Courtesy of Monique Pipkin and Amelia-Juliette Demery

Cornell researchers Monique Pipkin (left) and Amelia-Juliette Demery (right) reflected on the harm caused by discrimination against fieldworkers, and what fieldworkers can do to protect themselves.

March 4, 2021

Cornell Researchers Push Back Against Racism, Discrimination in Fieldwork

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Fieldwork bridges the gap between scientific theories and the real world through collecting data about people and flora and fauna in their natural habitats beyond the controlled environment of a lab or classroom. 

But fieldwork is not without its risks. 

Over the course of working at many field sites, graduate students Monique Pipkin, a researcher at the Vitousek Lab in ecology and evolutionary biology, and Amelia-Juliette Demery, a researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said many of their peers have faced discrimination in the field due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. 

Responding to this unfair treatment of fieldworkers who belong to marginalized communities, Demery and Pipkin compiled guidelines to protect scientists working in the field from the harmful effects of discrimination, and published their findings last October in Nature Ecology and Evolution — a journal dedicated to ecology and evolutionary biology research. 

Pipkin explained that certain kinds of fieldwork, like bird watching in the countryside, are generally embraced by locals who encounter researchers in the field.

But in urban areas where fieldwork is less common, scientists can face dangerous situations — like having to explain their work to law enforcement — which places an additional burden on Black, Indigenous and people of color, Pipkin said.

“In the city, people think that you are creeping at their windows and sometimes go up all in your face demanding proof of legitimacy and threaten to call the cops on you, when all you are doing is your job,” Pipkin said, recalling her experiences in the field as a Black woman.

These risks received national attention in May 2020, when Amy Cooper, a white woman, made racist comments and called the police on Christian Cooper, a Black bird watcher in Central Park. 

However, fieldworkers can also feel unsafe even if there isn’t an active threat to their well-being. Demery, who is Black, said she was driving down a back road to her field site when she noticed a heritage plaque that marked a plot of land used as a mass burial ground for slaves. 

“Seeing that plot of land as well as some specific paraphernalia and insignias around a locality just 20 minutes east of Cornell’s campus was a huge jolt for me,” Demery said. “I immediately realized that I shouldn’t be taking that road if I was working alone, as someone could see that I didn’t fit with the community there.”

Such experiences, Demery said, can harm the physical health and safety of fieldworkers, as well as hurt an individual’s productivity, mental health and attitude toward fieldwork in the long-term. 

“Trauma from a negative experience doesn’t just stay on the field,” Demery said. “It stays within a person’s psyche, sometimes throughout their whole careers.” 

Demery said she believes that institutions like universities and research foundations must invest in better field training courses to keep them safe — such as first aid and self-defense — to prepare researchers for working in a new location. 

According to Demery, institutions must also be held accountable for the safety of their workers by creating contingency plans that researchers can follow when they need help. These plans can include information on who to contact when approached by law enforcement, a field site manager, supervisor, fellow researcher or local individual in a potentially unsafe situation. 

“Institutions must also empower the fieldworkers by giving them documentation that verifies their identity and approves their presence on a field site,” Demery said. “This helps fieldworkers know that authorities in power are willing to listen to their needs and concerns.” 

To protect their individual safety, Pipkin advised fieldworkers against traveling alone, especially to new field sites. 

“There is safety in numbers,” Pipkin said. “Having that second person to depend on in tense situations or in times of trouble is really relieving.” 

Pipkin also advised fieldworkers to learn local laws and customs, talk to people who have previously worked at the site, assess risky situations and be wary of field site managers and other local authorities. 

Even with all these steps, it may be impossible to entirely eliminate risk in fieldwork due to deeply entrenched prejudices, according to Demery. 

Demery also advocated for institutions to create a supportive environment that allows supervisors and researchers to feel comfortable having conversations about their experiences with discrimination in the lab and field.

Demery and Pipkin hope to continue educating people on the need for improving safety guidelines for those who go out into the field in the name of science. 

“Science and nature belong to everyone, so we need to make those spaces safe for all individuals,” Pipkin said.