Our team of botanists continues its four-week expedition along the Coppermine River in Nunavut. This is one one of several articles in which team members describe conditions that they face when doing research in the Arctic.
If I say “scientist”, you probably conjure up images of white-coated professionals gliding through pristine laboratories filled with gleaming glassware, the highest-of-high-tech machinery, equation-covered whiteboards and myriad other scientific paraphernalia. Pretty cool place, huh?
While such laboratories can be found at our research and collection facility in Gatineau, when we move our work out into the field, it’s a bit hard to fit these well-equipped facilities into our duffel bags.
Therefore, when setting up our field laboratory, there is no better mantra than “less is more”. First, you need “the lab”: a space to prepare our specimens out of the rain, wind, sun, bugs—anything the Arctic throws at us. We use a large geodesic dome tent for this purpose. Despite taking a very long time to set up, it’s sturdy in the wind and comfortably seats six famished botanists when dining outside seems less than appealing.
Once we have our tent, we can start filling it with gear and resources—the physical things we need to do our jobs. From thick stacks of cardboard and bundles of newsprint to fresh silica gel, we must bring enough supplies to press over 3000 plant samples.
Samples brought back from long hikes are sorted out, identified and sampled to store DNA samples for later use. This process is as low-tech as we can make it, using loupes instead of bulky microscopes and handwritten notes instead of spreadsheets, and relying on our memories and a few selected reference books instead of an Internet connection.
Finally, these plants are cleaned (we bring a fork specifically to remove dirt from the roots), arranged on newsprint, sandwiched between layers of cardboard and squashed into two dimensions in a plant press—another effective, low-tech solution.
Finally, you have us—the botanists—working tirelessly away processing plants from when we return to the camp until (often) very late at night. Surrounded by piles of gear and competing for foot space with carefully arranged plants, we process, annotate, compare and package our plant samples. After all, a tent is not a lab without scientists!