The Expedition Advisory Centre helps students plan successful research trips, writes Olga Wojtas.
"I am approached by a lot of people who want, for one reason or another, to go on expeditions but haven't the first idea how to set about them," the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes said.
"At one point, I wrote answers, but then I found I really did not have the time. Eventually, I produced a circular, but that only resulted in mail asking more questions. I started to send all these inquiries to the Expedition Advisory Centre, and I found that they ended up as very happy customers."
The number of happy customers could rise this weekend when 250 students will attend Explore 2000, the EAC's 24th annual expedition-planning seminar.
The EAC, run by the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers, has drawn on the RGS-IBG's broad membership to field 75 experts whose advice to students will range from leadership styles and fundraising to underwater projects and recording for radio.
Shane Winser, who heads the EAC, said: "The weekend is to inspire and help young people develop their fieldwork plans and improve the safety and effectiveness of the research they do. Anyone can organise an expedition, but organising one that is welcome and has useful results for the host country and participants takes a lot more thought."
There are more than 100 student expeditions from British universities each year. Far from being confined to geography students, they attract students from a range of disciplines, including botany and marine biology. Students may end up investigating the effects of commercial logging in Gambia or of tsunamis on rivers in Papua New Guinea.
Bob Allison, head of geography at Durham University and one of the weekend seminar chairs, said: "The EAC is the catalyst between bright, enthusiastic young people and people with experience, whether it is the Ranulph Fiennes experience on logistics or the Bob Allison experience on doing the research."
Explore 2000 saves students time, effort and embarrassment, as well as promoting safety, Sir Ranulph said. "I'm not saying (the EAC) should be held responsible if people make fools of themselves, but its advice and screening make it less likely that these things will happen."
The weekend helps make students aware of potential dangers and pitfalls.It also offers advice on how to avoid post-expedition splits and resentment, Sir Ranulph said. "It teaches you to paint a black picture of what will happen, so if people start whingeing, you can say, 'You were warned!'" The most exciting things in life often have risks attached, Professor Allison said. But what is unacceptable is if nobody takes responsibility for reducing risks. "Of all the hundreds of students who go on these expeditions, the number of accidents is small, and the number of fatalities is mercifully almost non-existent."
The most common mistake of students is to concentrate on fundraising and project planning at the expense of risk assessment, Mrs Winser said.
"We can teach them the basics of personal hygiene and staying healthy in the field. People do not realise how significant malaria is still. And the most common problem is diarrhoea and vomiting, which is preventable on the whole, and treatable."
There is no reason, Mrs Winser said, to go to a politically unstable country. The weekend encourages reconnaissance visits to the host country to make contact with local people, including scientists.
"That dialogue so often produces a successful expedition. One (student group) had a very strong scientific proposal to do surveys and inventories in a new national park in the Philippines. But when they got there, they discovered that Japanese tourists were flooding in and doing quite a lot of damage. What the park needed was nature trails, and they (the group members) were able to suggest ways of minimising the tourist damage."
Chatting to other participants over the weekend elicits constructive criticism that can help students clarify their options, Mrs Winser said. "People can say, 'That's not a particularly brilliant country because they really don't like undergraduate expeditions - wouldn't you like to go somewhere where you'd be more welcome?'" Mrs Winser said field research has come back in vogue of late. Despite previous assumptions that most solutions would stem from satellite monitoring and modelling, fieldwork and underlying research are still crucial. Undergraduate research expeditions tend to be a cheap and effective way of doing this. "Students have the energy and enthusiasm to reach the parts others cannot when they have teaching commitments and mortgages. It is much more difficult for senior academics to get out into the field for long periods of time."
Professor Allison stressed the educational importance of expeditions, which not only give students the chance to develop personally, but also to learn.
"A scientific expedition is not people going into the jungle with pith helmets. It's giving young people the opportunity to undertake a piece of scientific research, and the EAC is there to give support to minimise the risks of having accidents and of doing a bad piece of research."
One of the things students need to think about is how they will present their findings, Mrs Winser said. "It would be a great sadness if they raise thousands of £ to collect data that never see the light of day. We are interested in sound recording, film-making and report writing, and how a narrow project might integrate into a wider programme."
Mrs Winser laments the fact that so many organisations now market an "expedition experience" to universities that students are becoming nervous about organising their own. "Turning your own dream into a reality is a very, very different kettle of fish from paying your money and going on an adventure holiday-type expedition," she said.
Sir Ranulph has no doubt that the benefit to students of doing it themselves far outweighs the difficulties. "It indisputably widens their experience and sparks different elements of their character that might otherwise never be kick-started," he said.
"It opens new horizons to these individuals that they did not know existed, and their world becomes a hell of a lot less narrow. This is happening at a time when they can change their career direction, so it is critical."