Breaking the ice by plunging into a puddle

How I learned to embrace embarrassment in science.
July 09, 2021

Flies buzzed around my sweaty face as I pushed a patch of especially tall grassy sedges out of my way. It was a hot summer day and I stood in the middle of a wetland on Leech Lake in a long-sleeved shirt and chest-high waders. Thick clumps of roots and deceptively deep puddles added extra effort to every step. After an hour in the meadow, I was tired like I’d run miles.

I was having a great time. Sort of.

It was my first time in the field and the summer before I started my graduate program-- I was both thrilled and terrified. It was my chance to make a good impression on my future colleagues and friends. 

In a setting that required a lot of bushwhacking and wet slogs, I was extremely aware that I was the only woman on the team.  I was determined to keep up and show I knew my plants.

It was going well until that fateful wetland. I fixed my eyes on the ground around me, looking for the little wildflowers that might be hidden by the comparatively massive sedges when I heard a warning ahead of me about an especially large hole in the mat of roots. 

And then I suddenly sank into the massive puddle, the same one I heard warning of.  The smell of decay wafted around me as I plunged into the waist-deep water until the mud underneath squelched around my calves. It took two people several minutes to pull me out of the thick muck. 

While my boots were back on solid ground, it took longer to get my head out of the metaphorical puddle. I was horrified. My first thought of, Oh no, I’m going to keep sinking forever, quickly transitioned to, oh no, nobody’s ever going to let me do field work again. Instead of being a competent scientist, I felt like a bumbling idiot. I was terrified that this moment would ruin my grad school career or somehow reflect on my gender’s general ability to do field work.

That feeling lasted a week, until I watched another, male, teammate nearly fall into the lake, and realized that everyone who does field work has an embarrassing story. My teammates knew an unfortunate run-in with a puddle didn’t mean I couldn’t do the work, even if they made a lot of jokes every time we were near another wetland.  And eventually I joined in, because science is a messy process, and if you don’t fall into a puddle sometimes, you’re probably doing it wrong. —Alex Crum