No Microscopes, No Laptops, No Library, No Problem: The Challenges of Bringing Our Laboratory to the Field

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.

Two men sit on the floor of a tent while they work.

A typical scene in the lab tent. Jeff Saarela (left) finalizes his field notes while Paul Sokoloff (right) arranges sedges on newsprint for pressing. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

A tent with plant presses beside it.

Our team’s lab tent—the work hub of Arctic camp life. Inside, plants are pressed, silica-gel samples for DNA analysis are processed and field notes are finalized. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

A bag containing bagged samples.

Bags full of plant-tissue samples taken from specimens processed in the lab tent. These samples will be frozen upon our return to the museum, awaiting their turn to be extracted and sequenced in our DNA lab. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

Jeff Saarela studies a plant using a hand lens.

A hand lens is standard issue for field botanists, and much, much more portable than even the lightest microscopes. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

Two stacks inside a tent.

Stacks of plants sandwiched between cardboard awaiting their turn in the press. We keep these stacks away from breezes and wayward feet, lest an afternoon of pressing be undone. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

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!

A table with equipment and a plant specimen.

The lap of luxury: Last year during my expedition to Arctic Watch Lodge (in Nunavut) I was afforded an entire table as our field lab, and it was even indoors! I’ll remember this set-up very fondly while setting up our (much smaller) lab tent this year. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Follow the 2014 Arctic Botany Expedition live:
• Twitter: #naturescience
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photos and messages sent from the field.

This entry was posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to No Microscopes, No Laptops, No Library, No Problem: The Challenges of Bringing Our Laboratory to the Field

  1. Pingback: The Month of Arctic Onions and Western Birch: Arctic Botany 2014 | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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