How to manage when your fieldwork is cancelled

Nature
Data on a screen

Data analysis has been the fallback for many researchers whose fieldwork has been halted because of COVID-19.Credit: Getty

PhD student Maija Sequeira had planned to travel in January 2020 to a primary school in Colombia for 14 months to research how children learn about social hierarchies. But all public schools in the nation closed until mid-September because of the COVID-19 pandemic and remain only partially open, temporarily upending her plans.

Sequeira, who is studying cognitive anthropology at the University of Helsinki, tentatively aims to reschedule her fieldwork in Colombia to late 2021.

Sequeira’s adviser helped her to develop a new research plan to accommodate the restrictions. Now, she is exploring methods to study children’s behaviour in online classrooms and hopes to travel to a primary school in Finland for eight months to conduct the same type of research. As Nature went to press, she was awaiting permission from the Finland school system and local councils.

Sequeira’s situation is not unusual. The pandemic has presented new and unexpected challenges this year for those who planned or were already on field excursions. Global travel restrictions have barred many researchers from heading to field sites, while others were stranded in remote destinations.

The effects could be especially profound for early-career researchers, who must now redefine what is feasible given tightened budgets and time frames. PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, in particular, often have less funding, smaller professional networks and an increased pressure to publish compared with later-career scientists1,2.

Nature talked to six other junior researchers about adapting field-based research projects during the pandemic.

ALEXANDER KWARTENG: Expand your research scope

Microbiologist at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ashanti, Ghana.

I study the microbiome and its interaction with lymphatic filariasis, which is a disease caused by a parasitic worm that typically affects people living in economically underprivileged, rural communities. I also study the stigma associated with the disease. Most people with lymphatic filariasis develop swollen legs or have an accumulation of fluid in the scrotum and, as a result, are stigmatized in their communities.

My team and I travel to rural communities in Ghana year-round to recruit people for our research and collect samples to study their microbiomes. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, Ghana went into lockdown and all research activity at the university was put on hold. Now, we can travel again, but we have to make shorter, more frequent trips to communities to achieve the project timelines specified in our grants. I have also cut down on the number of people who travel to the field from eight or nine to five at most, which increases the workload for those who can go.

The pandemic also added financial stress to our research because we have to take protective equipment that we didn’t budget for. Our budgets are strict, but we’re currently negotiating with our funders to see if they can reimburse us for masks, hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment that we have purchased.

I’ve also been applying for more grant funding, but many resources were diverted to COVID-19 research, which makes it extremely difficult to acquire funds for studying other diseases. As a result, I started thinking about how we can incorporate some aspect of COVID-19 into our research. We designed a small pilot study to analyse how individuals with COVID-19 and lymphatic filariasis are perceived in their communities and what educational programmes we can establish to minimize stigma. I can use this baseline data to apply for grants. The pandemic has been both a positive and a negative experience. It was unexpected, and I had never thought about what would happen if we couldn’t visit the rural communities. I began looking into alternative methods for our research that wouldn’t require us to be there physically. For instance, we started exploring how lymphatic filariasis occurs within Ghana to see if any aspects of the environment are driving disease prevalence in rural communities.

There are a lot of geographic information systems (GIS) and remote-sensing tools that can detect temperature, altitude, rainfall and other environmental patterns that could influence the parasite or its vector. Although COVID-19 has been a big blow to researchers and academic work, it’s prompted me to develop different approaches and to think more broadly about my research.

MITCHELL SEROTA: Devise back-up plans

Wildlife conservationist and second-year PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley.

Fieldwork is always uncertain. You could go out for four months and collect all your field data — and the project could completely collapse as a consequence of storms, equipment malfunctions or other threats. You’re at the whim of the environment, and now we’re at the whim of the pandemic.

My research focuses on how rewilding efforts in the South American region of Patagonia affect predator–prey relationships among pumas, penguins and guanacos, which are close relatives of llamas. I went to Patagonia in the beginning of January and was planning to stay until early April. The data-collection part of my fieldwork went well. I set up cameras to track pumas and determine what they eat. Some of the pumas have GPS collars, so I could see when they were in the same place for a long time, which often indicates that they killed something. After the pumas left, I investigated their kill sites. I also started putting GPS collars on some of the guanacos to track their movements.

In mid-March, the United States was getting ready to shut down, so I sought advice from my principal investigator (PI). He recommended we wait, and the next day Argentina imposed its own quarantine. I was stuck at the park headquarters in Patagonia with several other researchers for about a month longer than I had anticipated. The park allowed us to stay as long as we needed, and we continued our fieldwork despite new challenges: we were not allowed to travel between provinces, and there were no domestic or international flights. I couldn’t get food and supplies, so a friend met us on the road to drop some off. Most of the time, there were zero reported COVID-19 cases in the province, so I felt very safe there in terms of the pandemic.

