Contingency Lemonade: Methods for Maintaining Self-Love and Continuing to Holomua when Research Goes Awry

by Honour Booth

In the sixth grade, Mrs. Ho taught me a valuable lesson that I have carried with me ever since: “Always have a plan B.” As I’ve gotten older I have adapted it a bit: “Always have a plan B through Z.”

Goals are good. Sometimes, everything goes just as planned: you get all the samples you needed and the freezer door stays shut; your community partners actually give you the signed official document they “promised” that states you have permission to access a site for samples; Airgas does not have a miraculous and ironic shortage of CO2 gas for making dry ice. But options are better. Sometimes the freezer door opens. Sometimes your community partners do not give you any official document, and all you have are some emails, a phone number, and a “promise” giving you the go-ahead. And, alas, sometimes there is a shortage of CO2 gas.

As a Hawaiʻi Sea Grant Graduate Fellow working on a project that investigates land-based pollutants in the coastal ecosystems of Kaihuopalaʻai and Kanaloa-Kahoʻolawe, I have experienced all of these “sometimes” and more! So for when these and other mishaps do occur, here are some methods for maintaining self-love and continuing to holomua (move forward).

  1. Coping with Sample Loss
Looking down into a bucket of large, dark-shelled crabs
Samoan crabs that did not make it to analysis.

Environmental scientists go to great lengths to get their samples, like filling out mountains of applications, forms, proposals, and letters, just to get some water in a jar, or paddling through downright disgusting water to collect sediment or to set crab traps. All that time and energy invested by you and your field partners just for the freezer door to fall open.

Things can go wrong, and worse than the wasted investment of resources is the mental punishment we give ourselves for a mistake. Yes, there are lessons to learn in retrospect: in my case, buy some freezer locks. (Seriously though, go get yourself some freezer locks if you do not already have them!) But also, remember that when things do not go as planned, lamenting about what should have been done is a waste of energy that can lead to a downward spiral of mental self-flagellation. Instead, owning and accepting the problem can not only liberate you from guilt but also build the right attitude for fixing the problem.

  1. Communicating to Gain Access
A student sits on a paddleboard on placid water, with a paddle in hand and a sample bucket next to her.
Paddle-boarding in Kaihuopalaʻai. (Credit: Brandon Ikaika Bernaldes)

Remember the mountain of paperwork you did to get permission to collect your sample? Well, usually the result of that is a small stack, or perhaps just a single piece of paper, granting you permission to proceed with your agreed-upon research needs. But what happens if you never get that official document, and all you have is a phone number and a string of emails saying “approved”? Should you keep following-up on the document they “promised”? Or should you just print the email chain and have the phone number handy for when the boat with a machine gun approaches you? (Yeah, did I mention this community partner is a branch of the US military?)

Developing community partnerships can be challenging, especially in a situation with so many legal and safety variables. I was recently told that it is better to take whatever form of permission is given and not ask too many questions, because it puts the other party in a position to say “No.” However, I also learned, from another colleague, about the legal consequences of being caught collecting unauthorized samples. Researchers do not have immunity from legal action and having an infraction on record for collecting a sample is something that may haunt a professional career.

It is easy to get tunnel vision, working on a research project. The enthusiasm I have for my master’s thesis research on organic ultraviolet filters (unrelated to my Hawaiʻi Sea Grant research) borders on obsession. But your project at hand should not negatively affect your future professional goals. So, if you find yourself in a position of not feeling comfortable going into the field to get some water or mud, do not be afraid to voice your concerns. Even if it means getting dismissed from your position, a sample is never worth your personal safety or professional reputation.

  1. There is Always an Alternative Method

Being an environmental scientist means the chance of visiting remote places, most likely with limited access to key supplies needed to keep samples viable until processing and/or analysis! Yes, even more paperwork can facilitate transport of hazardous materials to any destination, but in reality, maneuvering an unsealed dewar of liquid nitrogen off a boat and onto shore is mostly unfeasible. However, there are always alternatives to sample storage and preparation in the field that will maintain sample integrity.

One way to identify and explore these alternatives is to start by asking: What is the purpose of this {insert supply here}? For example, my local Airgas (a widespread industrial gas supplier) currently does not have CO2 gas in stock to make dry ice. (In a time of climate change and an excess of CO2 in our atmosphere, this is surely ironic.) For my purposes, the dry ice was to keep fish samples cold on a two-day trip with no access to a freezer or fresh ice. Ideally, we would like the fish frozen, and dry ice would be an initial compromise, not freezing the fish but keeping it cool. By questioning the purpose of the research supply, our team was able to identify other supplies that were available that could fulfill the same purpose, in this case liquid nitrogen. While no one on our team had used liquid nitrogen in this capacity before, isn’t trying new methods part of research?

Another way to identify and explore alternative methods is to explore other industries that require the same conditions for similar samples. In this case, my colleague pointed out that fishing vessels require their catch to be kept incredibly chilled for multiple days, but instead of using dry ice, they use a salt-ice slurry. Not only is this alternative acceptable for maintaining sample integrity, it is also more accessible then either dry ice or liquid nitrogen in remote locations.

Being prepared to execute a research plan is important, but even more so is being prepared in case your plans fall through. The past year and a half has made everyone more aware of the importance of contingency plans: no matter the expanse of your resources, sometimes things happen that are completely beyond your control. So, always have a plan B…through Z.

And please do get a lock for your research freezer door.

Honor BoothAbout the author: 

Honour is from Kaluaolohe, a ʻili in modern day Kapahulu on Oʻahu. She is currently a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Her favorite kind of crab is the kind you can eat without having to worry about analyzing it for organic pollutants and heavy metals!