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  • Jiajing Zhang , The George Washington University

Geographers Encounter Challenges in Fieldwork - GWU senior fieldwork at Mason Neck

A couple weeks ago, the geography department at the George Washington University organized the annual fieldwork trip to Mason Neck State Park in Virginia. Professor Lisa Benton-Short and Professor Joseph Dymond took 30 senior students from in the GWU geography program and made the trip both a fun and educational experience.

With the fire and amazing food prepared by Michael Rowson, who is a camping expert, the whole class had the opportunity to get to know each other outside of the classroom and everyone had an unforgettable time. This was my first camping experience so everything was new to me. The firewood, the cabins, and simply being in the state park made me feel that I have never been so integrated into nature before.

The purpose of the fieldwork, as Professor Benton-Short mentioned, was to let us realize the challenge of field research as geographers. The professors were extraordinarily successful! Even before going to the field, a lot of us were stressed out about the location of the research site, the equipment, and the appropriate field methods to conduct our research.

Since the class was divided into groups based on each one’s interest, the research topics were not uniform. It was impossible to provide specific instructions for each project. Therefore, each group had to come up with their own methodology based on the topic itself. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to study and how should we study it. We thought that by conducting a literature review and doing online research, proposing a plan would not be that big of a deal. However, in the feedback of our proposals, our professors asked us many specific questions about the details and only a few of them could be answered completely. We realized that we only had a very general idea of the project and that was certainly not enough preparation for the fieldwork.

My group project focused on finding the correlation between landslide susceptibility and soil profiles from sampled locations. There have been many studies conducted on soil profile testing but how to utilize those methods during the Mason Neck field trip was still a challenge. The most important thing about geography is that there is always a spatial element in everything. A mechanism that works at thousands of locations does not necessarily mean it will also work at the one location you want to test. Trying to figure out these things was anything but easy.

We asked Professor Streletskiy, who has conducted numerous permafrost field research trips in Alaska, what equipment should we use. He said it really depended on our budget. So based on our limited budget we went back and forth on finalizing our hypothesis. After several intense group meetings and office hour meetings with other professors we finally obtained a seemingly reasonable plan. We were still not confident about how things would play out accordingly in the field.

There was no research plan for the first day of the field work. As we got to Mason Neck, I was astonished by the beautiful view and pleasant weather. We planned to visit George Mason’s house for a historic learning of the national park but it turned out that they wanted to charge us for visiting and walking on the property. So, instead, we decided to take a group picture in front of the beautiful house. The night was full of joys and laughter and I felt like many of us put the idea of research behind ourselves for a little. We simply just wanted to enjoy camping.

On the morning of the research day, the sky was clear and sunny but the temperature dropped near to 32 degrees. The most important part of our group project was digging up soils from the ground which required a lot of walking in the park to select the best location. Therefore, suffering from the low temperature, our group began our research.

We had a map indicating different levels of landslide susceptibility in Mason Neck State park made by ArcMap. Our goal was to collect soil samples from each zone and construct a profile for each of the samples by using lab equipment back on the campus. However, as we walked in the park, a security officer stopped us twice because one of our group members was carrying a shovel with him.

We later realized that we needed permission from the government to take away soil samples from the park, otherwise we would suffer penalties for doing so. This was a big issue because without permission the main part of our research became impossible to accomplish. In addition, we certainly did not have the time to request a permission at that point. How can we study the sample without any analytical tools? We were extremely upset since we prepared so much for the project and no one wanted to give up so easily.

We sat down for a minute and started to rethink about our project. Finally, we decided to do what we could with the limited resources we had. Even though we could not bring the soil back to the lab, we could still observe the soil and use some simple measuring tools such as the moisture meter, PH test stripes, and GPS tracker to construct geographic data. We could also take pictures of the sampled locations to record the microenvironment of the surrounding area of the soil and classify the soils based on their color, texture, and consistency.

We thought we solved the biggest issue until we started to find the best locations to study. A lot of the ideal locations were blocked because of the bald eagle reservoirs. We could not reach those places since otherwise we would be charged with trespassing. We could only stay near the walking trails but we were uncertain if the soil samples in these areas would precisely represent the entire area. We worried that human constructions interrupt the soil quality but this was the best we could do.

The day finished after 7 hours of walking in the park. I never imagined the park was this vast. Even with all the challenges, I was so thankful to have the opportunity to do field research as a geographer. The experience was definitely unforgettable. We learned that there were many limitations in terms of budget, time, and resources in the process of geographic study. Those who were able to make groundbreaking findings should be admired as they overcame great challenges.

Jiajing Zhang is a USAID GeoCenter/ YouthMappers intern from Dalian, China. She is double majoring in Geography and Applied Mathematics at the George Washington University. She used to work as a tutor for Single Variable Calculus at her University and will continue work for UDSID at the start of 2018. In the future, she plans to work for the government or with NGOs to improve the environment with her knowledge in both Geography and Mathematics fields and she is passionate about saving the planet.

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