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Explore 2018 – the modern explorer

  • Written by  Katie Willis
  • Published in Explorers
Explore 2018 – the modern explorer
25 Oct
With the RGS-IBG’s annual Explore weekend on the horizon, the Society’s vice president for expeditions and field research, Katie Willis, looks to international collaboration as the key to successful expeditions and field research for any 21st century venture

Conducting fieldwork and seeking to understand more about our world through scientific expeditions are key aspects of 21st century geography. These activities are often what attracted many of us to the subject in the first place, involving an engagement with diverse physical and social environments, whether they be close to home or much further afield.

Collaboration is at the heart of successful field research. If you are working overseas, affiliation with host country organisations is often required to gain official research permission. Local engagement is also important as it allows a sharing of knowledge, producing more ethical, accurate and beneficial research. Host country universities, research institutes, NGOs, field study centres or community groups will have existing expertise that could enhance your research. This may include highlighting current and past studies conducted on the topic, or suggesting alternative methods which may be more appropriate in the chosen environment. What might appear to be an innovative and feasible project from your desk at home, may need significant adaptation before the field research starts. Discussions always bring up new research themes which could benefit the host community and leave a lasting legacy.

The Society’s Migrants on the Margins field research programme has embraced this approach from the start, working with local organisations in all four project locations in Dhaka, Colombo, Harare and Hargeisa to develop relevant and logistically possible research questions and methods.

Successful collaborative research involves sharing and learning between all participants. However, in some contexts, there are significant resource differences between researchers coming from richer parts of the world (such as the UK) and their local counterparts. Early discussions on how best to work with and for the host country will always pay dividends.

Involving a range of people in scientific research will help both resident communities and the visiting researchers develop new skills. This may include working with individuals as diverse as academics, NGO workers, students and community members. Their inclusion can also bring significant benefits to the overall project through their insight into the human and physical environment.

IMG 3009Kate, Firdaus and PhD student Hanyrol Ahmad Sah at work in the lab

Disseminating information about fieldwork and expedition activities has always been part of geographical research, but increasingly we need to consider who we are sharing our findings with and in what formats. An interactive website may be ideal in some circumstances, but where access to technology is limited, more low-tech formats, such as posters or presentations may work better. This also requires a sensitivity to language, ensuring that material is translated as appropriate.

All collaborating institutions should receive copies of reports and other outputs produced through the research with their contributions formally acknowledged. International friendships based around mutual fieldwork will last a lifetime, especially when you have the opportunity to co-publish your research findings in host country journals and to share research findings with participating communities.

In the Rainforests of Borneo

Dr Kate Baker is a research fellow at the University of Exeter. She conducted her NERC-funded PhD at King’s College London and researched the tropical streams of Ulu Temburong National Park in northern Borneo. Her project focused on the patterns of habitat use by benthic macroinvertebrates (such as dragonflies, stoneflies and mayflies). The area is one of the few places in Borneo where intact tropical rainforests and free-flowing rivers persist. Research conducted in these streams allows for a better understanding of how tropical stream ecosystems function while also providing a benchmark for restoration of degraded streams. Kate advertised for a field assistant and found Firdaus Ismail, then a gap year student from Brunei.

Kate says: ‘I was excited to be working in the rainforests of Brunei but I was also aware that fieldwork can be hard work, especially being so far from home and when living in remote places with no access to internet or mobile signal. I knew I would need some help in the field and I thought it would be a good opportunity for an A-level or undergrad to assist me. Reflecting back on the trip, I’m so glad I made this decision as working with Firdaus made the experience a lot more enjoyable and wholesome. Firdaus was a real support, not only did he work hard in the field but he was also very patient.

ESRG 2015 SCALES MADAGASCAR 2Collaborative field research in the mangroves of western Madagascar

‘It’s very unusual for fieldwork to “go to plan”. Often experiments won’t work or equipment will fail, and when these things happened he was not fazed. Firdaus had huge determination and was a positive person, which helped me keep positive. We were able to find the “funny things” in the work we were doing. It was also a great way to learn about Bruneian culture. As respect and trust developed, we were able to talk about various topics in depth.

‘Fieldwork can create the perfect concoction for mental health issues to arise, with long periods of isolation, tough days of working and the pressure of collecting “good” data. Having someone who you can trust, chat to (and laugh with) was really important – it meant that I enjoyed my field work and came back with some solid data, as well as having a real understanding of Bruneian and Islamic culture.’

Firdaus says: ‘I wanted to pursue my studies in creative design but decided to take a gap year, volunteering as a research assistant for Kate. This was my first experience of doing voluntary work and my first time in the rainforest of Temburong. I felt emotional as it was new to me to be in this pristine forest even though it’s in my country. I helped Kate with all aspects of her fieldwork. The tasks were often tough, spending long days in the streams and rivers sampling and taking measurements, but Kate inspired me to persevere. Moreover, I was also a bridge. I tried to communicate with the Iban workers at the Field Study Centre, who are considered a social minority, despite our language differences.

