Conducting fieldwork: a guide for the budding geoscientist

Fieldwork can be interpreted differently across different disciplines. Per Wikipedia, “field research, or fieldwork, is the collection of information outside a laboratory, library, or workplace setting.”

In the Earth Sciences, we conduct TasoTrip_ljc_197smfieldwork outdoors to collect data from the natural world, to observe natural processes, and to learn about the interactions between the solid earth, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and humans.

Often, we conduct field work in locations that are difficult to access, or are far from our home base. Every second in the field is valuable because it is a rare opportunity to collect the data and observations needed to answer specific research questions. Therefore, it is useful to have a somewhat systematic approach to conducting field research. I provide the guidance below based on my personal experiences at field camp in the western U.S. in 2013, and conducting field research on various expeditions in eastern Pennsylvania, Spain, New Mexico, Colorado, Grand Canyon, Arizona, and Germany.


Fieldwork is not possible without adequate preparation. It is recommended to perform “virtual fieldwork” before ever stepping foot outside the workplace. Google Earth and GIS software are powerful tools to explore areas of interest. Thanks to the increasing resolution of satellite imagery and availability of LiDAR data, much work can be done virtually to collect information about a field site. Whether hiking, driving, or traveling by horse, you should calculate travel times between field sites so you can be realistic about the amount of time you need to accomplish your goals.

Do you need a permit to access or to collect samples from your site of interest? Inquire with plenty of time in advance.

Make lists.

What will you be doing in the field? Visualize yourself collecting samples, taking in situ measurements, or working with scientific equipment. What equipment and accessories do you need to carry out these field methods? What problems might you encounter while conduct these methods? Make a list of everything you might need during the entire duration of field work.

Here’s a list of things I always take with me into the field:

  1. Field notebook (e.g. Write in the Rain bound notebook)
  2. Permanent Markers (always good for labeling samples)
  3. Drafting pencils! (mechanical; graphite 3H or 4H are better than 2)
  4. Pens (e.g. Edding 1800 series pens in various weights)
  5. Colored Pencils (R, O, Y, G, B, V, Bl., Br.)
  6. Handheld GPS receiver (e.g. Garmin GPSmap 64s)
  7. Compass (e.g. Brunton Transit)
  8. Hand lens
  9. Protractor-ruler (e.g. Wescott C-thru)
  10. Field Pouch (e.g. Plateau Design)
  11. Map – topographic maps, geologic maps, road maps, etc.
  12. First aid kit: Band-Aids, gauze, medical tape, Neosporin, Ibuprofen, sun screen, insect repellent, etc.
  13. Water – a one-liter Nalgene bottle plus a 3L Camelbak bladder in my day pack
  14. Rock Hammer (optional; e.g. Estwing rock pick with chisel edge)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAObviously, the list gets longer as you add additional equipment needed to collect samples or take specific measurements. Think carefully about the gear you need for your specific mission and add it to a list.

SAFETY FIRST! If you are working along a road, bring a neon-colored safety vest. If you are using a rock hammer to collect rock samples, bring work gloves and safety glasses. If you are using acids, bring latex gloves.

Keep everything in a daypack (30-60 liter capacity, depending on your needs).

Pack appropriate clothing.

Think about the environment you will be working in and what the temperature will be. In general, you should wear the following:

  • Hiking boots/low hikers
  • Wool socks
  • Lightweight long-sleeve shirt
  • Long pants with pockets, made of flexible material
  • Hat – I prefer a baseball cap, but many prefer to shield their ears from the sun with a brimmed hat
  • Sunglasses – polarized are better
  • Belt – needed to fix your field pouch and compass to your waist

Practice your methods.

If you are trying out a new sampling procedure or new equipment, be sure you practice these methods and test the equipment before you depart on your field trip. You do not want to waste time trying to figure out how your total station works at your first work site when you have twenty other locations to visit before the day is over.


Fieldwork is an excellent opportunity to escape the monotony of everyday life. Take advantage of the experience in a different environment to think differently, to interact with the world around you, and to have fun!


  • Orient yourself – where are you and in what direction are you facing?
  • Open all your senses – look, listen, smell, touch, and in some cases, taste if necessary (e.g. to identify halite).
  • Identify shapes, patterns, colors, contrast, composition.
  • Think continuously. Make connections between the form of the landscape and your samples/measurements.

