Field Scientist or Secret Agent?



Field Scientist or Secret Agent?

Before I had children, in my previous incarnation as a rambling biologist, I spent over a decade working on various field ornithology projects. Naturally I acquired the skills you’d expect: I know how to identify birds, find their nests, catch them, etc. But whenever you do science outside of a lab- especially when you have to deal with wildlife that’s not cooperating or remote field locations- you inevitably pick up skills that you’d never think were related to science. I used Facebook to ask my friends (and friends of friends) what odd abilities they have acquired in the pursuit of science. This motley crew of field biologists and paleontologists possess an assortment of skills that in some cases seem more appropriate for some sort of spy or secret agent than a scientist. They fall into several broad categories and I will give you the highlights below.

Ability to use unusual objects as weapons (think Jason Bourne beating an assassin senseless with a rolled up magazine and then using it to blow up the apartment):

One field biologist “can safely stun small lizards using a marshmallow shot from a slingshot.” Catching reptiles with a noose fashioned from fishing line is another common skill. One herpetologist can catch frogs while swimming. I am not as skilled as some of my ninja-like colleagues who can wrestle seals, but I can deflect attacking gulls with a walking stick- a necessary self-defense skill when working in the midst of a herring gull colony.

Impersonation or seduction in order to manipulate or capture (think Jennifer Garner in “Alias” impersonating a sexpot in order to seduce and capture the bad guy):

There are biologists working on Hawaiian Monk Seal conservation that can flop around on a beach impersonating a female seal to lure male seals out of the water and onto the beach where they can be tagged. I know a sage grouse biologist who does a wicked cow impersonation. Apparently, sounding like a cow is a great way to sneak up on a sage grouse nest, because the grouse are used to cows grazing around the nest, but don’t take kindly to human visitors. One biologist can take on túngara frogs in an amphibian’s version of a rap battle, doing such a good cover of their song that she can get all the males in a chorus singing again.

Theft of bodily fluids (This veers away from secret agent territory into the vampire or alien abduction arena):

My grad school advisor is “known as the fastest phlebotomist west of the Mississippi” (and none of her feathered victims are donating blood voluntarily.) One of my close friends, a mammalogist, can express and analyze beaver anal glad secretions to determine the sex of the beaver (where do you put that on a resume?) Another mammalogist can milk a bat. Yes, I said MILK A BAT.

Lest you think we are monsters, I would like to point out that field scientists have a softer side as well. Sometimes, like a spy romancing a source (think Matthew Rhys’s character marrying the FBI secretary on the TV series “The Americans”), you have to coerce your study subjects with kindness.

Sometimes the way to your study subject’s heart is through its stomach. A few entomologists I know have become expert chefs for the insect set, concocting organic butterfly nectar, or (revolting sounding) fare out of wheat germ, carrageenan, and formaldehyde that is beloved by caterpillars who feed on toxic plants. One ornithologist chef can turn old road-killed deer into a fine entree for golden eagles. And sometimes its not food, but a warm hug that is needed. A butterfly biologist I know has lovingly nestled containers of caterpillars inside her clothing, warming them and speeding their development.

Sometimes you need to woo not your study subjects, but rather the humans who own your study site. One paleontologist mentioned that he had learned how to castrate and brand sheep and steers. The connection to paleontology is indirect at best, but I am guessing he was helping with livestock in order to stay in the good graces of the rancher who owned the property where he was digging. Communication with landowners is also important. Another paleontologist learned to communicate at a distance using semaphore, so as not to have to dodge bullets from angered landowners.


Ability to craft nifty gadgets and fixes out of unexpected materials. (Think MacGyver, that TV show from the ‘80s, where the hero could make devices out of chewing gum, matchsticks or whatever he found in the trash and get himself out of dangerous jam):

A physiological ecologist I know is crafty like MacGyver. His research often requires measuring physiological parameters in unusual subjects like sphinx moths or Antarctic seas spiders. No one makes devices to do this, so he constructs them himself. He and his technicians can make anything and everything out of plexiglass and plastic tubing. Another creative scientist needed robotic frogs for an experiment. His attempts to find a material to mimic the bulging throat sac of a singing frog left him with some explaining to do: “I once left my office a disaster after an all-nighter of faux frog fabrication, only to find that someone checked on the poison dart frogs on my office mate’s desk the next morning. With condoms, party balloons, medical catheters, and garbage strewn everywhere, this concerned citizen proceeded to show everyone in the lab my office while I was home sleeping.” Crafty science skills can be useful at home as well. One biologist now uses the tools of his science trade (veterinary surgical tools, needle and suture, hypodermic needles, and 5-minute epoxy) to fix everything from kitchen counters to cars.

