Rethinking What a Field Experience Means

Danielle Sumy, Ph.D.


I do not enjoy going out into the field in the traditional sense. There, I said it. What typically is thought to attract students to the geosciences turns me off quickly. Maybe that is why I'm most comfortable in the office setting as a geophysicist. If we plan to broaden diversity within the geosciences, we need to rethink what attracts students to the discipline in the first place.


My first field experiences occurred during my undergraduate college days at Florida State University. I'm one of those people that seem to attract bugs and I get large welts from bug bites. During my first field experience in a Florida wetland, the entire class was eaten up by chiggers (a type of mite) from their knees down, so we spent the next several weeks scratching our legs during class. After that interesting experience, my want to be in the field dwindled rapidly.


I did have other fun field experiences while as an undergrad. We went spelunking in a newly found cave from limestone mining, so I'm thankful that I'm not claustrophobic. I am someone who suffers with anxiety though, so I can't imagine the able-bodied discrimination that others may face. I think the geoscience field needs to be more inclusive of all types of bodies and abilities.


Specifically, I'm thankful that I majored in physics (with a concentration in geology) because there was no field camp requirement. Hallelujah! The idea of spending six weeks during the summer in the heat (why do field experiences typically take place in the American Southwest?) to map rock formations sounds plain awful to me. Plus, the expense of the college credits and the field gear needed to participate sounded like a waste of time and money. I much preferred the idea of an internship where I could make money and learn from a research experience – so that's what I did!


I had junior standing after my sophomore year, so I participated in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Rhode Island's School of Oceanography after my second year of college. I had the opportunity to participate in a two-week long research cruise to circumnavigate Iceland to collect bathymetric and photographic data of the rifting zone. I found my field experience at sea! I was hooked! No bugs to be wary about and I knew where my next meal was coming from and where I was going to sleep. There was a level of routine in a seagoing experience that helped calmed my anxiety. I loved the science and camaraderie and I felt at home on the sea. Plus, I appreciated that the sea-going experience was a part of my internship, and I was getting paid for it. The fact that I didn't have to sacrifice an income and I could participate in a field experience was fantastic!


I've continued to be a seagoing scientist when the opportunity arises though it's been about a decade already. To me, it's like the Ritz-Carlton of field experiences! I think we need to rethink what a field experience means. Is it just field camp or would a sea-going experience also qualify? If an undergraduate wrote up a report on their findings during a research cruise, wouldn't that also be a great field experience? Plus, the time needed away from work and other personal responsibilities may be a detriment to returning students or those without linear pathways into the discipline. During a time where summer jobs are important and may set students up to pay for their tuition during the academic year, field experiences must change. Field camps need to offer more flexibility to include those who have different socioeconomic and personal needs.


Dr. Danielle Sumy is a geoscientist and educator with expertise in earthquakes. She works for the IRIS and the U.S. Geological Survey.