Meet 2 PhD students who are trying to make environmental field work more accessible

Two girls in a storeroom.
(Submitted by Sam Gene and María José Gómez-Quijano)

Every summer, Sam Gene and María José Gómez-Quijano move from their student digs at Queen’s University to a remote site north of Kingston, Ont. There, they spend months untangling the effects of invasive species or environmental pollution or climate change — sometimes all of the above — on our planet.

This field work can be gruelling and repetitive, but also quite fun, Gómez-Quijano and Gene said.

Like many graduate students in biology, they spend every day outside. Rain or shine, they record observations, measuring everything from microplastic concentrations to invasive plant growth.

Without field work like this, we wouldn’t understand the impacts humans are having on our planet. But there are many hurdles that make it difficult — sometimes even impossible — for budding environmentalists to get involved.

“Financial barriers, sociocultural barriers, knowledge barriers. Those are the main ones,” said Gómez-Quijano.

In 2020, she and Gene set out to remove some of these barriers by founding the Queen’s Outdoor Field Experience Initiative (QOFEI, pronounced “coffee”). As co-chairs, they use the organization to get more people involved in field work.

Both are working toward their PhD — Gómez-Quijano is an ecologist studying purple loosestrife, an invasive plant species found in almost all Canadian provinces, and Gene is an ecotoxicologist researching the risks microplastics pose to amphibians.

They spend their field seasons (May-August) at the Queen’s University Biological Station in Elgin, Ont., which they fondly describe as “camp for adults.”

All field work requires a lot of equipment, including hiking boots, rain pants, rain jackets, bug nets, tick safety kits, sun shirts and backpacks. For other seasons and sites, students might have to provide a tent, sleeping bag, wetsuit, snow wear or other specialized gear.

Gene and Gómez-Quijano say it’s difficult to know what gear to buy. If it’s too cheap, it won’t last through the field season — Gene knows this from experience. Too expensive, and you’re simply paying for the brand.

In total, quality equipment can easily cost a student more than $1,000 — and since most research grants don’t cover anything you can take home at the end of the day, it’s all out of pocket.

One of QOFEI’s most ambitious programs helps lower the financial burden for those interested in a field position, grad school or another nature-based career.

“We created [a] gear lending library so students could come borrow, and they can see all of those items available on our website,” Gene said. “Whether that’s for research or even for outdoor recreation … they’re gaining that experience before they apply to these jobs.”

Their lending library consists of hundreds of apparel, footwear and equipment items, plus books, field guides, first aid kits and notebooks. By the end of this year, QOFEI’s equipment will have been out in the field everywhere from desert to tundra, from the Northwest Territories to Europe.

“There’s been a couple of students who have [said], ‘I wouldn’t have been able to go on this field course if I didn’t have this equipment,'” Gómez-Quijano said.

Though money troubles are often top of mind, other barriers shouldn’t be overlooked, she said. A lack of access and a lack of knowledge often go hand in hand.

“[There’s] the idea that the outdoors has been kind of framed as this very white, very one-sort-of-outfit type of space,” said Gene. “There’s also lots of other communities outdoors, but they can be hard to find.”

“Knowing what you need is key,” Gómez-Quijano added. “I grew up in Colombia …  at that time we didn’t have access to hiking trails, we didn’t have access to camping … then I moved to the States and then to Canada … and I started doing field work in shorts and tennis shoes and crop tops.”

She shook her head and smiled. “That was the worst I could have been dressed … it really makes a difference just to know what you need.”

It’s a common problem, Gene said. To help build some of that knowledge, QOFEI encourages engagement from diverse communities and holds regular events ranging from bird-watching to tent-pitching to beginner camping trips.

“Anyone can go and do field work,” Gómez-Quijano said. “They don’t have to look a certain way, they don’t have to wear certain brands. It’s about having the opportunity to do the work.”

 Darius Mahdavi

If you have outdoor equipment in good condition you’d like to donate to QOFEI’s lending library, or if you’re interested in starting a similar initiative at your institution, reach out at, or visit their website at