The Worst Jobs in Science and Three Awesome Ones

Bush-Meat Market Data Collector

Sure, everyone loves monkeys. But few test that love like Jake Owens. An environmental science Ph.D. candidate at Drexel University, Owens studies the ecology and behavior of drill monkeys. Typically, that involves trips to places like Bioko, an island off Africa’s western coast, where he crawls through snake-infested vegetation to collect monkey dung. In 2010, Owens had to survey an illegal bush-meat market in Equatorial Guinea, where merchants sell meat from endangered primates. Amid the stench of rotting flesh, he took hundreds of hair and tissue samples from the monkeys for isotope analysis. Using this data, Owens aims to locate poaching hot zones. “Most people at the market hated me or the effort to stop poaching that I represent, and they didn’t hide it well,” Owens says. The merchants regularly swatted him with brooms, spat at his feet, and waved blowtorches and machetes to keep him away. The reward for Owens’s perseverance? A mysterious monthlong illness that caused his hair to fall out.Chris Philpot

The Best Jobs: Ice Cream Flavor Developer

Chris Rivard has a fancy official title: principal food scientist, R&D global operations. Around Ben & Jerry’s, though, he’s known as a “flavor guru.” Rivard uses his degree in food sciences and nutrition to develop flavors for the ice cream giant. On an average day, he’ll experiment with prototype versions of classic frozen treats as well as some strange ones—Rivard says the R&D group has tried such flavors as ranch dressing, roasted garlic, and mushroom. Perfecting the combination of ingredients takes patience and a hearty appetite, but such are the sacrifices required in the ice cream biz. Once a year, Rivard and the other flavor gurus take a field trip. The agenda, he says, is to “eat our way through a chosen city to find inspiration for new flavors and products.” Upon their return, they strategize with the company’s marketing team on which flavors to develop for foreign markets. “Working on the global team adds an interesting twist,” Rivard says. “With different languages, it can be a unique challenge. We had to explain at one point that we don’t actually put chunks of monkeys into our Chunky Monkey ice cream.”flickr/CulinaryGeek.net

Juggalo Researcher

Every summer, thousands of greasepainted fans of the group Insane Clown Posse (ICP) gather in a field outside Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, for the Gathering of the Juggalos. Over the course of five days, the Juggalos, as the fans call themselves, will attend rap concerts, ingest a staggering amount of mind-altering substances, and socialize at events such as “DJ Clay’s Horny Nuts and Big Butts Party.” And Rahima Schwenkbeck records it all. Schwenkbeck, a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University, studies Juggalo culture to learn how ICP has become such a cult-like success despite being considered “the Most Hated Band in the World.” That sometimes means logging hours at merchandise tables to record purchasing habits. At other times, it means dressing like a Juggalo herself. At the gathering, she goes stealth, taking in musical acts, wrestling, and watching “psychopathic karaoke.” But there’s one thing she just won’t do for the sake of science: go for a dip in the local swimming hole, known as Lake Hepatitis.Chris Philpot

Dead Moose Dissector

There are likely few researchers in the world with a stronger stomach than John Vucetich. As associate professor of ecology at Michigan Technological University, Vucetich studies the population dynamics between gray wolves and moose on Isle Royal, a national park just off the northeastern tip of Minnesota in Lake Superior. Although it sounds romantic, Vucetich’s work often boils down to a pretty grim task—searching for moose carrion. Typically, the hunt starts with a smell: the sickly sweet scent of rotting flesh. Once they find a carcass, Vucetich and his team begin cutting it up with axes and knives. (Helpful tip from Vucetich: “It’s useful to take the jaw off the skull. It’s easier to carry that way.”) To get at the bones they want, Vucetich navigates swarms of maggots and ticks. A carcass can carry more than 50,000 ticks, all of them in search of a new warm-blooded home. And then there’s the hauling. Researchers lug up to 40 pounds of bones, often through several feet of snow, back to the lab for analysis. They also have to collect nearby wolf scat for genetic and population studies. “You’re like Santa Claus,” Vucetich says. “When you’re done, you’ve got this big garbage bag full of presents.” Once back at their lab in the park, the researchers prepare the bones for permanent storage by throwing them in a giant drum of hot water to boil off the remaining flesh and hair in a giant moose stew. The data Vucetich collects helps ecologists understand how early malnourishment can affect a moose’s ability to evade predators later in life.Chris Philpot

The Best Jobs: Corvette Performance Engineer

Alex MacDonald gets paid to drive Corvettes. As a performance engineer specializing in chassis control for General Motors and a former amateur racecar driver, MacDonald tests cars on extreme surfaces—ice, gravel, and sand—to assess the performance of braking systems and to monitor their software. He typically runs his test on a high-speed track. Software records thousands of variables, while a calibration engineer riding shotgun time-stamps the data and inputs comments into a laptop. MacDonald gets to test other GM performance cars, such as the Camaro, as well, usually a full two years before they’re ready for production. “Most days, it is the best job in the world,” he says. “I’d pay to do it.”Flickr/VORT3Xphoto

