Wednesday, January 8, 2014

What to Wear, What to Wear? A Woman in Science Packs a Field Work - Conference Bag.

An interesting article popped up in my Twitter feed a few days ago, rather whimsically titled "Why Women Have So Many Clothes." The image in the article is no where approaching whimsical: it shows a woman's leg, and drawn on said leg are the labels given to various hemlines (current style and perception dependent.) That in of itself is worth a post or two, but the first thing that popped into my mind was "Oh, don't get me started on packing for both a conference AND field work!"

Whether I like it or not, people (the public, colleagues, potential collaborators or consultees, conference coordinators, committees, students, prospective employers, etc.) are going to judge me to some extent on my appearance, and specifically on my manner of dress and personal presentation. Everyone has their own interpretation of professional style: it's normal at a paleontology conference to see someone in a suit and tie having a conversation with someone in khaki shorts and a T-shirt. From wool pants to sandals with socks, it's a matter of personal taste and comfort. Through many trials and countless errors, I've finally found what (I think) works for me in terms of conference-wear. Of course, just because I'm comfortable with it does not mean my style is immune to criticism: by dressing my body type and wearing skirts, am I trying to "use" my femininity? I like a nice pump: am I trying to get attention? There's a trace of make-up: just who am I trying to impress? Well, me, to be perfectly honest.

My personal philosophy on professional wear (conference, meetings, etc.) is that people are only going to respect me as seriously as I respect myself. I make sure I'm clean. I make sure my clothes are clean. I run a brush through my hair and over my teeth (not the same brush). For me, there are situations that are not appropriate for clothing that is stained, doesn't fit properly, or shows off Krakatoa.

Yes, Krakatoa is a euphemism. Image source.
I don't shy away from what are considered feminine styles, and I don't view looking feminine as a weakness: how others may view it depends on their own biases. I feel that I don't need to neuter myself to be a scientist, and I respect my colleagues and supervisors enough to know that they would never stoop so low as to give me an opportunity because they think I look "hot", or some other such drivel. That concept is (or should be) offensive to everyone. (Note: I'm not saying that situation doesn't happen in a professional setting. It does. If we've learned anything from the #ripplesofdoubt hashtag started by Karen James, we have learned that science and science communication is not immune from this kind of misogyny and the damage it causes. I'm only saying that, to the best of my knowledge, it has not happened to me.)

I dress at conferences to best represent my institution and my profession: in short, to best represent Strange Woman the Professional. None of these considerations come into play with my field clothing. Stains, mismatched colors, baggy, torn...anything goes. I wear what it takes to get the job done, and get the job done safely. That is how I dress the Strange Woman of the Field.

I love attending conferences for which there is a field work component. The insights that exploring a new area can add to your observations of your home localities just cannot be beat. However, it does make packing (for me) a bit of a pain in the ass. Strange Woman of the Field and Strange Woman the Professional have two completely different clothing needs.

My first experience with packing for an international combined field trip and conference was Turkmenistan. Both Rich and I admittedly over packed because we had no idea exactly what type of field work would be expected of us. Turns out it was hiking to see sites and no rigorous field documentation, so we didn't need half of the equipment we brought. We have since learned how to better streamline our suitcases, but Rich admits that he is glad he is not a woman when he sees the "extras" that I feel I have to bring.

I realize that all this could be avoided by just saying  "I don't give a Flying Spaghetti Monster what people think of my clothes" and just wear my stained field shirts, latex and silicone coated pants, and dusty old hiking boots for every occasion. I'm a field person, after all! Strange Woman of the Field and Strange Woman the Professional are both part of what I do as a scientist. Both do what they do best when they feel (and that's the key word - feel) appropriately attired. Would I show up to a job interview in a sweat-stained tank top and my clunky logging boots? No more than I would hang off of ropes on a vertical tracksite wearing my Fluevogs and a pencil skirt.
The perfect footwear for scaling a 50 degree slope 60m off of the ground, right? Nope. Conference shoes are not field work shoes.
Both Strange Woman of the Field and Strange Woman the Professional have to make separate packing lists. Unfortunately they also have to share a suitcase, but they both use the same plane ticket, so there is an upside.

Strange Woman the Professional/Shaman of the Field, the Carry-On Bag:
My carry-on bag contains all of those items that would physically stop (or at least delay) my being able to hit the ground running with field research or conference activities. This is where the two Strange Women share the packing duties. The carry-on bag doubles as my day pack for the field.
  • Computer and computer cord, with power cord in an easy to access section of the bag (for airport security)
  • Travel external hard drive
  • Wireless mouse
  • Digital camera
  • Hand held GPS
  • Digital calipers or measuring tape (Side note: when flying through the US, I was pulled aside at security because of the digital calipers and was asked if they were a dangerous weapon. I responded with "Only if I can measure something to death." Not smart. Don't sass airport security. My only excuse was that I was tired after a long flight and my mental filters were not working as they should.)
  • Rite-in-the-Rain field book with writing instrument (I doubt that I will ever give up hand-written notes)
  • Plumber's soapstone pen and soapstone sticks
  • Brunton compass
  • Photo scales
  • Angle-o-meter (my name for the device that takes any angle data on tracks)
  • Mini flashlight (once the paper on this site is out, I have a lovely story on how, for the lack of one flashlight, I did an unplanned overnight in the field in November)
  • Cell phone
  • Travel medicines, travel documents, toothbrush, one change of base layers, sunglasses, headphones, neck pillow
You can imagine that airport security just loves it when I join the queue, but I'll be damned if my research electronics and tools leave my side during travel. That bag becomes my mobile office.

