Lessons in science and research.

Hello again!  My time in Arizona has finally come to an end – I just arrived back home in Vancouver yesterday evening.  I can’t accurately express how wonderful an experience it was: educational, amazing, life-changing, beautiful, stressful.  All at once.

Nonetheless, for various reasons and excuses, I didn’t post as frequently as I should have.  So the next best thing, even if it’s not ideal, will be for me to post about my experiences retrospectively.  Consider it storytime 🙂  A lot happened in those six weeks, so I’ll start with the most significant:  the changes I made to my project.

If you recall from my last post, I began my time in Arizona studying the lizards’ behavioral response to presented skin lipids out in the field.  My methods for doing this were thus:  every day I would go out to the field with Tony, who was working on population viability and census work.  His goal was to capture and mark every individual virgatus on the study sites.  This made all of my work a lot easier, because I could determine the sex of the lizards at a glance based on the paint code he assigned them (later in the reproductive season, when the females became gravid and looked like they were about to pop, sexing became much easier, but at this point it was still pretty helpful).  I would then capture anywhere between 2 and 5 females and, very carefully, swab their backs and sides with hexane to pick up the lipophilic skin compounds.  I would then store this swab in a glass vial immediately.

The next day, I would go back out in the field and present these cues, along with hexane and plain swab controls, to males.  I did so by attaching the swabs to the end of a 10 foot fishing pole, so as to not scare them away when I approached.

My setup for presenting the chemical cues in the field.

I would position the swab within a body length of the male, count to ten, and then, using a voice recorder (thank you iPhone), count all the behaviors and movements I observed.

I did this for 2-3 weeks, until I got sample sizes of 15-20 for each treatment group, and ran some preliminary stats.  That’s when I l came upon lessons in research #1: A lot of times experiments don’t work.

My p values were astronomical.  I ran every kind of test you can imagine, and not once did any even come close to being significant.  There’s another important lesson buried in these events: #2 insignificant results are still results.  But there also comes a point where you, as the scientist, need to use your judgment and assess your methods.  Seeing as I’d spent countless hours running these trials and becoming familiar with the ways of these lizards, I truly believed that my methodology was ineffective.  The whole purpose of running behavioral trials in the field was to get the most realistic response possible.  But  there’s this classic trade-off that I first learned about in my Ecology course and got to experience first-hand: in the field you get accuracy but lack control, whereas in the lab you lack that accuracy but gain back the control.

In my situation, I really needed control.  It was just impossible for me to quantitively say whether or not the lizards were really responding (or not responding) to my cues because they weren’t interested in them, or because they weren’t even perceiving them, or because they were too distracted to interact with them.

So that was a woeful discovery, but an important lesson and reminder to me about my priorities in doing this research.  Yes, I’d received a grant to do this and would be required to present my results at the Student Research Symposium, so there was a certain push to get good results.  In the end, however,  I was participating in the scientific process, and it’s just as important to know what doesn’t work as what does.  In the words of Thomas Edison:

“I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

The good news: I didn’t leave Arizona with no results.  I still had time to re-organize things and try out something new, but I’ll save the details for another post.  Instead, I’ll leave you with the most significant lesson of all, lesson #3: Nothing really goes according to plan, and you can’t anticipate what will happen.  Resourcefulness, creativity and flexibility are therefore a lot more important for this work than I at least originally thought.

This was both fun and stressful.  Overall, I enjoyed the challenge and still believe that going into research is the thing for me.

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