Science is Complicated

Science is Complicated

Austin Carter, University of Michigan

I’ve always thought of science as a simple, routine-like discipline: sample data, analyze data, and report data. However, there are a multitude of obstacles that make it more difficult, and I’ve come to understand this through my experience with JIRP.  For my individual research project, I’ve decided to collect rainwater samples, measure the isotopic concentration of those samples, and compare this to the temperature at which the rain fell. The idea is to create a relationship specific to the Juneau Icefield between stable water isotopes and temperature (for more information about isotopes see Jutta Hopkins-LeCheminant’s blog entry). My project originally sounded like a piece of cake because all I had to do was collect rainwater and measure temperature. How hard could that be? However, it became much more involved than I expected and although I’ve hit many “speed bumps” during my research, I’ve learned from each experience and grown as a young earth scientist. Here are a few skills I’ve learned so far:

  Author collecting rainwater samples at Camp-10. Photo by Blaire Slavin.

Author collecting rainwater samples at Camp-10. Photo by Blaire Slavin.

Slow Down and Think First. When I first decided what I wanted to research, I became extremely excited and wanted to start immediately. During the first rainfall, I quickly threw on my rain jacket and rain pants, found a nice spot outside, and set out my first sample bottle around a pile of rocks. I waited hours, checking on it regularly, to see how much water I’d gathered. To my surprise, I had collected very little water; that is to say not enough to be considered a “sample.” Because I rushed into my project without thinking first, I didn’t consider using something with a bigger surface area to collect more water to pour into my small sample bottles. Having learned from this mistake, I now use a big silver bowl to capture a greater amount of water and have more appreciation for thinking ideas through before executing them.

Be Creative. The “teeth” on the zipper of my $300 waterproof Arc’teryx rain jacket fell off, rendering it useless because I couldn’t zip it together. Considering that my project meant I needed to be outside every time it rained in order to collect samples, I would get really wet without a proper rain jacket. When it did rain, I got creative and wore a fashionable black garbage bag over my body to keep me dry and, unexpectedly, it kept me rather insulated too.  Even if a substantial amount of planning is made on selecting quality equipment, I now know that problems can still arise and it’s always a great decision to try to think outside the box to solve any issue that occurs. Luckily, my mother shipped a replacement jacket to me that arrived by helicopter fairly quickly so I retired the garbage bag for good.

Be Patient. I’m probably one of the few students on this program who gets incredibly thrilled when it rains. Most people dislike it because it means they’re going to be both wet and cold, but for me a storm means I get to collect more rainwater and ultimately acquire more data. However, weather can be unpredictable, especially when you’re on top of a mountain. Most days I find myself waiting for the gloomy weather to flow in before I can continue with my project; it’s unfortunate but that’s necessary for my project. Data collection isn’t always instantaneous and sometimes waiting for the right moment is all that one can do.

  Analyzing rainwater samples using a water isotope analyzer. Photo by Blaire Slavin.

Analyzing rainwater samples using a water isotope analyzer. Photo by Blaire Slavin.

Since getting to the Juneau Icefield, I’ve learned an incredible amount about remote field work and how to be a better earth science researcher. Because of JIRP, I’ve gained and will continue to gain valuable scientific skills that I will utilize on future research projects. For now however, I can’t wait to put what I’ve learned into practice as I continue to figure out the results of my rainwater analysis.