a graduate student at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “But at the end of the day, the power does not just lie with the student.”

In 2020, Demery and Monique Pipkin, also a Black, female graduate student at Cornell University, published a paper in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution that lays out actionable steps that people at every level of academia, as well as other institutions, can take to keep everyone safe in the field. Researchers should carry credentials, for instance. And supervisors should not only provide students with an official letter of support but also introduce students to property owners, park staff, and others they’ll likely encounter in and around their field sites. Demery and Pipkin also encourage supervisors to initiate potentially uncomfortable conversations about race and identity. “People rarely say the perfect thing at the perfect time, but the more you have these conversations, the better you will be,” Pipkin says.

Investing in simple, inexpensive gear can also help head off potentially negative interactions, says Burgess, the Barn Swallow researcher. Last August she and fellow North Carolina State University (NCSU) graduate student Lauren D. Pharr, an avian ecologist, founded Field Inclusive, a nonprofit that provides manuals, training, and research grants for historically excluded individuals and groups supporting them. At their urging, NCSU funded large vehicle magnets emblazoned with the university’s emblem; visors, a better hat option for those with natural Black hair, are in the works. Providing field staff with multiple signals of their affiliation can help persuade curious onlookers to move on rather than interrogate them or call the cops, Pharr says: “If you are making it safe for Black people, you are making it safe for everyone.”

Despite greater awareness and resources, there’s still a long way to go to make fieldwork safer for everyone. The NSF pilot initiative is an important step, but the agency funds only about a quarter of academic research grants; if all grantors required comprehensive plans, safety and inclusion would be baked into virtually every field project. Employers could also make field safety workshops mandatory, like cybersecurity training is at many institutions.

There’s no way to remove all risk from fieldwork. But there are clear ways to help scientists from marginalized populations feel more welcome and secure in the field. Doing so ensures that the enjoyment and satisfaction of working outside is not a privilege for some, but the norm for all.

This story originally ran in the Summer 2023 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.