Tools of the Trade


A scientist sets up groundwater seepage meters and checks the level of the water table near a field station in Oyster, VA.

While attending a seminar where Dr. Joseph Armstrong of Illinois State University spoke about the sometimes unpredictable nature of scientific discovery, I got to thinking about some of the unexpected tools that scientists use in field research.  Particularly in fields like ecology, some of our methods to gather very interesting data might seem rudimentary, silly, or even unscientific to an outside observer.

Dr. Armstrong spoke of the time that his research assistants had to convince a local villager near their field station that they were not actually getting married, They actually needed a large amount of bridal veil to put on developing flower buds to exclude insects from laying eggs in flowers on the trees they were studying.

In addition to bridal netting, some of the most helpful tools I have used in scientific research include cut up syringes, ziplock baggies, old plastic pop bottles, paint brushes, twist ties, and torn up pieces of fabric from old t-shirts.  And I have yet to participate in any field research that didn’t involve a trip to the Home Depot beforehand for some wood, PVC pipe, fasteners or hand tools of some kind.

Need another example?  Look closely at the above picture.  Yes, the instruments stuck in the bed of the stream that are collecting some very accurate data on groundwater seepage are, in fact, made out of coffee cans and condoms.  While there is certainly a lot of expensive equipment that can be involved in scientific research, I like to know that scientists are still pretty creative when it comes to both methods of investigation and tools of the trade.



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