Eventually, I got in touch with the US embassy and managed to get a repatriation flight home in May when some of the travel restrictions were lifted. The University of California, Berkeley, has travel insurance for people conducting research abroad, so they reimbursed expenses covered by my adviser, who had to quickly buy my repatriation flight. I was also reimbursed for the expenses I incurred from my lengthened stay. Now I’m thankful I got to Patagonia when I did.

I’m planning for the possibility that I might not be able to return to Argentina, but I’m still hoping to go back in a year or two. I was working with collaborators there, whom my PI has known for a long time, to set up and monitor more camera traps. But movement within the country is still restricted, so they haven’t been able to get back to the field site. That means we missed a crucial data-collection period.

Now, I am analysing the camera-trap data I have, in hopes that my collaborators can continue collecting data once travel restrictions are lifted, even if I can’t travel there myself.

I am also trying to learn more computational techniques using platforms such as Google Earth Engine, GIS and remote sensing, which can analyse the geographical location of features on Earth’s surface, including roads and mountains. In terms of my research, I can combine my field observations of puma movements with data from these programmes to explore why pumas pick particular locations for their kill sites.

Although I was planning on learning how to use these tools at some point in my PhD programme, I’m putting more effort into them now, given that my fieldwork has been delayed by COVID-19.

Anindita Bhadra interacting with a free-ranging dog

Behavioural biologist Anindita Bhadra studies the cognitive abilities of street dogs in India.Credit: Rohan Sarkar

ANINDITA BHADRA: Stay connected

Behavioural biologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, India.

My laboratory studies the individual and group behaviours and cognitive abilities of dogs that live on the streets in India. We look at how groups maintain their territories, how they interact with other groups of dogs, and how these territorial behaviours change over the mating season. We also observe random individual stray dogs or groups of them to see if they behave the same way in different parts of the country. The project involves travel to nine cities across India, including Bengaluru and Bhopal, and to suburban and rural field sites.

When India first imposed its nationwide lockdown in March (which has been only partially lifted in various areas), we had to stop all fieldwork and abandon several projects. Two of my students, one who had just completed his PhD and one who is a technical assistant, got stranded in Bengaluru and couldn’t come home. They had to stay somewhere and support themselves for a month and a half, so I spent some of my research funding on their accommodation and supplies while they were stranded. When India started allowing flights between major cities, they flew back home.

An economic slowdown in India means that funding opportunities have been really bad this year. Calls for proposals that are typically announced in September still haven’t been announced. While I’m waiting to apply for grants, I’ve been working with my students to analyse field data they’ve already collected and to write papers. For students whose field projects were cut short, we’re refocusing their research questions on the basis of methods they can safely conduct near home. For instance, some of my students are analysing data from video footage we previously collected in the field or conducting small observational studies of street-dog behaviours in their neighbourhoods so that they don’t have to travel.

Along with my research, I’m delivering a lot of webinars and talks online. I am also the co-chair of the Global Young Academy, which is an organization of early-career researchers younger than 40. We’re exploring how access to education has suffered during the pandemic, especially in the developing world.

Although it’s been challenging to juggle so many different activities, my main priority is keeping up momentum and morale in my lab. Since the first week of lockdown, I organized virtual weekly lab meetings to keep everyone connected and motivated. During the first hour of our meetings, everyone shares what they’ve been up to.

Initially, students felt very bad that they hadn’t progressed much, but I let them know that we’re all going through hard times and that we can’t be fully productive every day of our lives.

KELSEY SPEER: Be creative

Postdoctoral researcher in molecular biology at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

I study the molecular mechanisms that corals use to deal with stressors such as ocean acidification and how this affects their reproduction. The corals that my lab studies in Hawaii usually spawn once a month in June, July and August, so that’s our field-season window.

During these spawning events, we collect sperm samples and then analyse them in the lab. Last year we gathered some really exciting preliminary data, and had planned to go back this year to do some follow-up experiments, when the pandemic happened. The university closed and administrators stopped all work-related travel.

We’ve been set back at least a year because those samples are not accessible. So the question became, how do we pivot? Some sea anemones are closely related to corals and can spawn in the lab, but I had never developed them as a model before the pandemic. Now, I’m trying some experiments with sea anemones that can stand alone from my coral work and help me to develop techniques I can use in the field with coral when I’m able to travel again — I have one and a half years left in this postdoc. For instance, we do a lot of microscopy work in the field, so I’m refining some of my techniques now to look at how mitochondria, or cells’ powerhouses, function in sea anemones. By learning these techniques now, I can save time when I return to the field later.