Subway Engineer

The New York City subway system moves 5.4 million people a day across 660 miles of track, much of which lies deep below the city in dank, vermin-infested tunnels. While most commuters whip through the passages unaware, a small army of transportation engineers toils away, testing signals and ensuring that tracks are set properly. Although the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) provides extensive training, nothing can adequately prepare engineers for tunnel work. Temperatures in the summer can soar to well above 100 degrees. Rats are everywhere. Homeless people too. And then there’s the storied third rail, the power source for the subway cars, which transmits 600 volts DC, enough juice to cause serious injury or death. All the while, 400-ton subway trains barrel by at 30 miles per hour or more. “When you get somebody who’s never been in that kind of environment, it’s an eye-opener,” says Joe Leader, acting senior vice president of New York City Transit’s department of subways. “We’ve had people get down on the track and freeze from fear.”Chris Philpot

Bedbug Rearer

Bedbugs elicit a predictable response in most people—first horror, then fury, then violence. For Scott Harrison, they inspire a strange kind of love. Harrison is a graduate student at Ohio State University and friend of the bedbug. While his lab mates spend their days trying to eradicate the pests, Harrison’s job is to raise more of them for experiments. The lab houses more than 30 populations of bedbugs—some numbering in the tens of thousands—with varying degrees of pesticide resistance. Each day, Harrison lovingly feeds the bugs rabbit blood, even breathing on them and holding them in his hand, acts that stimulate the bugs’ feeding impulse. There are days, of course, when Harrison winds up as the day’s entrée, but the upside of working with bedbugs, he says, is that his employers recognize the need for a good night’s sleep, so he gets to keep regular office hours. No one wants Harrison to take his work home at night.Flickr/Gilles San Martin

Winter Season South Pole Astronomer

In 2005, Cynthia Chiang, then a physics graduate student at Caltech, had the choice to work on a telescope in Hawaii or Antarctica. “It was a no-brainer,” she says. “You can buy a plane ticket to Hawaii anytime.” So off to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station she went for a summer of –40 to –10°F degree weather, restricted menus, and long days studying cosmic background radiation through the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization telescope. The conditions were hard but not terrible. And then, in 2012, she went back for winter. At the South Pole, the sun sets on March 21—and doesn’t reappear until September. Winter temperatures hang between –70 to –90°F but often drop below –100°F. Scientists still need to go outside regularly to check on the equipment and grease the telescopes’ elevation gears; when they do, their eyelashes often freeze together as they blink. Because the cold air can’t hold much water vapor, the climate, even inside the station, is so dry that Chiang often got nosebleeds and skin dandruff. And because only about 50 researchers and support staff choose to endure an Antarctic winter (compared with 170 residents in summer), the stays are that much lonelier. A nice hot shower could help the privation, but despite the small over-winter population at the station, residents are limited to two two-minute showers a week. Mercifully, there are no restrictions on the use of the station’s sauna.Chris Philpot

Mud Logger

“Mud logging finds people who are willing to do a thankless job well,” says Kurt Vanderyt, who did it for a year after studying geology in college. Of all the jobs on an oil rig, mud loggers are lowest on the food chain. “And nobody lets you forget it.” The job itself is brutally straightforward: collect and examine rock samples that have been forced from a well during drilling and record every sample’s mineral composition and hydrocarbon potential. That’s it, over and over again: 12 hours of looking through a microscope, for weeks on end. Mudloggers often work in pairs, so while one is logging, the other sleeps; typically, they take turns using the same bed. Drudgery alone might be tolerable. But clogs can require the loggers to lean shoulder deep into the holding tank for the drilling mud, called the possum belly, to clear it up. Vanderyt, now the vice president of exploration at Brigadier Oil & Gas, has seen other occupational hazards as well. “I once found a mud log that was lacking several hundred feet worth of interpretation,” he recalls. “When I checked the comments section, I found the description ‘Cows ate samples.’ ”Chris Philpot

Extreme Product Tester

On the surface, Mark Gammage’s job sounds a little dull. As the group manager of Amway’s Reliability Lab, Gammage oversees a team of four engineers who design complex product-testing equipment and software. But the group’s real directive is to invent ways to torture and destroy everything the company makes. Tests in the lab, known as “the Room of Doom,” include exposing cookware, medical devices, and other products to extreme temperatures and zapping them with 8,000 volts of electricity to simulate a lightning strike. Gammage says his favorite test is to detect weaknesses in water-treatment tanks, which involves pressurizing them until they blow up. “You can hear it and see it as it explodes inside a protective clear case,” he explains. “Many times, guests do the honors and dial up the pressure. That always brings a smile to their face.”Flickr/Solarbotics

Digestive System Modeler

To say that Glenn Gibson’s job stinks is an understatement. Gibson is a microbiology professor at the United Kingdom’s University of Reading, and he studies bacteria found in the human gut to develop treatments for such disorders as irritable bowel syndrome. To conduct his research, Gibson pours a fluid made from volunteers’ fecal samples into models of the human digestive compartments. He then examines bacterial samples using liquid chromatography. “The smell permeates the lab, the whole building, and the surrounding area,” he says. Gibson does his best to protect himself from contamination, wearing gloves and a mouth mask, but contact is unavoidable. He once got splattered with feces containing blood while opening a package that had been mailed to the lab. Thankfully, not all the deliveries are so unpleasant—at least not for him. “A few years ago, we were expecting a delivery of hundreds of fecal samples from the U.S., but instead, we were sent a box of pork chops,” he says. “I only hope that the person expecting the pork did not get our box.”Chris Philpot