So then what? What do scientists do when the fieldwork ends? The answer: we keep working. A lot. And it’s not very glamorous or photogenic.
First, data sheets need to be entered into the computer- we have one data sheet per bird, each of which contains information on the location of capture, the band number for that bird, whether it’s male or female, plus all the different measurements we collect on body size, feather lengths, and parasite counts. To make sure we don’t have any typos, data entry is a two-person job: one person reads out the data sheet while another types into Excel, and then the typist reads the entries back to check against the hard copy. It’s really boring, but needs to be done before we can analyze trait differences among different populations.
This is done via a process called DNA extraction. We store the blood samples we collect in a preservative solution that preserves everything- red blood cells, white blood cells, water, salts, parasites, and all kinds of other junk. But for our analyses, all we want is the DNA- the raw genetic material- which is trapped inside the nucleus of the red blood cells. By adding different types of chemical reagents to our samples and then carefully warming them overnight, we can make the blood cells burst open to release the DNA. We then wash the samples several times using special solutions and filters and a centrifuge, which gets rid of everything except the DNA. It takes 4 or 5 hours over two days to process 24 samples, and in the end we have a little tube of clear liquid containing purified DNA.
So, we’ve been doing all that for the last nine months. Plus, we’ve been writing a lot. I published several papers, Matt wrote (and defended!) his thesis and is now. Writing is pretty much the most important thing we do as scientists: there’s no point in collecting all these data if we don’t explain what they mean, and then publish papers in journals that the rest of the scientific community can read. Reading and writing papers is how we share our results, find out what questions are interesting, and move our fields forward.
And now, after 9 months, I’m ready to go again. We’ve got a serious itinerary this summer, perhaps even more ambitious than last year. I’m leaving tomorrow for China, where I, along with University of Colorado alum Caroline and Queen Mary University PhD student Liu Yu, will spend 7 weeks traveling all over the country looking for barn swallows. Caroline and I will then fly to Japan for 10 days to catch birds in Hokkaido and Tokyo. We’ll part ways in Sapporo, with Caroline flying to South Africa to start fieldwork for her graduate research- she begins a PhD the fall. I will head to Mongolia, where I’m meeting up with Georgy (of 2013 trans-Siberian road trip fame) to spend another month searching for barn swallow hybrid zones. The continuing crisis in Ukraine forced us to scrap a late-summer trip to Kamchatka, so we’ll be finished some time in mid to late July. It’s been a stressful few weeks of preparation and last minute planning, but now I’m packed, organized, and super excited. We’ll be blogging and posting photos again, so check back here regularly. This summer should be a pretty great adventure.