Essential, Yet Under-Emphasized, Keys to Success in the Field: Cognizance

This week we continue our discussion of the lesser-emphasized qualities of an effective field scientist. We typically focus our attention on developing essential field skills such as meticulous observation, careful data collection, and conscientious excavation techniques, but there are other characteristics that make a field scientist an essential part of a successful team. These qualities are often under-instilled in field education.

Last week we discussed security, or prevention of physical harm. This week’s quality is a natural extension of security, cognizance, or awareness of your surroundings and those around you. Cognizance is imperative in an effective field scientist. Science, of course, is based on physical observation; we cannot effectively observe our surroundings without a certain level of awareness. Unwavering cognizance is vital in the field if we are to effectively interpret both the geologic and paleontologic information we encounter. We need to observe and record as much contextual information as possible while in a field setting.

Cognizance, take two steps forward and everything will be fine (by the way, this student wasn't actually under the tree, forced perspective and all).
Cognizance, take two steps forward and everything will be fine (by the way, this student wasn’t actually under the tree, forced perspective and all).

But cognizance is also a crucial additive to security. Most security risks can be mitigated beforehand with a healthy dose of cognizance. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and I’ll gladly take an ounce of avoiding the underside of that overhanging outcrop that will fall in the next stiff breeze to a pound of ice pack, immobilized limb, or bed rest. Preemptive awareness will save you a great deal of injury and lost productivity.

Cognizance is a boon to that productivity. One of the hardest, yet most important lessons to teach students working in cramped quarry settings is to be aware of where your tools, hands and feet are at all times. A misplaced hammer strike can not only incapacitate a hand, but can destroy that specimen you’ve worked days or weeks to preserve and extract. An unplanned body shift or re-positioning of a foot can render hours or days of meticulous conservation useless as you find broken fossil material strewn about the entire quarry.

In scenarios such as this, every move must be carefully planned and executed.
In scenarios such as this, every move must be carefully planned and executed.

Cognizance applies equally to your coworkers and objectives. Before swinging that railroad pick, make sure no one is standing behind you. Before you enthusiastically embark on excavation of that pristine skeletal element, make sure you are aware of who has already worked on it and what they have, or have not, already done with it. There’s nothing worse than deflating the sense of accomplishment at successful extraction of skeletal material with the question, “Was that added to the quarry map before you pulled it?” Ensure that your efforts are appropriately directed toward the task at hand.

Finally, cognizance entails awareness of your own abilities and the part you play within the field team and accomplishment of goals. As a legally blind individual, I’m limited in my ability to initially find fossil material, but over twenty years of field experience has allowed me to develop skills in management, documentation, stratigraphy, excavation techniques, and identification of materials. Thus, I hold back and support the team until something significant is found, then I play my part in management and execution of the extraction. Learn to recognize what contributions you are best able to make and use those skills to maximize your contribution when appropriate. If your skills involve photography, don’t hover over the fossil adjusting the settings on your digital camera while your teammates wait, with wet plaster bandages in hand, to jacket the specimen. Be cognizant of how you can best contribute and when. If you don’t know this yet, experiment and discover what you’re best at. You’ll find it; everyone has something to give.


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