‘The opportunity also enhanced our cultural awareness and friendship where we talked about lifestyle, hobbies and food – the similarities and differences between Brunei and UK culture. I remember when I explained to her that historically, the society of Kampong Ayer (“water village”) would go from house to house using boats to sell basic commodities. “Oh, like bread?” asked Kate. I paused, and awkwardly corrected her that they sell rice as it’s our staple food. That was hilarious!

‘Kate was inspiring to work with and the journey has led me to new opportunities, including being selected for an exchange programme in a rural area of Malaysia working as a tour guide and conserving firefly habitats. I’ve been working for a non-profit organisation called Green Brunei as a programme manager of environmental education. And instead of pursuing creative design, I’m now a final-year student majoring in geography and development studies.’

Bristow 3 brighterThe recipients of the 2017 RGS-IBG Thesiger Oman International Fellowship in Chad

From Small Beginnings

A number of undergraduate expeditions have, through long-term collaborations, developed into significant projects or even world-class NGOs, run by, or in partnership with, host country nationals. Many of them received advice and financial support from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Alasdair Harris was always interested in coral reefs and, as an undergraduate studying zoology at Edinburgh University, organised a series of research expeditions sending divers to survey unexplored reefs in Madagascar. Dubbed Project Eucare, the 2001 expedition analysed and mapped reefs in the Baie de Sainte-Luce in southeastern Madagascar, assessing their biodiversity and health, as well as the potential threats these unknown ecosystems could be facing.

The team carried out underwater baseline transect surveys of the reefs, recording fish, coral, invertebrate and algal species’ diversity and habitat. They collected oceanographic data from the sites, including observations of anthropogenic impacts and activities on the reef.

Hunters from Bangladesh set up camera traps to conduct research to help their forests (Image: Nature Stills Photography)Hunters from Bangladesh set up camera traps to conduct research to help their forests (Image: Nature Stills Photography)

Harris and the team worked with local scientific personnel, both above and below the water, as well as with NGOs, businesses, fishermen and the Malagasy Marine Institute. The information collected was subsequently distributed to interested parties in government and the community, in the hope that this would strengthen public awareness of the need to conserve these unique environments. They also worked with students and staff from the University of Antananarivo with the aim of setting up the necessary infrastructure to allow for more long-term studies to be carried out on the survey sites.

‘On graduating, I realised I’d reached a crossroads: either head to London to get a “proper” job, or try to do something to protect the extraordinary marine environment that I’d been privileged to witness on those early expeditions,’ Harris recalls. He founded Blue Ventures in 2003 to demonstrate that effective conservation requires pragmatic, entrepreneurial and locally led approaches to marine and fisheries management. 

Within Blue Ventures, Harris is responsible for leading an interdisciplinary team of more than 190 colleagues worldwide. His work focuses on developing scalable solutions to marine environmental challenges, using methods that make economic sense to coastal communities. Blue Ventures continues to recruit researchers, divers and medics as fee-paying volunteers to help with their programmes in Madagascar, Belize and Timor-Leste.

• To find out more about developing collaborative networks, conducting geographical field research and how to disseminate your findings, come along to the Society’s Explore 2018 weekend, 9-11 November: www.rgs.org/explore

A Question of Ethics

It is inevitable that our actions will affect the people and environments around us. The RGS-IBG is committed to ethical research and to supporting projects that carefully consider and attempt to mitigate negative environmental, social and cultural impacts. Thinking about ethics involves consciously attempting to anticipate the consequences of your expedition. Could your work offend the cultural sensitivities of the people you are working among? Might your research practice favour some people over others in the societies where you are working? What impacts are you having on the physical environment? 

Several academic associations have a formal ethics code to which they expect their members to adhere; these can be a good place to start. The RGS-IBG requires the research it funds to be conducted in an ethical manner and the following considerations should therefore apply to all research funding from the RGS-IBG:

• Accurate reporting of findings, and a commitment to enabling others to replicate results wherever possible
• Fair dealing in respect of other researchers and their intellectual property rights
• Honesty to research staff and students about the purpose, methods, intended and possible use of the research and any risks that may be involved
• Confidentiality of information supplied by research subjects and anonymity of respondents (unless otherwise agreed with research subjects and respondents)
• Independence and impartiality of researchers to the subject of the research

Additionally, proposals may raise the following considerations: 
• The involvement of human participants
• The study of non-human animals 
• Destructive analysis of historic artefacts
• Research that may result in damage to the natural or historic environment
• The use of sensitive social, economic or political data
• Any ethics review should be proportional to the likely risk (for example, research on vulnerable groups or at-risk populations demands more careful attention). Wherever necessary, appropriate consent should be obtained from or on behalf of participants or others affected by the research.

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