Interview with Professor Christina Hicks on taking kids into the field

Professor Christina Hicks is a member of the aKIDemic Life Advisory Board, and is a social scientist working at Lancaster University in the UK. Christina a champion of equity in academia - she is the Lancaster Environment Centre Athena Swan Lead.

Q1. Tell us a bit about your work and family.

I am an environmental social scientist. I often work in teams, to tackle interdisciplinary problems with direct societal relevance such as to food security, sustainable resource management, and conservation.

I am a professor at Lancaster University’s Environment Centre in the UK where I teach, lead a couple of large research projects, and actively engage to further equality, diversity, and inclusion within the higher education sector.

I am originally from Kenya and my husband, also a professor, is from the UK. We have three children aged 4, 7, and 17 and as a family we have lived in the UK, Australia, America, and Kenya.

Q2. What type of fieldwork do you do and where?

Most of my research is in east Africa, which is where much of my family still lives, though some research has been in Fiji and the UK. Generally, my fieldwork involves participant observation and interviews in coastal communities that are often remote with little road connection. But, I work in interdisciplinary teams, and in particular try to coordinate my fieldtrips with my husband who is a marine ecologist, which involves underwater surveys and time on boats.

Q3. Do you always take your children on fieldwork and if not, why not?

When I only had one child I would almost always take him, in part because I didn’t have any alternative – I was a single mum - but also because it worked and was easier then. Nowadays, it is a lot more complicated, because we have three kids, who are all in school, and my husband and I both work full time. I now see taking my kids in the field as a treat, like a holiday, or an opportunity to spend more time in the field. I definitely don’t feel I need to take them as I know it makes fieldwork harder, so I also try to have short and intense field trips.

Q4. What are the benefits and disadvantages of taking your children on fieldtrips?

I think it is important that our children know what we do, and are connected to our work in a very real way. Our middle son is very committed to environmental issues, he is the school eco counsellor, and I love hearing him repeat and build on things he has seen or heard from us. I think seeing us do jobs we love sends a valuable message to our kids, if you can communicate that passion when you are in the field, they are more likely to find work that they love when they are older.

When you are in the field with your kids you get a lot of family time, so I find it a valuable bonding experience. Field trips also expose them to things, places, perspectives they would not normally be exposed to. I do think our kids are more open to different perspectives, compassionate, and willing to listen because of these experiences.

I think the biggest down side, that I always forget, is how hard and tiring it is. I always love the idea of bringing my children, parents, and field work together, but it’s hard coordinating a field trip as well as a family. When my parents have joined us for a ‘holiday’ and to help with the kids I’m aware that they have spent a lot of money to be there and they actually want to see their daughter- preferably happy. But, field work is intense, one of us can be working up to 10pm, and another starting at 6am. You have to be able to be responsive to the weather and interview participants, but you still want to have a family dinner, do stuff together, and make sure everyone is having fun.

We also don’t always work in safe environments. We have worked in areas and later found out there was a cholera outbreak, slept in rat infested accommodation, been in close proximity to kidnappings and terrorist bombings. When you are on your own you can happily take those risks but it is sobering to realise you have put your children in those situations.

Finally, it can be very expensive. Some costs can be covered under research costs, such as shared accommodation, others will have to come out of your pocket, such as flights, insurance, entertainment. For this reason it is important to us that these trips feel like a holiday or positive experience for the whole family to justify the costs.

Q6. What preparation do you do before taking kids into the field?

Preparation really varies based on where you are going, how much previous experience you have in that place, who else will be there and how long you will stay.

At times it feels like a complex jigsaw puzzle trying to figure out when is the best time to go into the field with your kids.

The easiest time to go into the field is during the school holidays, but this is not always possible or long enough. When they are younger, being out of school is easier and we generally just tried to keep up with their reading. As they got older we would sometimes arrange a tutor and take work with us, or enrol them in a local school. We would always try to travel for a period that would be least disruptive socially and academically i.e. for a full term, half a term, or just a week at the end of term. Our eldest is amazingly resilient and adaptable so this worked- he made friends and kept up with work. Since our eldest started high /secondary school we have not taken him out of school.

If you are taking them out of school you will need to get permission, in some places this is a legal requirement. We have never not had the schools full support, and they have often said things like ‘what they will learn in the field for those x weeks will be invaluable’. On return we have often given a talk at the school which we have found helped our kids settle back in and gives a little back to the school for their support of us.

When we travel as a family accommodation is much more important. I tend to find a place to rent to give us and the kids a base. This is often is a nice location- i.e. just off the beach, and close to our field sites. This larger place can then act as a base for the research team for planning, meals, or workshopping.

Other considerations include making sure the kids are insured as well as us in case of anything happening, making sure we know who will be helping us look after the children. This could juggled between members of the research trip, a family member coming with us, or a local nanny.

Q6. Are there particular items you always pack?

Books, plasticine, Lego- anything that can pack up small and kids can play with anywhere. Medicine.

Q7. What health and safety considerations do you need to take into account taking your kids with you?

Depends on where you travel to. We have always found the GP [General Practitioner / Doctor] great for travel advice for us and kids, and they are often interested. Our kids have probably had more vaccinations than most. I have travelled with very young kids (5 weeks) and was advised to give my kids the TB vaccination because of where we were travelling.

In many ways, for me, travelling with very small kids was easier because I exclusively breastfed and wore them all the time. So issues of sterilised food was not a problem and they got some immunity from me. But, I know I was lucky to have babies that travelled well.

I also always listen to local medical advice. The local doctors will for example have a better understanding of what may be going around, or what malarial strain is present where you work, and consequently what the best treatment is. Medical advice doesn’t stop when you leave. Again for malaria, we often take a dose of the local treatment home in case any of us come down with malaria once home.

Q8. What cultural considerations do you need to take into account when taking your kids with you?

Most of the cultures I have worked in have been very child friendly. The cultural considerations generally relate to me, what I wear, where I go, who I am allowed to talk to, and when.

Q9. Do you have any other tips for parents taking their children on research trips?

Decide what works best for you and your family. It may seem idyllic to take your family into the field but it’s hard work, not all kids (or parents) enjoy it, it can be disruptive socially, and you won’t get as much work done as you could otherwise have achieved.

There could be hybrid options, travel to your field site with your family for a holiday or long weekend, then if there is someone who can take your kids home let them, or go home yourselves - at least next time your kids will know where you are going.

For many it may be easier and less stressful to separate work from home, in which case it’s about figuring out how long you can be away for and how much work you can do in that time.

Things change, what works with one child, for one field site, one year, may not work the next, so constantly reflect, be responsive, flexible, and adaptive. Whenever I decide to take my kids in the field I always tell myself, if it doesn’t work, and I can’t do any work, or I have to come home - it’s ok, and I’m fine doing that. As your career progresses it can become easy to not go in the field, because it is hard juggling everything. I would say, make sure you make these decisions consciously. You may still be able to get out, just less often, closer to home, or with family members.

Most of all be kind to yourself and do what you feel is right for you!