Kidnapping/Extraction: Think Tony Mendez sneaking the American diplomats out of Tehran in the movie “Argo”(which was based on real events):

 One of my favorite books of all time is “A Primate’s Memoir,” Robert Sapolsky’s account of his time studying stress hormones and behavior in wild baboons in Kenya. Sapolsky was studying stress in a very social primate and he needed to get blood samples from individuals without freaking the baboon and all his baboon buddies out. (If the other baboons saw Sapolsky sedating and taking a blood sample from a fellow troop member, they would be scared, their stress hormone levels would be affected and the whole study would be a mess.) So Sapolsky became an expert at soundlessly darting a baboon with a blowgun when neither the baboon, nor his friends, were looking. He would conceal the animal in a burlap sack, sneak away with it to get a blood sample and then return the groggy baboon to the troop with no one the wiser.

Vehicular related feats (think Jason Bourne driving Marie’s ancient Mini through the streets of Paris

Field scientists often end up working in remote locations with bad roads, shoddy trucks and no cell phone reception. Learning your way around your vehicle is essential, as I have (not) learned the hard way. I have been stuck in the mud, backed into more trees and shattered more windshields than I’d like to admit. Several scientists mentioned being able to unstick any vehicle (truck, ATV, snowmobile) out of any substance (mud, sand, snow.) This is a good general life skill. Even if you are walking, not driving, there is always a chance of getting stuck in wet bentonite clay or quicksand in the middle of a mudflat with the tide coming in. Not knowing how to get out can be the difference between a lost boot and well…the end of your field season (and everything else.)

But back to the vehicles. Is the road to your field site washed out? One paleontologist has improvisational bridge building in his skill set. Does your beat-up field truck frequently get air in the brake lines? My biologist friend learned how to drive without brakes (thank god for manual transmissions!) And perhaps the most important skill: breaking and entering a vehicle. What field scientist has not locked themselves out of their vehicle, 10 miles from nowhere with no cell service? My buddy Dan has gotten “scary good” at breaking into vehicles (he can even do power locks!) And he is prepared- he now keeps one of his tools of choice, a surveyor’s stake flag, in the bed of his truck at all times. Next time I am locked out I won’t waste time with AAA, I will just call Dan.

Getting to use cool gadgets (think of any of the cool gadgets Q gives James Bond, and yes I am revealing my limited movie reference vocabulary):

 Field scientists get to use gadgets like net guns (Spiderman!), unmanned aerial vehicles or drones (to monitor raptor nests or get aerial photos of field sites), and bat detectors (Batman!) which are actually ultrasonic sound monitors. My husband, who studies sage grouse, has a device which (if we didn’t care about getting in trouble with his employer or CPS) we could attach to our children and receive emails 5 times a day detailing their location.

This post may make the life of a field scientist seem glamorous or adventurous, and in some ways, if you look at it right, it is. But sadly, money is usually tight and when you get to work with high tech toys or travel to exotic locations, your budget for living expenses usually takes a hit. So it’s important to learn how to survive on the cheap. Good things to know are:

  1. How to repair your boots- because your credit card is maxed out and Amazon does not deliver to your field site 25 miles from east Podunk.
  1. How to take a bath in a gas station sink- because you have been camping for 4 weeks and if you go into that redneck bar for your much needed beer smelling like that, you will get arrested for indecent olfactory exposure.
  1. How to cook rattlesnake- because if you eat peanut butter sandwiches or beans and rice one more time you are going to lose your will to live.



I wrote this post for my own amusement, and hopefully it amused you too. Thanks to all my friends, and friends of friends, that contributed their skills. It was a fun conversation to have even if it only was a Facebook thread. Maybe someday we can have it over beer. There are some skills that were contributed that I had to leave out because they are “top secret” (could be taken the wrong way out of context) or I ran out of time. I would love to hear more about scientists’ secret skills. Maybe someday I will write this up as a “real” article or essay. If you have some, please leave them in the comments!

Field Scientist or Secret Agent?

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