|MadSci Network: Medicine|
Hi! Thanks for your question! I must admit I was surprised to get a question that does not require me to call upon my factual knowledge of science. In some ways, the question you have posed is more difficult--you seem to be inquiring about scientific careers. I should tell you that I am probably not the ideal resource, as I am still a student myself! However, I can definitely give you my "two cents worth" and point you toward some resources where you can find more information.
So, you want to know if a medical scientist can work outside of the lab, doing "field work". Well, the short answer is YES! One of the great things about a career in research is the flexibility to pursue projects that really interest you. If your interests lead you to seek endeavors that are outside of the lab, then…go for it! However, at the root of all rigorous, focused scientific research is a well-defined problem and a sound approach to investigating the problem. Therefore, if you wish to do field work (or even work in the lab, for that matter!) it is important to know what you want to research and how you wish to research it. This is important not only for your own thought process, but is often crucial for obtaining financial support from funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation. While I imagine that field work can be especially exciting and rewarding, it is likely to be difficult at times. Working in secluded areas means that your access to important laboratory resources and equipment is restricted, not to mention the limited availability of things we often take for granted, such as food, shelter, and transportation.
I have been mulling over your question the past few days, and I think there are two things I would like to address specifically: (1) the types of research questions that are suited for field work and (2) resources you can use to find out more information. There are a variety of biological topics that one can explore outside the lab. However, since you indicated in your question that you are interested in medicine, I will restrict my answer to this particular area. In terms of research projects that are medically relevant, issues related to epidemiology, infectious disease, and public health seem particularly appropriate for field work. For instance, scientists often study newly emerging diseases in isolated populations, such as the hemorrhagic fever caused by the Ebola virus. However, they also study more common diseases, often those afflicting developing countries, and help develop strategies for disease control, treatment and prevention. In terms of epidemiology and infectious disease, I recommend that you check out the websites of the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These two sites have a wealth of information regarding the projects they are involved in; the WHO site is particularly comprehensive. In addition, you may also want to visit the website of Doctors Without Borders. This is an international medical relief agency that provides help to victims of war, disease epidemics, and natural and man-made disasters. Though they are not a research organization, they do a lot of medical work in remote areas. If you have not read it, I also recommend the book, The Coming Plague, by Laurie Garrett. Although this book focuses mainly on "medical ecology", and argues that human activity has played a large part in the changing patterns of disease, it also deals partly with some of the people who have worked on characterizing emerging diseases. A quick search of the internet also turned up another book, which I have not read, called Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC, by Joseph B. McCormick and Sue Fisher-Hoch, that tells stories of researching and treating virulent diseases in developing countries.
I hope you find this information helpful! If I can answer any further questions, please don't hesitate to contact me!
I would like to acknowledge Ingrid Dodge, a fellow Mad Scientist, who kindly provided me with some ideas for answering this question.
Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Medicine.