The first day of assisting real scientists in the field.

Tuesday morning dawned drizzly and grey, as forecast, but it was still a hive of activity at the base camp. Boats were being prepped, toolkits were being checked, caving gear was being packed, and a heap of other jobs were being done. Teams were heading off in all directions, and it was cool just watching the scientists and seeing how practiced they were at what they were doing. Conversation around the breakfast table ranged from sea floor macroinvertebrates to how the satellite based safety trackers worked; from why Indigenous Ranger jobs are so good for people, communities and Country, to how Eastern Bearded Dragons and Western Bearded Dragons can be told apart.

After a bit of chat, it was time to go though; off up the road towards the Great Victoria Desert. We crossed the Dog Fence, and after a while we found the first of the survey sites Tim & Juergen had picked. They told us they did this by looking at satellite maps – like Google Earth – and basically deciding which spots look most interesting and diverse. This time, our job was basically to collect samples of every different species we found within a 50 metre radius of the GPS point. So there was a lot of walking around looking at the ground! Once we located something, Tim took photos of it in situ, Juergen logged the exact latitude/longitude coordinates in his GPS and then we took a portion of the plant for the botanists and their colleagues back in Adelaide to study.

The samples needed to be specific things though. You see, even specialists using microscopes sometimes can’t tell plants apart unless they have seeds, flowers or fruit attached. So instead of just leaves, we had to try and make sure we included those defining features. The samples were divided into two kinds; a small sample put into what was basically a tea bag and dried in silica that the scientists will use to analyse the DNA from later, and a large sample that was carefully arranged and put into a press.

Some of you might even have a flower press at home, but if you have never seen one their job is to preserve plants in such a way that you squeeze all the moisture out while still preserving the shape and the colour as much as possible. Now, some scientific equipment is high tech, but this flower press definitely wasn’t. It consisted of two old oven grills, a stack of newspapers, cardboard box walls cut to size, and a pair of tie down straps. Each sample was slipped into its own sheet of newspaper then sandwiched between cardboard pieces. They were then layered on top of each other until we were done, then tightened with the tie downs as tight as possible. Low Tech STEM at it’s best.

The other job we had was collecting samples of ground growing lichen with a trowel and bagging them up. Lichens are an often-overlooked lifeform, but out in arid areas they do a really important job. They form a crust over the surface of the soil, holding it together against wind erosion and giving other plants the chance to germinate and take root. They also come in pretty wild shapes, colours and textures, so they were fun to look for.

A German, two Americans, and Me... That sounds like the start of a joke, but that was our team today. And even though the science was cool (and five survey sites, averaging an hour’s worth of work at each, made for A LOT of science!), the most interesting thing was learning about how scientific curiosity had taken people across the world to jobs they love, studying stuff no one else has yet looked at. So if you are interested in science, follow it up. You never know where it will take you!

My other takeaway from today, apart from seeing ZERO camels or dingoes, is that no matter the forecast ALWAYS pack a hat and sunglasses. Despite getting a few showers of rain on us while working, in the end, it was sunny and bright most of the day. Lesson learned!