The sea-anemone models also provide a great opportunity for undergraduate researchers in my lab to continue doing research. I drop off boxes of containers with food and other materials on students’ doorsteps so that they can propagate sea anemones safely from their homes. They monitor sea-anemone growth and, once they’re big enough, divide them to create clones that I can use for my research. Because we’ve been able to adapt our research projects, undergraduate students can demonstrate their experience conducting independent research when applying for graduate school or in job applications. These experiences also help me to illustrate my creativity and flexibility around research plans in the face of challenges when I enter the job market.

Along with adapting research projects, the pandemic has helped me to be more creative about how I structure my time. For instance, now I practise writing every day. Sometimes I’ve shied away from manuscript or grant writing because I thought that my writing wasn’t perfect or that I needed huge blocks of time to write. Now my goal is to just write, and not edit, for 30 minutes a day.

It can get overwhelming to look at the overall picture of everything that’s going on and everything that’s on my plate. But I try to focus on what I need to accomplish each day.

AMANDA COOPER: Invest in local collaborations

Ecologist and third-year PhD student at Royal Holloway University London, UK.

My PhD project focuses on boreal forests, or those that grow at high latitudes. My research is based at an experimental site in southwest Finland, just north of Pori, that was set up by my supervisor about 20 years ago.

One of my experiments involves four sites. I spent three weeks last summer doing fieldwork there, collecting data on plants that grow on the forest floor and aerial images to survey the tree canopy. I was supposed to be there for the entire month of August this year, but that did not happen. My supervisor has a lot of connections in Finland and suggested that we hire a local field technician to conduct one of my surveys on the plant species that occur at my sites.

If you are planning fieldwork, it’s important to have local connections. E-mail people you would like to work with, start following people on Twitter, and work out which universities near your fieldwork site are doing research that’s similar to what you’re doing. Those connections might not lead to hiring field assistants, but could provide you with local knowledge about flora and fauna or permits that some governments require. Many funding agencies are now looking for collaborative projects too. For instance, UK Research and Innovation — the umbrella organization for all UK research councils — has specific funding calls directed at establishing international collaborations.

If you’re conducting fieldwork in countries that have less developed economies than your own, you can support scientists who haven’t necessarily had the same opportunities to develop their careers. My PhD programme is funded through a grant from the UK Natural Environment Research Council, and part of my stipend is for research costs. This funding would have been used for flights, accommodation and transport in Finland this past summer. Because my supervisor had contacts in Finland, we were able to use the money that would have gone towards my travel expenses to hire a field technician to collect the data instead.

TEESTA DEY: Engage in projects beyond your dissertation

First-year PhD student in maternal health, University of Liverpool, UK.

I study maternal health in Uganda, where staff shortages and other issues preclude some childbearing women from receiving care directly after giving birth. My research focuses on developing strategies and tools that empower mothers in Uganda to take autonomy over their own care. I conduct interviews and surveys with patients, health-care workers and experts who manage and employ maternal health practices in Uganda.

I want to use this data to develop and test a postnatal tool that women can use to assess their own health. I’ll validate that tool by determining whether its results match clinicians’ assessments. It would help mothers to identify key warning signs in the immediate postnatal period. If a woman can rapidly recognize potential complications, then she can seek the care she needs.

I was supposed to go to Uganda in August for a year to conduct interviews, but the pandemic paused those plans. Now, I’m trying to see how much I can do virtually, but there are some ethical difficulties around conducting research using video or audio programmes. How confidential can you make a Zoom conversation? How can you take informed consent? How do you even find women to speak to? Along with working on ethical electronic methods, I’m writing the introduction chapters for my dissertation instead of waiting until my third year. By changing the timing of some of my dissertation work, I’m hoping to keep the same overall timeline for my programme.

I’m also getting involved in other projects to gain skills, including management and leadership. I am a consultant with The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health at the World Health Organization, where I organize meetings within the group and with our partners, and synthesize resources related to COVID-19. As a member of a steering group that organized an international online conference for the Global Women’s Research Society, I developed and executed the social-media strategy and publicity for the event. My adviser and I are also writing grant applications for other research projects.

More recently, I decided to start a podcast with a friend, which focuses on global maternal and newborn health. Our first series of Sanyu Sisters discusses the impact of COVID-19 on early- and mid-career research and advocacy as well as solutions and opportunities developed by researchers in global maternal and newborn health. The podcast idea never would have come to me if I didn’t have some time or space to think about ideas outside my dissertation research.

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