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When summer arrives, my friends and family inevitably roll their eyes when I tell them I’m packing for my fieldwork in the Caribbean. They picture a book and a white-sand beach. I do get a tan. But it’s no vacation.

I study ocean ecosystems. The work is chronically underfunded, so food and housing is basic or worse. When we’re in Belize monitoring the health of coral reefs, about half the nights we sleep under the stars on a dock. When I can afford a roach- and gecko-infested room, it’s often so rustic that it’s preferable to sleep outside.

There are also the tropical diseases we acquire (dengue, for instance), the insects that lay eggs under our skin (bot flies), stinging jellyfish, scorpions hiding in our shoes and, of course, feisty sea turtles (on one trip an enormous loggerhead turtle bit one of my graduate students on the rear). It’s also physical work, made harder by the intense heat and humidity. One former undergrad in my lab was in the National Guard. After she was deployed to Kuwait, she emailed us to say that the assignment was easier than fieldwork with us.

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