My research focuses on trees, but when I look at the equipment I fill my car with when I go out to my field site, it looks more like I am an electrician. There are car batteries, cables, a bag full of tools, a laptop and lots more. Only a field notebook to record observations like Darwin or Humboldt have done it, is just not enough anymore. Nowadays most research involves specialised equipment to gather data or samples and advanced technology to physically or chemically analyse all sorts of sample materials. That can be daunting, but mostly it is just great to have so many toys to play with as a researcher.
I rely on sensors to gather most of my data. A meteorological station records environmental data for me, sap flow sensors (that I partly built myself) measure how much water my trees are using and I use a little thing called Trephor to collect wood samples (see how in this little video). The newest additions to our toy collection are called radius dendrometers. They will very soon record the expansion and contraction of my study trees’ stems on an extremely fine scale. That will give me an idea about daily patterns of water storage and growth. When the parcel with that equipment arrived I was excited like a little child at Christmas, but very soon the daunting part started. I needed to figure out how to get them working, how to install them and there is always that little bit of anxiety, because all that equipment is ridiculously expensive since it is so specialised and only few people in the world use it.
All these toys are great and playing with them is mostly fun, the harder part is the interpretation of the data they gather. Even though there have been many advances in how to get data the part where you have to make sense out of it to generate knowledge has not actually changed much since Darwin and Humboldt.
To have a look at some cool toys scientists are using check out #girlswithtoys on twitter.
Julia Kaplick is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is researching the response of native trees to seasonal variation in climatic conditions using measurements of sap flow, water relations and carbon allocation. Julia is supervised by Cate Macinnis-Ng (University of Auckland) and Mike Clearwater (Waikato University). Julia is supported by funding from the Marsden Fund.