Take Notes.Me with gravels Water Canyon

Perhaps the most important advice: record everything in your field notebook:

  • Where are you? – GPS coordinates in addition to location name and nearby locality
  • What is the date and time?
  • Why are you there?
  • Who is with you?
  • How did you get there? – This may be important if you want to return to this location in the future.
  • How is the weather? – temperature, sunshine, precipitation, ground moisture
  • What does the landscape look like?
    • Landscape relief. Vegetation types. Soil cover. Soil color. Vegetation density. Distinct or unique landmarks. Grain size. Grain color. Grain shape/degree of rounding. Clast composition. Hill slope angles. Geologic unit thickness. River discharge. River turbidity. Agricultural influence. Human activity. Etcetera…
  • Samples collected – sample names/numbers,sample type, GPS coordinates, physical characteristics of each sample, interpretations of the sample, etc.
  • In situ measurements – record the values, GPS coordinates, describe the measurement technique, who is taking the measurements, how many measurements, etc.
  • How does your work at this specific site fit into the context of your research question?

Often, writing in your field notebook can help develop hypotheses or even contribute to the discussion portions of your manuscript. Think continuously and document your thoughts.

Make sketches.

Earth science is a visual field, and sometimes words cannot capture the essence of nature. Geologic cross-sections, stratigraphic columns, sedimentary structures, strain indicators, soil profiles, etc. are all best portrayed by a sketch.

  • Use a full notebook page for one sketch.
  • Do not try to be artistic. Focus on recreating the relationships of natural features using simple shapes and lines. The more schematic, the better.
  • Sketch in pencil first, then trace in ink. Color is always nice.
  • Annotate with field measurements and appropriate symbols (e.g. strike and dip)
  • Use your protractor-ruler to accurately show angles and and orientations of features you sketch
  • Include: scale bar, orientation, caption

Take Pictures.

High quality field photos are irreplaceable. Photograph the people yPolvadera mesa sedsou are with, the samples taken, the locations of sample extraction, locations of measurements, geologic features, vegetation, field methods in action, and the landscape around you. Always have something in your photos for scale (e.g. hammer, pen, lens cap, etc.).

If a drone is available to you, take it! High resolution aerial imagery or multispectral data of your field sites can be incredibly useful. It is also fun to take aerial photos of yourself and your colleagues at work.

Good luck on your next field excursion!


The 30 year evolution of the Rio Bermejo: a tour through space and time

The Rio Bermejo undergoes frequent, rapid change in its planform morphology. Follow the link to see the river’s evolution at various landscape scales since 1984, as recorded by LandSat data compiled in the Google Earth Engine.

Rio Bermejo Time Lapse: 1984-Present


Blog Series: Living and learning in the ‘Land of Enchantment’

Over the next several weeks I will be posting a series of blog entries reflecting on my time in New Mexico – the “Land of Enchantment.” Before moving to Albuquerque, I knew virtually nothing about the southwestern U.S., but I feel that I learn something new about this region each day I am here. Much of this learning has been experiential – my experiences in the wilderness, among the blue skies, the thin air, and the high mountain peaks, have had a significant impact on my mental, physical, and spiritual development. I have grown strong and confident in more ways than one, and I am happier than ever to be alive. My educational journey began in the heart of the southwest – the Grand Canyon- and nearly two years later, I find myself in love with the rivers that drain this arid landscape, especially the Rio Grande, the lifeline of New Mexico. I have nothing but love for this arid, yet beautiful and diverse landscape, and I want to share what I have learned about it over the past two years. Stay tuned!IMG_1001

Taking time to explore

The end of the semester always catches me off guard. Especially this one. The past five months appear to have vanished into thin air. Deadlines for research proposals are just days away, the stack of ungraded assignments sitting on my desk is at its tipping point, final exams are rapidly approaching, the AGU fall meeting is only weeks away, the paper I am trying to publish is getting pushed farther to the bottom of my to-do list, and on top of all that I am working on applications to graduate school yet again – this time to pursue my PhD.

