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From Behind a Laptop to Above the Clouds

A post I wrote on the benefits of field campaign for graduate students; originally on the blog for OTREC (Organized Tropical Convection in the East Pacific): a field campaign in Costa Rica. For more on OTREC, check out NCAR's description of the project or this page from the New Mexico Tech team who are leading it!


I thought I’d follow-up on Melanie’s great post about the benefits of field campaigns and the motivation for undertaking them (in particular for graduate students and young scientists). I’m a fifth-year grad student myself, and OTREC is only my second field campaign. Like Melanie, OTREC is fairly far from the type of science I do in my day-to-day (usually working at a laptop with numerical models of the tropics). Still, I’m not just participating in OTREC to go to the beach (don’t get me wrong, I will go to the beach): there are benefits field campaigns have for graduate students, and also ways we can contribute.

It goes without saying that many students involved in atmospheric science love the environment, and for many the natural world served as our first inspiration drawing us into this work. But it can be perilously easy, especially in a grad student office on a laptop, to lose sight of (literally) the real atmosphere. At times, this can make research seem somewhat removed from the real-world questions it seeks to understand. In that regard, field campaigns give your work a more immediate application and sense of purpose. They serve as invigorating reminders of what we study and care about; it’s a wholly different experience to wake up every morning in 80% relative humidity than it is to learn in a (hopefully) air-conditioned classroom that the tropics are humid: for graduate students in particular, field campaigns can infuse your work with new meaning and context. 

Field campaigns also bring people together. In our field, like in many, researchers are specialized and there are natural divisions, between modelers and observationalists, oceanographers and atmospheric scientists, and so on. These aren’t always contentious divisions, but they do mean there’s sometimes cross-talk, or worst of all no talk, between different groups. Field campaigns break down those walls and providing a setting for conversations and teaching moments that are crucial in particular for students and young scientists. They help shape us into better scientists at a formative point in our careers, expose us to new ideas, and provide us with resources and technical skills, all while we’re still trying to decide where our own career interests lie.

My advisor, Adam Sobel, and me on a previous field campaign, PISTON, aboard the RV Thomas Thompson in the West Pacific

Finally, field campaigns need many people to truly succeed. In that regard, having motivated students in the field who care deeply and are inspired by the work helps the whole process, even if the day-to-day work is less than glamorous. I fully expect to spend at least part of my time at OTREC waking up in the middle of the night to hold a weather balloon while it fills up with helium. But doing that, and doing it carefully and consistently with as much enthusiasm as one can muster in the middle of the night, serves a much greater purpose. It’s a small way to make sure that every scrap of data is of the best possible quality, and ultimately contributes to the broader and more sweeping scientific endeavor we’re all contributing to during OTREC.

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