From my blog so far, it probably seems like I spend most of my time in the Dry Valleys among towering mountains and sparkling glaciers. Although taking in the stunning beauty of our field sites is important, this is a warped view of my time in Antarctica. The vast majority of my time is spent in the lab, doing simple, repetitive tasks. It’s quick and easy to collect hundreds of soil samples in the field, but it takes a lot longer to process and analyze those samples. For every single scoop of dirt collected in the Dry Valleys, we have to first label bags and containers, and then measure soil moisture, soil pH and conductivity, count nematodes, and prepare the samples to be sent back to the US for even more analyses!
So what do I really do all day?
I label plastic containers.
I weigh soil. I weigh chemicals. I weigh more soil.
I wash glassware.
I fill plastic containers with water.
Although these tasks can seem endless and boring, they never seem pointless. These simple, repetitive tasks are the backbone of the field ecology we do. The strength of our research comes from the fact that we collect many, many samples every single year. First, we have to keep track of all those samples (thus the labeling). Then we treat each sample in exactly the same way, using the same quantity of soil (thus the weighing), using clean containers (thus the washing) — even down to stirring the soil in water for the exact same amount of time!
Our experiments in the field are replicated, which means that we do the same thing over and over again to see if we always find the same result. When we want to know the impact of adding water to soils, we don’t just add water to one small area. We add it to many different small areas to see if they respond in the same way (thus the filling plastic containers with water).
Completing all of these repetitive tasks gives me time to think. And it’s got me thinking about how many skills we learn through repetition. How do you learn a musical instrument? Repetition. How do you learn a foreign language? Repetition. A team sport? The same. So many activities and skills require doing the same thing over and over again. Science is just the same.
Is there anything we learn that doesn’t require repetition? And, more personally, what do you enjoy about repetitive tasks? Do they ever drive you crazy?
While washing dishes can sometimes drive me crazy, I know that these small tasks are a crucial part of our whole operation. While labeling bags and bottles might seem trivial, our samples mean nothing unless they are identified. Our samples mean nothing unless we take each step of the process seriously, from scooping soil into bags to running the most technical analyses.