Even though I am currently experiencing mental chaos, it is during times like these that it is most important to take time for yourself. Today I chose to get outside and explore a new chunk of wilderness – the continental divide trail near Grants, New Mexico. The snowy peak of Mt. Taylor beckoned me, and I decided to defer my mountain of work and breach the limits of Albuquerque to explore a mountain I had yet to visit. The clear skies, the fresh air, the vantage points that look out hundreds of miles, and the density of quaking aspens and ponderosa pines worked together to provide an unrivaled experience of indulging in nature. It was the perfect way to clear my mind in preparation for a demanding week ahead.

IMG_0947When given the opportunity, #OptOutside.

Experience on Capitol Hill – Geoscience Congressional Visits Day

For the last eight years, the American Geosciences Institute has organized Geoscience Congressional Visits Days, during which geoscientists who represent the multitude of geosocieties gather in Washington, D.C. to meet with members of congress with the collective goal of increasing federal investments in the geosciences. This year I was given the opportunity to represent the Geological Society of America and the state of New Mexico in this event, along with 59 other geoscientists from across the country.
I was joined by UNM alumna Claudia Mora, and two other GSA representatives to meet with staff from the offices of Senators Heinrich and Udall, Representatives Lujan, Lujan Grisham, and Pearce, and members of the House subcommittee on energy and mineral resources. I shared my personal experiences working with the NSF-funded EPSCoR program, conducting analyses in NSF-supported labs, and being dependent on resources provided by the USGS to learn more about the Earth and its ability to sustain life. Without past and current federal investments in geoscience research I would not be able to complete my Masters degree in Geology and I would not have had all the wonderful learning opportunities these experiences offered.
It was encouraging to hear that the New Mexico congressmen are supportive of geoscience research, and hopefully my positive experiences with federally-funded programs have shown them how strong and sustained federal investments in the geosciences can increase our national security, enhance our energy economy, and provide a safe environment for the people of this country to live.
Additionally, I was able to form a strong connection with the office of Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham who is very interested in geoscience research being conducted in New Mexico, particularly the work being done by the EPSCoR program and studies of the impacts of the Gold King Mine discharge on the Animas River. I offered to serve as a resource to Representative Lujan Grisham’s office for geoscience issues, and I emphasized the capacity of the UNM EPS department to conduct critical geoscience research and to provide relevant data and important information to the congresswoman.
I am excited about all the new connections that were created between congress and participating geoscientists, and I am sure that our actions on Capitol Hill will have a positive impact on the federal funding appropriated for geoscience research in the future.
Team New Mexico! From left to right: Emma Locatelli (PhD candidate, Yale University), Marisa Repasch (MS Candidate, UNM), Claudia Mora (Earth Science Program Director, LANL)
Team New Mexico! From left to right: Emma Locatelli (PhD candidate, Yale University), Marisa Repasch (MS Candidate, UNM), Claudia Mora (Earth Science Program Director, LANL)

P.S. This experience showed me how powerful the collective voice is, and it reminded me how impactful an educated electorate can be. Get the facts and get out and vote!

Click here to read more about how geosciences serve society.

Continue reading “Experience on Capitol Hill – Geoscience Congressional Visits Day”

“The forms can change only if the energy applied to the system changes.”

From Hack, J.T., 1960, Interpretation of erosional topography in humid temperate regions: American Journal of Science, v. 258A, p. 80-97.

The study of geomorphology may have seen some of its most profound and fundamental research published during the mid-twentieth century. John T. Hack (1913-1991) was a foremost geologist who, while working for the USGS, studied the evolution of the Earth’s surface. In this 1960 publication, Hack came up with a time-independent model for erosion and landscape change. He noted that the Earth’s surface is an open system upon which many processes could act simultaneously. Hack was also the first to propose that uplift could be slow enough to counteract erosion, thus leading to landforms that could remain in steady-state until a major energy input occurred, such as through an orogeny or climate change. Hack’s theory sparked the study of the various processes controlling landscape evolution, and how these processes interact with one another on a multitude of scales.

Many geologists and geomorphologists have built upon Hack’s theory, and I am continuing this work to further understand the processes governing the evolution of the Rio Grande fluvial system in northern New Mexico.

Research Update!