The checked luggage is where the different research needs become the most obvious.

Strange Woman of the Field, the Suitcase:
This half of the suitcase is reserved for all the field gear that I would need for a week to a month or more of continuous field work. Most of this clothing also doubles as tourism clothing (except for my pants - I'm hard on pants).
  • Two pairs of synthetic fabric pants (wear one, wash one)
  • If it's the right season, two sets of thermal undies (one washed, one being worn)
  • One pair of non-field pants/capris
  • Two to three light, long-sleeved button shirts
  • Four sets of synthetic base layers, including socks (one washed, one drying, one being worn, and a spare - the spare is very important)
  • Two wide-strapped tank tops (for under the long sleeved shirts)
  • One wide-brimmed hat
  • Two bandanas
  • Small binoculars
  • Toilet paper (I learned this one the hard way)
  • Rain gear
  • Field knife
  • Hand lens
  • First aid kit
  • Gloves
  • Personal grooming items
  • Sunscreen
It seems pretty light up until now, doesn't it? Shove the clothing items into a compression sack and there is still loads of room in the suitcase! Then I come to this item:
  • One pair of steel-toed, Kevlar woven logging boots, or for non rugged terrain, non-TSA friendly hiking boots.
Damn boots. Field boots are a very personal item. They can also be an expensive item (for a student), if you want to make sure they will 1) fit (my sister-in-law jokes that my shoes should come with a full compliment of life rafts), 2)  protect my arch and ankle, and 3) not fall apart after the first day. I am as hard on boots as I am on pants. Perhaps one day I'll just throw caution to the wind and risk buying boots at my destination and leave them there after the trip.

Strange Woman the Professional, the Suitcase
Conference and business meeting clothing. Mix and match is the key for me, and nothing that would have caused my Granny and Aunt Molly comment "Hello, Sailor!" This is for a four-day conference, plus any unexpected side meetings. For only one or two professional meetings, one outfit plus an extra shirt would suffice.
  • One pair nice shoes (either the shoes pictured above or the ones I show in this post)
  • One knee-length skirt and/or one pair of dress pants
  • Two to three lace shells that can go under dress shirts
  • Two dress shirts
  • One suit jacket
  • A couple of finishing pieces (a bold pendant, a silk scarf, etc.)
  • Make-up
  • Hair clips
Most of these are soft, squishy items that can also be packed into a compression sack. I manage to cram all of this into something smaller than a steamer trunk. This is assuming there is no camping involved with the field work: that would require bringing a sleeping bag, an sleeping pad, and a possibly a tent and an actual expedition-size field backpack (which then becomes my suitcase). Also, this packing list only concerns personal field and conference gear and does not include any specialized research equipment. Before leaving for the airport I have to find out the logistics of obtaining these items at my destination (or the logistics for shipping these items if needed):
  • Heavy tracing plastic and permanent markers
  • Duct tape
  • Archive-grade, low ammonia latex, or, platinum-cure silicone
  • Fiberglass and resins (or plaster) for mould support jackets
  • Chalk (for outlining footprints)
  • Brushes, for cleaning a track surface and for making moulds
  • Hammers, chisels, and other digging tools
  • Climbing gear and rope
  • Bulk food and water for the crew
Every year I try to remove one or two extra items from my personal packing list, or to replace two or three items with one multipurpose item. I'll be interested to compare my 2013 packing list with the one I make a few years from now.

If you have any clever travel hacks to share (or horror stories), I'd love to hear them!

Back to being desk-bound: paper reviews, proofs, and revisions all decided to appear in my inbox this week.



  1. It's amazing how much stuff you can wind up packing even when you're trying to pack light, I have found! Some tricks of mine:
    1. If I'm just flying somewhere to do field work, I pack sandals into my checked bag and wear my hiking boots on the plane. Adds a bit of time at security to take them on and off, but saves a lot of space and weight in checked bags.
    2. Shoes for conferences...are my simple black skate shoes, because I'm cool like that. Also then I don't have to bring multiple shoes, and I am terrible at shoes.
    3. Batteries! Because I don't like rechargeable battery cameras when you're out in the field for weeks at a time. So I bring along a big pack of AA batteries for my GPS and my camera.
    4. Ziplock bags, both small ones and big freezer bags. I don't wind up working in wet places very much anymore, so I tend to use regular notebooks for field notebooks instead of waterproof paper. But to keep sand out of everything, I throw things like my camera, GPS, etc. into ziplocks in my backpack. I also keep a ziplock with my current notebook, pencils, and specimen cards.

    Maybe there should be a lifehacks site for field researchers!

    1. Nice! Time to start the #fieldhacks hashtag, methinks! I like the Ziploc bags - I've only worked in one sandy area, and I did feel as though I was picking sand out of my gear for a week. In fact, my field satchel STILL has sand in it, and it's been over a year!

      Sadly (or not?) I do like my dressy shoes. It's the field boots that are a pain in my overweight fees, which surprisingly I have yet to pay. I always feel like I'm "that person" in security that never seems to have their act together, no matter how much I prepare for the screening beforehand. I guess I pack the boots so that they are one less thing for me to fumble over while people in the queue give me the stink-eye. I should just blow them a raspberry and make them wait while I de-boot.