by Anna McPherran, Stony Brook University
Shortly after arriving at the beautiful CIRENAS campus in the Nicoya peninsula, my group (with Anna P. and Tiffany L.) began brainstorming potential ideas for our first independent project. Anna became interested in moths after one of our orientation walks, so we tried to come up with a project involving them. We each had limited experience working with moths or insects in general, but together we were able to design a project that we were excited about that examined moth wing size and shape in different habitat types.
Excitement was high the night before our first field day. We MacGyvered a light trap using PVC pipes, bed sheets, an emergency blanket, and binder clips. We experimented with different lighting configurations and thought through a billion different scenarios that we might encounter in the field. There were plenty of cool moths hanging around our room that night, so we practiced our photography skills. Our bags were carefully packed with all of the right resources and we felt ready to face the next day.
Our first field day (6/5) went a little something like this:
06:00 Wake and prepare
07:15 Select and set flags for 10 sites
10:00 Pitch our project plan to the course coordinators, who approved it after giving some helpful suggestions
11:00 Practice handling and taking measurements using butterflies
13:00 Set flags for 10 more sites, took densitometer and understory density measurements for all 20 sites, all through BUCKETS of rain
16:00 Badly needed showers and snacks
17:30 Prepare plans for data collection
19:30 Back out to the field for data collection…
20:30 …or maybe not, next to zero moths arrived after an hour waiting
21:00 Added another sheet set up in hopes of improving our sampling rate
22:00 Still next to zero moths, even after an hour of waiting at each site
22:30 Set up our final traps and started to think about alternative projects to start (and complete!) the next day
23:00 Return to campus after realizing we weren’t getting any data and needed to abandon our project
23:30 Collapse onto bed
We attracted some insects, but little to no moths using our makeshift sheet trap (Photo credit: Tiffany Lum)
We knew already from the planning process that our project was going to be field intensive, but I still don’t think we were prepared for how exhausted we were going to feel. For the most part, aside from meals, we spent the entire day outside and on our feet, much of it hiking through mud and dense forest in the rain. My feet were killing me and my brain felt like mush by the end of the day. We decided to leave out our traps with the lights on and just get them the next morning because we couldn’t get muster the energy to go out again and retrieve them.
I think we were exhausted more than anything, but our facial expressions must have looked dejected because Oscar and Sophia seemed concerned about us when we finally arrived back to the classroom. We let them know that we failed to collect any data and floated a few of the new project ideas that we had started to brainstorm. We were definitely a little disappointed that our project didn’t work out, but we knew we had to plow ahead and work under the conditions that we were presented with.
Oscar and Sophia gave us a bit of a pep talk that night, which we all appreciated after such a long day. They brought up several points that I think are worth sharing here, and that any seasoned scientist knows to be true:
1. Your study system/the weather/luck will not always cooperate with you
2. Field work is notoriously tough for a reason
3. There is always something to learn from your failures
4. There are always alternative paths that can be taken
5. Don’t take the failure of a project as a statement of personal failure
6. This happens to every scientist at some point
Anna P. (left) and I taking densiometer measurements in soaking wet clothes (Photo credit: Tiffany Lum)
When you spend enough time around scientists, you hear stories about failed projects or experiments all the time, but it definitely felt different to experience it myself for the first time. Like I mentioned, we were all a little disappointed, but we knew the stakes were relatively low in this situation and that we had nothing to lose in the long run from one day of a failed project. The independent project is meant to be a learning exercise more than anything else. Of course, this is not often the case for scientists. Many people spend years and thousands of dollars of grant money before realizing that a project is failing. Sometimes those lost years extend time spent on a doctoral degree that is already a huge investment of time and resources. It’s hard not to feel frustration or failure as a scientist sometimes.
Still, science as an enterprise relies on learning from and moving on after failure. Great ideas are often born out of failure. One of my favorite examples is of the cleaning product 409. It’s called 409 because the creators of the product went through 409 different iterations of ingredients before arriving at their final formula. If they gave up halfway through their process, the final formula would not be as effective. Whether a project fails because of human error or because of the complex system involved, it is always worth it to evaluate your progress and to move forward, even if it means changing your project completely. We ended up doing an entirely different project the next day that compared herbivory in native and nonnative plants, and thankfully everything went smoothly. On top of everything else, I am super grateful to have worked with such awesome teammates who were just as determined not to give up.