I write this post with the hope of stumbling upon a mental strategy to narrow down my own research question for my Master’s thesis. This past weekend I completed my first round of field work in north-central New Mexico, focusing on finding evidence to elucidate the evolution of the Rio Grande and its tributaries. I couldn’t have asked for better winter weather, or better people to aid in my field efforts. I was able to collect samples of sand and gravel from river terraces and samples of basalt that overlie and underlie these terraces. I will use geochronologic techniques to obtain accurate ages of these samples with the hope of understanding the timing of river incision and aggradation of the Rio Grande. This data would allow me to tap into several different conundrums, which I will need to define more precisely.

Collecting basalt samples with help from Matt Heizler!
Collecting basalt samples with help from Matt Heizler!
Standing on the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge
Standing on the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge

Joining my advisor and me were several veteran geologists who have mapped all over the Rio Grande river basin in northern New Mexico, and shared with me their incredible wealth of knowledge on the area. If it weren’t for them, I would not have been able to differentiate river terrace gravels from alluvial fan or rift fill deposits, nor would I have been able to identify the provenance of the terrace gravels once they were found. If it weren’t for these guys I also wouldn’t be having such a difficult time narrowing down my thesis topic. After learning so much from them, I discovered how many questions about the Rio Grande’s evolution remain unanswered, and how much of the river valley needs to be remapped! Having so many possibilities it quite wondrous, however, for now I need to focus on one problem and try to solve that problem.


1. Make a list of all possible research problems that I could solve.

2. Find a way to encompass all listed problems into one cohesive question.

Easier said than done I suppose.

Wish me luck!

Red River gorge with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background


Perspectives from a Young Scientist

As a fledgling Earth Scientist, with aspirations to make significant contributions to the field of Geology, I have found navigation of the scientific enterprise quite challenging. It turns out I am not alone!

At the Future of Research Symposium held this past October in Boston, hundreds of post-docs and graduate scientists gathered to identify the obstacles preventing young scientists from moving forward in all fields of science. The ultimate result of this congregation was a call for reform – reform of the research enterprise, which is comprised of academia, industry, publishing, and government. Collectively, the group proposed three main tenets for scientific reform:

  1. Connectivity among junior scientists
  2. Balance between employment and training at the postdoctoral level
  3. Increased investment in young scientists, independent of PI research grants

To accomplish this proposed reform requires a larger role for graduate students and post-docs. We must be aware of our importance within the scientific enterprise, and use our power to shape the future of scientific research.

With little experience conducting research, many young scientists struggle to understand their roles in the research process, especially at the master’s and early PhD levels. It is often difficult to believe in ourselves and our individual abilities, especially when we are so heavily influenced by our advisors. We tend to trust their opinions more than our own, mainly because we know they have the experience. But we need to think for ourselves. We are the only ones in this field who can offer fresh perspectives and alternative ways of interpreting data.

In the words of Dr. Seuss:
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.”

We are intelligent. We have the ability to discover. We are the future of science.

To read more about the 2014 Future of Science Symposium, click here.

‘Tis the Season of Grant Writing

This past Tuesday was the submission deadline for applications for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. This is an incredibly competitive program, which provides a hefty support package in the form of three years of funding and tuition reimbursement for a graduate student working toward a PhD in a science or engineering program. Personally, I spent that last month preparing my application materials with the hope of winning this prestigious fellowship. But the odds certainly are not in my favor. In 2012, NSF received over 13,000 applications, and awarded 2,000 fellowships- just a 15% success rate.

In other words, I am fully prepared for rejection. If I receive the NSF fellowship, my pursuit to become a professor at a research institution will be made much easier. I would be ecstatic. But even if I do not receive the award, the experience I gained writing the personal and research statements was invaluable. Through the writing process I was able to evaluate my career goals and the direction of my graduate research. I was also able to remind myself why I am studying Geology – to understand the planet on which we live, to learn more about out natural resources, and ultimately to share my knowledge with the general public, whether it is to students, citizens, or government officials. This experience reaffirmed my passion for studying Earth Science, and I can only thank NSF for providing me with this opportunity.

But I have not lost hope. I am confident that I deserve a NSF graduate research fellowship, but until then I will begin preparing my application materials for the many other funding opportunities I plan on applying for in the next several months.

Link to a good article on grant-writing by Bourne and Chalupa (2006):

Food for thought:

Courtesy of