Getting Started in Biological/Ecological Field Work

By Jessica Du

Biological field work can be an exciting aspect of doing research in many diverse disciplines, including environmental science, the life sciences, geology, geography, and physical anthropology/archeology. Doing field work allows you to interface directly with an area or ecosystem of interest and quantify some of the complex features and species networks found in those ecosystems---in some ways, studying real-life, wild places is the ultimate in vivo experiment!

At the same time, starting out in field work can be difficult for students. There are numerous techniques to learn in order to properly quantify characteristics of an ecosystem and sample regions; in addition, students must learn to accurately identify the species they encounter, which may include a large range of flora and fauna. Finally, field work requires students and researchers to go out into the field, often with equipment over some extended period of time. Where should students get started? How do they find an area to research? And how do they get the guidance they need to go safely into the field and collect usable data?

With all of this in mind, there are many resources for students looking to get started in, or just get a first taste of field work. Here’s just a few of them:



Some classes at Cal include field work components. For example, several are offered by the Integrative Biology department; the course titles are appended with LF (lab, field). These provide a great opportunity to learn a variety of techniques for gathering data in the field, to become well-versed in identifying various species, and of course to talk to graduate students and fellow undergraduates who are doing research in the field. Some courses also include opportunities to design a field project, but provide lots of support to help create a feasible project and make sure you know what you're doing.

A few examples of classes with a field component:

  • Bio1B Field Lab. An introduction to field research where students design and complete a field project in groups, and a good way to get a taste of field work if you’re curious!

  • IB 104LF: Natural History of Vertebrates. This class includes 13 field trips where students observe species of the Bay Area, with an emphasis on learning how to be a naturalist and take field notes. Students also complete their own independent field research projects!

  • IB 157LF: Ecosystems of California. This class goes on weekly field trips to either local parks and reserves, or occasionally locations that require overnight camping trips. Students get an intensive look at essential California ecosystems and learn identification techniques.

  • ESPM 105B: Forest Measurements. A summer class where students learn techniques for quantitatively characterizing forests and data analysis techniques for working with field data, and then apply this knowledge to study local ecosystems.

 Syllabi and information on other field labs are posted on departmental websites.


URAP projects:

For students looking to work on a research project that involves collecting data from a field site, the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) includes listings for some projects with field components.  For example, some projects listed under Integrative Biology and Environmental Science Policy and Management have a field component. Be sure to read through the project descriptions carefully to search for a project that matches your research interests and field work interests! The next URAP application cycle, for the spring semester, will open January 9th.


Remote Field Sites:

Field work can also bring students to far-flung and exciting locations; these immersive experiences also represent opportunities to devote an entire semester to research in the field. One such example is ESPM C107, Biology and Geomorphology of Tropical Islands, a class that brings students to Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station, located on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia, in order to design and complete an independent field project. Before leaving, students learn about the biology and geography of islands in the South Pacific, the history and culture of the islands, and relevant field techniques. In addition, completing the field project will exercise data analysis and scientific writing skills. The course runs every fall semester, so applications will be due in mid-April.

There are also programs not associated with UC Berkeley that offer interesting opportunities to travel to field sites; for example, SEA Semester is an organization that runs study abroad programs where students can conduct research while at sea. For programs specific to your research interests, advisors for academic departments and study abroad can provide more information.

Finally, students can get started in research and field work through a variety of different routes; these suggestions are only a handful of popular ways to navigate the process. For anyone curious about getting started but unsure of how or what their specific interests might be, speaking to someone involved in field work can be an amazing resource for getting more specific information. In addition, the advising offices can also provide information, especially about the classes and UC Berkeley-affiliated programs that involve field work.