Survival of the Quietest

By Vera E. Congruent (pseudonym)

What is it about being outdoors that inspires adventure? I’ve always loved the idea of being amongst the wild elements and learning about the world: a real-life Discovery Channel show. I joined a reputed research institute to be pushed out of my child-of-the-city tendencies. I did so also to make a living by adopting a way of life (i.e. research) that at the very least does not result in direct harm to our good world. I was, and am, interested in finding out what delectable truths are hidden away beneath nature’s folds. The fact that I always found mathematics challenging eliminated the possibility of studying physics. I may not be able to clarify my intention behind entering the field of ecology research, but I can claim with certainty that it has been a revelation. I work now as a project assistant. Such a position involves participating in ongoing projects that have defined goal and timelines. The project may be assisting research of current students in the lab or pursuing an independent line of questioning. My work thus far has involved molecular ecological techniques applied toward understand human-animal conflict in parts of India. Although the data obtained goes toward answering important questions about the nature of and patterns in harsh conflicts in varied regions of the country, the majority of the investigation occurs within the air-conditioned confines of a laboratory. So, the adventure I sought when I first walked into the lab grew into a metaphorical one. But in my early days, when I explored all the different aspects of this research, I had sufficient opportunity for field work. I visited a field station in South India over the course of a few months in order to learn about field work and to participate in a demographic study of wild animal populations. 

As a female student at field, my mental notes from the time are certain to be markedly different from those of a male student. Women assess their surroundings, company, contingencies and their own abilities without break and often without conscious planning- it is second nature to us. This is true either because we have already faced the consequences of not being on constant high alert and have lived to learn, or because we have internalised it as a habit from an impressionable age. However, on my first few visits to field I made the choice to dispense with such extreme caution believing myself to be within an academic institution, part of a longstanding framework, accompanied by scientists. Researchers at field are largely treated with respect by the local people and authorities. My perception at the time was that all of us were part of the same team, driven toward protecting our environment and studying the area to equip ourselves with more information for that singular purpose. I did not believe I was merely an individual on a personal mission or that each one of us would have to protect our self-interests because there was no one else looking out for us.

I enjoyed my time at field immensely. It was especially interesting to learn how to interact with other people in the context of field work. Working closely with other people had never been a challenge but of course, I had never done so at field. The real challenge was when I had an unfortunate incident. I would like to abstain from the discussing the particulars because I don’t think they are important. Everybody who travels or works outdoors a lot may experience something untoward in various circumstances. It is more important to understand the whirlwind that follows, within and without. The incident occurred very late in the night and I called for help immediately. I left for home the next morning and spent a week with my parents resting and trying to understand what had occurred. Meanwhile, I stayed in touch with my supervisor, and discussed various options with my family: a police complaint, quitting work, resuming my project but focusing on molecular work alone until I sorted things out in my head etc. By the end of the week, I had decided to return to the department  instead of abruptly ceasing the work I had begun. I know colleagues and friends (in professions like journalism) who have each experienced something similar and have dealt with it in their own ways. A common aspect is that in hindsight, they would all have done things a little differently. In my case, I did what I thought was supposed to have been done within the limitations of my influence. Perhaps I should have reacted better, talked about the issue of safety at field with more people, and sooner. Many different voices,some my own and some, those of others who cared about me to varying degrees, directed me earnestly to follow different courses of action. The inner clamour served to result in stony inertness. It also happens that a personal trait of mine is that I prefer keeping things to myself. But this blog is a wonderful opportunity for us to talk about what concerns us, as female ecologists, about working at field. I hope to bring attention to a general problem that may be going unnoticed in the wider community, using my own experience as an example. From where I stand, I can say now that it is difficult to know if a certain situation was avoidable. If indeed it had been successfully avoided, it does not ensure another woman may not face that exact (or worse) situation at a later time. The guilt, loneliness and false sense of responsibility that a woman in this position may face can become debilitating if unchecked.

Here is what I really want to share. The importance cannot be stressed enough of training people to deal with such situations. It is a failure of logic to skip such a basic necessity for this line of work. I don’t believe that the subject of harassment, or threat to dignity must be broached with someone for the first time after they have already experienced an untoward incident. This is not just for the safety of the those at field but also to ensure the accompanying researchers, assistants and staff know how to react appropriately and in a timely fashion. If a protocol for handling such situations exists in place, it must be taught for practical effectiveness to every student and employee without exception, and refreshed through training courses at regular intervals. If a protocol does not exist, building one must be the top priority. The problem rarely is that such incidents occur. We would be foolish to expect any society or community to be free of negative elements. The disturbing and disillusioning thought is that it may often not be considered a real issue by the organisation or team as a whole. In fact, I am certain to have been perceived as weak, feminine or lacking the gumption for field work. This is not to say that no one cares when such incidents occur, but that as time passes, the experience of one student or employee leaves with them. Once a problem has arisen, does it make more sense to ensure it doesn’t recur, or to ignore it as long as it or and the concerned individual haven’t rocked the boat too much? It does take a certain set of skills to be able to perform field work and I admire any person who possesses it. But it may be prudent for us to remember that any skill can be acquired with practice, patience and support.

If someone experience something troubling is a sign of the person’s inability to face reality, instead of a spotlight on a crucial flaw in the larger process itself, then we must question just how scientific our thinking really is. 

To handle the psychological injuries of such a situation with great care is crucial. As has been suggested by some concerned people, it may be more helpful to have a single individual, or very few individuals, within the department/organisation dedicated to receiving complaints, concerns and suggestions, than to have every supervisor be independently responsible for those under their tutorship or employment. This can maintain a uniform working standard, and a safe and just environment for those affected by field-related trauma or troubles. Perhaps a different solution will work better, that we will know only if we roll up our sleeves and try.

While larger directives and prescribed cells may be prevalent, their effectiveness and accessibility are crucial to their success. I don’t need to say this but I will: if we are not especially careful, we can gather a hundred different laws, perfectly phrased and documented, structured to protect our most vulnerable, printed out on giant sheets of paper and approved by the highest authorities of the land, and have all of them lie in stacks in the backs of administrative storage rooms for years. That they exist becomes a fact of no consequence. Who wants their world to turn into that? I don’t. But more importantly, do you?

This is the first post in the mini-series ‘To science we don’t owe‘.
You can read the second post in the series here.

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