Montana Public Radio

Scientists Forced To Adapt As COVID-19 Complicates Long Term Research

May 13, 2020

Scientists' spring and summer field seasons are being postponed, altered or cancelled completely in the face of COVID-19. Time sensitive research is the most vulnerable.

This story is another in our series looking at the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on scientific research efforts in Montana.

[Songbirds singing]. This is what songbirds sounded like a year ago in eastern Montana’s sagebrush. But Victoria Dreitz and her 20 field techs aren’t there to finish recordings for the final year of their decade of research into the birds. Concerns about spreading the virus to rural communities cancelled the season.

"It doesn't feel good losing field data, but everybody's health comes first before the data collection."

Dreitz is the Director of the University of Montana’s Avian Science Center. Her research is time-sensitive. She and her students need to be in the field when birds migrate, and when their eggs hatch. That time is now.

"The animals don't wait just because we needed to figure out our processes."

Some field seasons are proceeding roughly as planned, while other far flung trips were already scratched. But the natural world doesn’t pause for a pandemic.

PhD student Claire Rawlings Gilder studies fluvial geomorphology at UM. That's a fancy way of saying she looks at how landscapes change in response to forces like water. The state’s stay-at-home order in March quashed plans to place equipment in the Middle Fork of the Flathead River this spring.

"Once the flows start going up during spring snow melt, it's not safe to be on the river if you’re trying to do data collection. I mean, if you're doing whitewater rafting, it might be great. But that was not our hope."

Missing that information could compromise her overall study.

"So we're gonna have to come up with some more creative ways to think about how the river’s behaving."

Thatcher Montgomery records songbird data collected on private lands in Eastern Montana in 2014.
Credit Courtesy UM Avian Science Lab

The impact of losing or postponing a summer in the field varies. PhD students might have time to cope with delays, but master’s students and undergrads have a shorter window before graduation. University guidelines to keep people safe, although relaxed slightly May 4, are adding logistical and financial challenges. Crews need plans for social distancing during travel, research, sleeping, cooking and living in the field. Stringent cleaning of shared spaces and gear, plus wearing face masks and taking temperatures every 12 hours, is also suggested.

Associate professor Andrew Whiteley says he’s working through these complications to keep his students’ upcoming field seasons on track. One study on westslope cutthroat trout, for example, requires that each generation of offspring be caught.

"It just takes a long time for us to understand patterns. A missing year could have a big effect."

So Whitely and others are getting innovative, tapping students’ roommates or married couples as field helpers to get around social distance hurdles. They say adaptability is just part of doing science.

This story and our series this week looking at how the novel coronavirus pandemic is changing scientific research is supported by a grant from the National Geographic COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.