Benefits and drawbacks of scientific distance

Last week I explored the justifications for the environmental impacts of my research. At first, I noticed myself trying to tackle the question from a scientific approach – I essentially wanted to quantify the negative and positive environmental impacts to concretely establish if what I am doing is good or bad. But this summer I am trying to think outside of this objective sphere. I am here not only to collect data, but to reconnect with the why of what I am doing. Reflecting on my first approach, I realized how it stripped my subject from any value beyond being a unit of a system. In this way, I think of hummingbirds not as living creatures with a right to life that are uniquely amazing and independently important. It reduces my subjects to numbers that can be counted and tested for thresholds of survivability. While this data-driven method is good for establishing scientific grounds for survivability thresholds, justification for collateral damage when doing research, and communicating concrete ideas, I discovered that it creates a barrier between the researcher and the subject. Here I feel split.

On one hand, I think and act as a scientist would, using objective and quantitative viewpoints of the world. Distancing myself from my subject minimizes biased results in emotion or hopeful expectations. Simultaneously, I try to engage the more human side of myself. I want to remember why I am here in the first place, how I feel about the work I am doing, and why I love the hummingbirds I want to better understand. This division between ways of thinking clouded my mind during the first weeks of my project. I was used to thinking in a certain way – so when looking at the same research questions and data collection methods from an ethical standpoint, it made my head spin. Now that I understand the difference between the two ways in which I am trying to answer questions of ethics, I want to find ways to fuse them. My scientific background can complement my emotions and provide communicable evidence for the defense of nature. But a more human approach is necessary for keeping a close connection to the true motivation behind any research that I do.

This week I launched the first and second fleets of camera traps into the field. After configuring the settings and learning to identify local hummingbirds, I set out and retrieved two sets of camera traps on an array of different flowers. Moving this technology out into the field has been more exhausting and challenging than I anticipated. Every morning after breakfast, I configure several camera traps and hike out on a new trail to find flowers at which to set up traps. By mid-day, the sun heats the humid air to create a sticky and heavy jungle haze. I often take a second hike after lunch to set out more traps and get home before darkness. Setting up camera traps isn’t easy. You first must find an appropriate flower. Then you must find a tree that is not too far away and not too close and is skinny enough for the straps and strong enough not to move. Once you have this, you must check the surrounding vegetation for sparsity, so it doesn’t cause false triggers. Then it takes several – sometimes dozens – of tries to correctly angle the lens towards the flower. Then you hope the lighting is good and hummingbirds like the flower you have chosen.

In not expecting this amount of difficulty in setting up, I quickly got hot and flustered over the process. I wanted to cheat. I wanted to take a machete and whack the pesky bushes aside to expose the flower I was interested in. I felt eager to finish or push for results, and it made my actions more reckless. I was leaving behind more of a human trace in my activities. Sometimes my settings didn’t work the same way on the feeders as in the field and I wanted to blame the conditions for my misfortunes. To make temptation worse, I knew that I could do exactly that I want to without incurring any consequences for myself. Many scientists face this dilemma in their research. In the field, I can clearly see the easy way to get where I want. But the easy way, in my case, is both lazy and violent. Lazy, because I am not taking the time to do a thorough and quality job. Violent, because I am thoughtlessly destroying plants I find problematic instead of finding a gentler solution. Neither of those qualities are how I want to be conducting my research; and the decision to do my research the right way is solely up to me. It helps to remind myself of the ethics of what I am doing (why am I doing this?) and then it is clear the only way to do it is the correct way. In the end, it feels good to have set up everything the right way. This feeling lets me know I chose the right path.

Andrea Kolarova is a T’20 Undergraduate and a 2018 Kenan Summer Fellows Participant. 

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