EMB in the field (Part 2 of 2)

This time, Ali continues from EMB in the field part one, guiding us through her recent fieldwork.
The walk
The route was designed to allow freedom regarding exactly where volunteers went. They had a start point, 2 checkpoints and a finish point, which they had to reach in order, but the route they took between these was otherwise up to them and their navigation; there was no clearly defined footpaths, or handy waypoints to guide them in this (right-to-roam) area. This was deliberate – we wanted to know if people naturally select the same routes or not (they don’t, by the way). We couldn’t walk with them, as we wanted to know how an individual coped with the challenges of the terrain. Have you ever slowed down for that dawdling friend, or tried to keep pace with that colleague who seems to rush everywhere? We didn’t want this influencing the data we collected, so volunteers walked alone, only checking in with us at pre-arranged points. Checkpoints in mind, this gave us, the researchers, a challenge – to make it by road as close to the next checkpoint as possible, and then on foot from there.

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 We needed to make sure we made it to the checkpoint before our volunteer, who could usually select a much more direct course. As a result, this invariably this involved a reasonably vigorous march up the shortest (erm….steepest) route possible. Luckily I relish a challenge! Even more fortunately (for me – the volunteers may have a different perspective…), they had some pretty strenuous hills to overcome too, which made (my) life slightly easier! On reaching the checkpoints, we checked the volunteers were doing okay, happy with their route finding, and that equipment was all functioning as it should – then they continued on their way.
The study was complete when the volunteer made it to the finish point. Here, they possibly had to strip down (again) in order to remove all the equipment. Thankfully that tended to be a quicker process than the set-up and I was pleased to see the volunteers usually tired but happy, having enjoyed the surroundings and the experience. We tidied up, making sure to ‘leave nothing but footprints’, before reversing our route back towards Liverpool – often with a detour for ice-cream or cake and coffee on the way – a thank you to the volunteers (we thanked ourselves, too!). After arriving back in Liverpool, it was time to clean up the equipment and prepare for the next day.

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At the end of the day…
This is just one example of a field study for science research. Fieldwork can take all sorts of different forms and require all sorts of different activities; this study is certainly not representative of a ‘typical’ fieldwork session, if there is such a thing. It is however, one of the highlights of my PhD and a phase that, although I’m glad to have the data, I’m sad to see finished.
There’s so much fascinating data that is coming out of both my field, and the wider science community, at the moment; we are often bombarded in the news by the latest ground-breaking technological innovation or that life-changing medical advancement. That’s exciting and it’s vitally important – these headlines are the end point, the culmination of hundreds of answers to all the little questions. Walking seems a little less glamorous than these, probably because it’s something so many people do without thinking about it. However, when you can’t do this quite so effortlessly – if you develop a movement disorder, incur an injury, or even when you age completely normally, becoming less stable and prone to trips and falls – you may come to realise just how important to daily life this activity is. For these people (an ever-increasing number in the UK’s ageing population), irregularity and roughness in ground surfaces are real risk factors for serious falls; as a result, even the anxiety and fear of falling whilst going about their daily chores can be debilitating for some older people. Research like mine, inside and outside the lab, are key to beginning to answer questions about how healthy people successfully negotiate these complex walking challenges. Only when we understand this, the normal mechanisms, can we really understand what causes problems for others; and only then can we begin to truly target treatment. To examine what’s normal, it turns out that, sometimes, you need some welsh hills, some cheery volunteers, and a lot of leg work.

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On the note of volunteering:
Not all our volunteers have to strip down to their underwear at the side of the road! Mostly, studies take place in our gait facility on campus at the University of Liverpool – all equipment and methods are completely non-invasive. If you are interested in possibly helping us out and volunteering (no commitment – you can always change your mind), please contact us and we will store your contact details for future studies.