It’s probably safe to say that most researchers, me included, look forward to going out to the field to work with the animals (or plants, etc.) they study in their natural environment. There are also perks involved if the study site happens to be a beautiful Caribbean island! After two and a half years completing course work for my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, I am finally back in the Dutch Caribbean Island of Bonaire as a Peter Buck Predoctoral Fellow “hunting” box jellyfish for my dissertation research.
When I began preparing for this trip in February, it quickly became evident that getting ready to go actually takes a lot longer than the actual time spent in the field: one week, in this case. As a graduate student on a limited travel budget, I am using this trip to address several questions related to the species of box jellyfish I am studying – Alatina alata. To do so I brought collection and lab equipment and reagents, as well as a dry shipper. I will use this equipment to bring back preserved specimens for the museum and flash frozen specimens for genomic studies. I also plan to bring back live box jellyfish polyps (larvae) to culture in the new wet lab in the department of Invertebrate Zoology at NMNH (Smithsonian National museum of Natural History).
I would not be here right now soaking up the sun with my field assistant, my mom, who flew in from Canada, without the help of many individuals (Smithsonian staff, interns, volunteers, collaborators, and family).
If you are planning your solo international collecting trip, here are 12 important things to consider several weeks to months in advance of departing for the field, and the corresponding human resources available:
- Establish a collaborator at your foreign study site who can monitor the seasonal presence/absence of your study organism(s) to help you make informed decisions when planning the collecting trip.
Resource: Johan van Blerk has been our on-island collaborator– providing museum samples at various times of the year, and advice on where and when to collect certain jellyfish of interest on Bonaire. One of our best sites is Karel’s Pier (and Restaurant) in Kralendijk.
- Find a host institute at or near your study site with which you can collaborate.
Resource: Marine biology educators and Bonaire marine biodiversity experts at CIEE Research Station Bonaire, Rita Peachy (Director) who coordinated lab space, Patrick Lyons for inviting me to give a public lecture, and Enrique Arboleda for getting me set up with necessary lab and collecting equipment and supplies.
- Know what paperwork has to be filed in order to import live and/or preserved museum specimens back into the USA.
Resource: Shipping and specimen transport experts Paul Greenhall and Kristen Mercer MSC Collections Staff discussed my import plan, and pre-filed the 3-177 with the US Department of Fish and Wildlife in order to ensure proper import of the biological specimens for scientific research.
- Know what type of collection/exit/export permits are required by the host country (i.e., in my case Bonaire, The Netherlands), and whether or not your samples are restricted by CITES.
Resource: Bonaire natural history and diving expert Bud Gillan (Florida High School Biology Teacher), an excellent collaborator for several years, connected me with Frank van Slobbe DROB and Ramon de Leon of Bonaire STINIPA.
- Procure (borrow, rent or purchase) appropriate equipment for the type of samples you plan to bring (ship or hand-carry) back into the USA.
Resource: Collaborator extraordinaire Stacy Pirro of Iridian Genomes, Inc. provided me with a dry shipper, and shipping case for the duration of this trip. The National Systematics Lab (NOAA) lent me two coolers that I used for taking my supplies into the field.
- Purchase appropriate reagents for preserving your specimens in the field, keeping in mind the different lab conditions. Check the MSDS sheets to see whether there is an equally effective safe substitute for a particular chemical (based on international regulations and the Harmonized Code).
Resource: Chemical supply experts Jeff Hunt of LAB and Stacy Pirro (see above) provided me with guidance and ordered the necessary chemicals (e.g., RNAase Away wipes, RNAlater) in time for my departure.
- Try to perfect downstream protocols ahead of time to ensure proper preservation techniques are used in the field.
Resource: Histology technician extraordinaire Freya Goetz has helped me develop a suitable histology protocol for embedding, sectioning and staining box jellyfish tissue in order to study the microstructure of their stinging organelles (i.e., nematocysts).
- Determine if there is an appropriate place to house live marine invertebrates in your department once you return from the field.
Resource: Invertebrate Zoology Chair Jon Norenburg gave me approval to set up and run a wet lab consisting of multiple aquariums and a filtering system on the newly renovated second floor of the department of Invertebrate Zoology at the NMNH.
- Figure out how you will keep your animals alive during transit back the USA, and how to culture them in the lab many kilometers away from Bonaire!
Resource: Coral and anemone polyp aquarists extraordinaire Curator Alan Peters and Mike Henley and of the Invertebrate House of the National Zoo provided advice on the aquarium lab set up, feeding the box jellyfish polyps while in the field, and bringing them back alive.
- Set up the wet lab in order to ensure a smooth transition for the polyps when they arrive (hand-carried) at the museum.
Resource: Volunteer and full-time science teacher extraordinaire Tara Lynn, Hailey and Evan helped set up the aquarium room and pack all the equipment into the two coolers I brought into the field.
- Prepare some things ahead of time to save time in the field.
Resource: Fellow PhD student and friend extraordinaire Jessica Goodheart (UMD-BISI- BEES) (Fig) for help preparing “mini-arms” (provided by Mike Henley of the National Zoo – see above) for deployment in the field.
- Be aware of last-minute time-sensitive things, such as charging the dry shipper with liquid nitrogen (and pouring off residual liquid nitrogen) 24 to 48 hours prior to departure.
Resource: Dry shipper (and all things freezing cold) experts Chris Huddleston and Azhar Husain (MSC-Biorepository) tested (one week before departure) and charged (24 hours in advance) the dry shipper for me prior to leaving for my trip.
Some final bits of advice:
Apply for as many small travel grants (i.e., your university) and research awards (Cosmos, National Geographic, Sigma Xi, PADI) in order to minimize costs because inevitably you will go over budget. :-(
Get lots of advice from researchers who have organized and directed a collection expedition. I talked to my PhD coadvisors Allen Collins (NOAA-NMNH) and Alexa Bely (UMD-BIOL) on what equipment was essential for this trip, and how to plan my experiments in the field.
Now that's all it takes to go do some serious jellyfishing!!!