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Heritage College faculty authors tell researchers how to survive, thrive in foreign lands

(ATHENS, Ohio – Feb. 2, 2015) You’re a young academic, fresh off the plane in a foreign country, and eager to get into the field to start collecting data for your research project.

But upon arrival, you’re told you can’t start without a certain permit, from a government office you never knew existed. After seemingly endless meetings to resolve your permitting issue, you head out to gather data – only to have your electronic equipment conk out the first week. You suspect your hired driver may be drinking on the job. Your camp is overrun by an army of biting ants. And now there’s a rumor going around the local populace that you’re in league with the devil, or perhaps the CIA.

If only an experienced researcher had warned you about all the potential setbacks in field work! Now two faculty members of the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, with help from anthropologist Darna Dufour of the University of Colorado, Boulder, have put their collective experience – and that of many colleagues – into a handy text that does just that.

In “Disasters in Field Research: Preparing For and Coping With Unexpected Events,” authors Gillian H. Ice, Darna L. Dufour, and Nancy J. Stevens offer advice on how to handle some of the most common challenges faced by researchers abroad.

The book, newly published by Rowman & Littlefield, includes a wealth of personal accounts of problems working scholars have faced and often overcome. Each chapter provides nuts-and-bolts directions on how to head off problems, when possible, before they appear, and how to surmount them when they do occur.

Heritage College Executive Dean Kenneth Johnson, D.O., called the book an example of useful thought leadership in an important area.

“Our college takes pride in the research that our faculty members like Drs. Ice and Stevens conduct in countries around the world,” Johnson said. “This book, written from their combined experience in the field, will be a valuable resource for other researchers who want to work internationally.”

Nancy Stevens, Ph.D., is a Heritage College professor of functional morphology & vertebrate paleontology, and Director of the college’s Patient-Centered Continuum curriculum (PCC). She stressed that although new challenges will always arise in field studies, opportunities for researchers have also improved, largely because of new technologies. In some ways, she suggested, this is a golden age of fieldwork.

“From my perspective, there has never been a more promising time to embark on research projects involving data collection in remote settings,” Stevens said. “The many advances that have transpired over the past 20 years have truly transformed the research landscape for field researchers—from handheld GPS units, to mobile data loggers, to highly portable solar panels for charging data-collection devices.”

“Disasters in Field Research” aims at making sure logistical challenges don’t prevent researchers from enjoying those opportunities. Gillian Ice, Ph.D., M.P.H., Heritage College associate professor of social medicine and director of the Global Health Initiative – a partnership between The College of Health Sciences and Professions and the Heritage College in collaboration with the Center for International Studies – said the idea for the book came from her early work as a researcher more than a decade ago. At that time, armed with her anthropology training but no research experience in foreign settings, she set off for Kenya confident that she could organize and complete a research project there.

“I arrived, and I was naïve,” she recalled. “Because there is a difference between doing research here in the U.S., versus in an international setting. In my early international work, I made some common mistakes. When I returned home, I used to share these experiences with Norm Gevitz, who was then our department chair. I would tell my stories, and he would kill himself laughing about what I did, about my being naïve, and making all these mistakes. And he actually said to me, ‘You know, you really should write about this.’” Over time, she realized she was not alone. As she heard of the many trials and tribulations of field research from friends and colleagues, she reflected that although they are entertaining to tell, they can be frustrating to experience. So she embarked upon the challenge of writing a book that could help.

While the book’s stories make it an engaging read, Ice said it’s meant to provide practical guidance as well. “We wanted it to be something that students, or even academics like myself who are switching gears, could benefit from,” she explained. “And not only read the stories and say, ‘Oh, I’m glad that never happened to me,” but think, ‘OK, if that happened to me, what would I do?’”

The book devotes a chapter apiece to issues such as permits and permissions; logistics like money and transportation; equipment and data management; recruiting and retaining research subjects; cultural misunderstandings; safety; and health risks. Each subject is illustrated with real-world anecdotes, culled from the authors’ experience, contributed by colleagues, or drawn from the literature.

The stories, set off in boxes from the main text, range from hilarious to harrowing. They detail the common, and not-so-common, mishaps that researchers overcome. Ice and Stevens agree that, to avoid fieldwork disasters, flexibility and advance homework are indispensable.

Budding researchers, Stevens advised, should “seek mentorship to learn as much as possible about their specific field setting and the research logistics that it entails. Expect the unexpected; have patience, and appreciate the opportunity to work outside your comfort zone.”

Knowing one’s limits is also important, the authors note; and the book ends with a chapter asking the reader to candidly assess, “Is Fieldwork for Me?”

It isn’t for everyone, the authors suggest. But for those suited to the work – and willing to take sensible precautions – it can be incredibly rewarding.

“Research projects have taken me out of the laboratory and museum setting and into caves, onto the savannah, across the Sahara Desert, along the Skeleton Coast, and through montane rainforests,” Stevens noted. “The process of exploration and discovery is what drives many researchers to pursue field projects.”

The book is available from and Barnes and Noble.


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