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Davis, California

Monday, October 18, 2021

Rollercoaster science:

Cassandra Swett never expected that a field of corn would be her undoing. But there it was, her cornfield, ransacked by hungry crows. Her project destroyed.

Swett, a UC Davis grad student studying plant pathology, planted 2,000 corn seeds this summer. They were test plants that would show Swett whether a fungus that infects pine trees could also infect corn. This year’s plants were a do-over, a retrial after her plants last year died from lack of water.

“That was Cassandra’s crash course in corn farming,” she said.

This new batch of seeds were planted in shallow seedbeds and given plenty of water. Problem solved.

“That was the worst thing we could have done,” Swett said.

The baby plants quickly grew healthy little leaves – unfurled like signal flags for hungry crows. Only two plants survived the attack.

“The field season is such a pain,” she said.

Field season is the time of year when researchers test ideas. Scientists who study the environment take their carefully planned experiments outside and pray nature cooperates. This summer, hundreds of UC Davis researchers are trekking out to forests and farms, hoping for the best.

We were all taught back in grade school that scientists follow an orderly method. Make an observation, form a hypothesis and then experiment. Analyze the results, and you have a tidy little science project.

In real life, plants don’t grow, crows gobble up your data and time runs out.

“Grad students often spend their first field season just practicing,” said Swett.

Luckily, Swett’s project is back on track. She planted seeds again, accounting for drought and crows, and they’re doing fine. If all goes well, she shouldn’t have to do any more field-tests for this project.

“You never know,” she said. “In field studies you just have to be respectful of the chaos.”

“Prepare to fail,” warned Yao Hua Law.

Law is a UC Davis grad student studying insects. He’s spent the last three summers driving between Davis and Bakersfield looking for big-eye bugs. Big-eye bugs are an important predator in agricultural areas. They are only about three millimeters long and sometimes hard to find.

“I’ve had times where I go out and the insects are very low density,” Law said.

Bakersfield in the summer is not a place to visit without good reason. Temperatures there average around 98 degrees and spike up to the 110s on occasion. It’s the sort of dry heat where a breeze never even arrives to cool-off your dripping sweat. Finding an elusive bug in those conditions can be frustrating.

Law grew up in Malaysia, so he’s used to the heat, but he has to prepare the other students on his team for the weather.

“If you don’t expect it, it’s going to be worse,” Law said.

Law thought he’d be done with his project last summer. This year, he’s trying to remain optimistic. He drives south and reminds himself that there are no such things as bad data. During a phone interview, Law said he’d finish in about two months, if everything went well. Then he laughed.

“The major challenge of doing fieldwork is coping with the uncertainty you face in the field,” Law said.

Sometimes birds don’t just attack corn, they attack you.

Last summer, Corinne Ross, an intern with the National Parks Service and recent Cal Poly graduate, used the summer field season to study hawks in Northern California.

Ross helped a graduate student scale trees and trap hawks. The project had a major flaw: two hawks guarded each nest. Trap one, and its enraged partner would swoop from above.

One day, as the graduate student was high up in a tree, Ross heard a noise.

“All of a sudden, I hear this sound that sounds like a fighter pilot coming down,” she said.

She watched the student flail, but she couldn’t help him.

“I couldn’t throw a rock at it – I probably would have hit the [graduate] student anyway,” said Ross.

Between crop failure, heat stroke and hawk-drama, a field season is never predictable. But once a scientist survives a few undergraduate and graduate field seasons, things are bound to improve.

Last summer, Ross found that isolation in the woods was a big problem. The town she lived in had only 87 people, and the nearest grocery store was 30 miles away. The rare cross-state road trip to Taco Bell was a luxury.

This summer, things are better. She’s finding plenty of the birds she studies, and there’s a larger town just 55 miles away.

“It has an Arby’s!” said Ross.

Like Law said, you have to stay optimistic during the field season.

MADELINE MCCURRY-SCHMIDT can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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