Now more than ever, field stations are helping scientists to tackle big questions about pressing environmental issues
by Roberta Kwok
Noah Whiteman's 2011 field season was tough. He and his team spent two summer months in the Rocky Mountains studying whether bacterial infections made plants more vulnerable to herbivores. They wanted to isolate bacteria from collected leaves to infect plants in the field, but the station at which they were working, the non-profit Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) near Crested Butte, Colorado, did not have the equipment to support sterile laboratory work.
So two to three times every week, the team drove an hour each way to Western State Colorado University in Gunnison to autoclave nutrient media and pour it into Petri dishes ready for growing bacteria. They were grateful for the facilities, but the process “was really cumbersome”, says Whiteman, an ecological geneticist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “We were exhausted.”
But by Whiteman's 2012 field season, the RMBL had built a new research centre — with Bunsen burners, microfiltered water and fume cupboards for chemical work — mainly with funding from the 2009 stimulus package from the US federal government. The facilities got even better in 2013, when funding from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and private donors allowed the station to add an autoclave, a shaking incubator, a polymerase-chain-reaction machine and a −80 °C freezer. The team could now store more plant and bacteria samples and process them much more quickly.
Many field stations used to offer biologists little more than access to the land, basic equipment such as microscopes and a place to sleep. But over the past decade or so, stations around the world have begun adding more sophisticated features: molecular-biology equipment, Wi-Fi, Global Positioning System (GPS) devices and features ranging from towers that allow researchers to monitor the forest canopy to facilities for conducting large-scale lake experiments. The upgrades, often funded by government grants, are driven partly by the falling cost of technology. Meanwhile, there is growing scientific interest in complex, large-scale research questions — including projects on the effects of climate change, invasive species and pathogens across entire regions. To support this work, programmes such as the NSF-funded US National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), based in Boulder, Colorado, are collecting standardized ecological and atmospheric data across whole countries — a far cry from the simple collection of flora and fauna that once characterized field-station research. “Back in the day, you were just grabbing creatures,” says Sarah Oktay, director of the Nantucket Field Station operated by the University of Massachusetts Boston. Now, she says, scientists are more interested in big questions relevant to entire regions.