It is extremely important to me that we recognize as a group of people who will be employing undergraduates that we are responsible if something happens to the students on our watch. And it is also important that we recognize that by employing undergrad’s we are giving them a learning experience – this is not the time or the place to hand over your most precious samples and hope that everything goes well. In my time mentoring undergraduate students, I have had to cancel field and lab work over safety concerns, I’ve had a student get injured and I had to take them to the hospital, and the most common one: all of us mess up and the data is unusable. This may not be the most helpful of blog posts in terms of creating a plan for you to follow, but this post is about how I totally understand if something goes wrong. Here are the things I did about it, and the lessons I learned, but I will fully admit that I did not do any of it the best I could have.
Cancelling field work: if you need to cancel it, just cancel it. As a cave geologist, I depend a lot on volunteer cavers who are always 1000% in no matter what. I really appreciate this about these volunteers, but in terms of doing the cave trip no matter what the weather, it is very difficult to talk them down. You may have collaborators or others you work with that are similar. When it is just me and the volunteers who have years of caving experience, I am very lenient with weather safety concerns. However, the minute an undergraduate will be involved, I have a checklist that I say to myself: Will it be safe to drive there? Will it be safe to be outside (lightening, fire, smoke, hail, wind)? Will it be safe for them to drive or walk alone if I get injured and can’t help them? If any of these are a no, then I cancel field work. I have not cancelled field work before when I should have and I was scared the whole time, luckily nothing happened. But when you do cancel know that it makes EVERYONE angry: the undergrads are disappointed, the collaborators think I’m a wimp, and the people depending on the data, including my advisor, are often like “WTF?” In field sciences, we have all had rough and tough field experiences, you may have very different thresholds for what YOU would go out and do. But it is very different to ask someone, with less experience than you, to go out and do it with you. I caution you to not “cave” (pun intended) to the pressure of what everyone else wants. You are ultimately responsible for the safety of others, make the choice that will help you sleep at night.
Student Injuries: what’s your evacuation plan? When I first started doing field work as an undergrad myself and up until my first few years of a Ph.D., I was very lazy about a plan to deal with injuries to myself and others. A couple of years ago, I had a student injure themselves on a hike to our base camp. We were out doing water monitoring, had packed very light, and I had to get smart quick. We were about 5 miles away from base camp and I had left behind our first aide kit. Luckily, the student was able to make it (slowly) back to base camp. However, once we used our basic first aide at camp, it was clear the student was going to need more than that and we had to hike out. We were 7 miles from my car and about an hour from the nearest hospital. HOW HAD I NOT THOUGHT OF THIS BEFORE?! So, here are the things I do now: 1. review the universities injury and illness prevention plan, 2. always carry a backpacking first aide kit and extra water, no matter what, 3. take wildnerness first aide classes, 4. have the student copy their insurance card (if they have one) and have it in their backpack, 5. be very familiar with the workers comp policies of the university, and 6. have an evacuation plan and hospital plan ready and communicate that to the students before they come on the trip.
We all mess up: the story of data that never was. I would argue that the most important thing to model for your undergraduate students is: “what to do if you mess up”. You are going to mess up in front of students in the field (and elsewhere) and they are going to mess up in the field – it’s a part of science. Here is what I have learned from messing up several times: 1. when students are learning, don’t give them the most important tasks. You may think it is easy to do and you may have a lot of confidence in them, but if it’s crucial data – that may not be the best place for the students to start. 2. Do not lose your cool – practice saying to yourself “its OK, things happen.” There is no reason to lose your cool on a student in the field. It is likely a stressful situation for everyone but losing your temper at a student in the field is the last thing anyone needs (especially if you have days of work ahead of you). Just remember to breathe, and then calmly use the situation as a teaching moment. If you need to scream about the data, see #1 and then do so after you have gotten out of the field. 3. Do not beat yourself up in front of students – this is a hard one but I really encourage you to model self-love in front of students so that they can see that it’s OK for everyone to mess up sometimes. You just have to keep moving. PLUS I’m here to tell you, it is OK to mess up and I still respect you as a scientist no matter what!
I am a Ph.D. Candidate who actively tries to create an equitable and enriching experience for undergraduate researchers, I post weekly about the things I teach and my experiences with undergraduates.