The Worst Jobs in Science

Popular Science's fifth annual survey of just how bad it gets

It might seem sad, after years of study, to wind up gathering sewer rats or burning great, stinking heaps of urine samples and bloody gauze. But that's the path some professionals choose—and you're lucky they did.

Triage Biologist

If global-warming predictions are right, as many as a quarter of mammals now alive could be extinct in our lifetime; in other groups of plants and animals, casualties could be as high as 40 percent. Considering that humankind doesn't have the money or know-how to save them all, some scientists are calling for ecological triage—choosing which critters to preserve and which to abandon. It's a concept that came to Stanford University biologist Terry Root, who has worked on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, after witnessing her husband's cancer treatment. "I realized I'm an oncologist for the world. I realized that for some species, it's already too late," she told a conference last year. "And then there are species who, like my husband, we can work to save. And part of what we have to do is this horribly, horribly difficult process of figuring out what we can save." Researchers are already devising intelligent ways to make Terry's choice. Marc Cadotte and a group at the University of California at Santa Barbara recently published a paper assessing which flowering plants in grasslands make it over the species-saving bar. Their general conclusion is that it behooves us to save the most genetically unique species and the ones that preserve functional ecosystems, which are often one and the same. Eventually, every species will have to be judged. Pity the poor scientists who have to spend their days crossing cute, fuzzy things off the list.Trip Park

Monkey-Sex Observer

The hot ticket for biologists these days? Watching monkeys do it. Every batch of new published studies seems to include simian sex. Consider Dana Pfefferle, a researcher at the German Primate Center in Göttingen, who spent two years counting monkey thrusts at Gibraltar's Upper Rock Nature Reserve to find that when the female screamed during mating, the male partner climaxed 59 percent of the time. Or Paul Vasey of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, who has discovered that female Japanese macaques are often bisexual and will choose a female partner over a male more than 92 percent of the time. Monkey mating is everywhere. Vasey says primate prurience is essential to human sexuality research. "There are very few situations in which you can watch humans have sex," he explains, noting that monkey sex has also shed light on several other species. To eavesdrop on the macaques, Vasey travels to the outskirts of Kyoto, Japan, in the fall and winter. For up to three months, six days a week, he hikes up a small mountain to the monkey's habitat and records who mounts whom and for how long, what positions they use and what pelvic movements are employed, which he tracks using a notation system designed to record the movements of dancers. He's not at all inhibited about discussing his research with the public. After all, he says, "people like monkeys, and people like sex."Trip Park

Theoretical Physicist

For much of the past century, physics was an exciting, wide-ranging exploration. But to be a theoretical physicist today, you pretty much have to stake your career on one incredibly popular but pretty much unprovable notion: string theory. Since the idea that the universe is composed of small vibrating "strings" gained a following in the 1970s, the theory, which in some forms posits 10 dimensions and seeks a unifying "supersymmetry," has captured the theoretical-physics community in the U.S. The easiest way to earn an appointment is to dive head-first into a branch of string theory, which dominates the top programs at Princeton, MIT and other influential institutions. The problem is, we simply have no idea if we're on the right track, because the theory still isn't verifiable. Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, who investigates quantum gravity and string theory, believes that this physics monoculture is stifling. "Science has become too risk-averse, and its progress is being hurt as a result," he says. When CERN's Large Hadron Collider restarts later this year, however, it could end the waiting, helping to confirm parts of string theory—or dash it altogether. If supersymmetric particles called sparticles are bashed into existence: yay! But if the W boson particle does not react as hoped, that damages a central pillar of the theory. Across the U.S., whole careers are boiling down to the chance that a big box comes up with something.Trip Park

Vermin Handler

Spending one's childhood catching rats doesn't (necessarily) make you a psycho; at his father's hobby farm in rural Arkansas, it prepared William Parker for cutting-edge medical research. To capture them, "you have to know how rats think," he says. The Duke University professor of surgical sciences, who in 2007 helped suss out why humans have an appendix (it protects beneficial bacteria), now fishes the wriggly vermin out of traps in and around Durham, North Carolina, for an ongoing study on hygiene. He's testing the long-standing idea that mammals (including people) raised in clean, urban environments do not build as many immunities as those raised on farms or closer to natural settings. "Inner-city kids may live in a dirty environment, but it's a different kind of dirt than someone who brings goats into their house," he explains. For his work, he locates a likely rat- infested area and notes the nasty diet of the local Rattus norvegicus population. After putting out unarmed live traps for several days to let his squeaky prey get acclimated, he sets the triggers, collects his test subjects, and euthanizes them with carbon dioxide. He then compares immune reactions in spleen cells from the wild, disease-prone rats with those from sterile, pickier lab rats ("They won't even touch jelly doughnuts," he says) to test the hygiene hypothesis. But Parker isn't satisfied with rodents from dumpsters and alleys. If funding comes through for the next step in his study, he plans on building a small barn full of wild house mice so he can more finely control their filthiness.Trip Park

Lone Fossil Ranger

Imagine a vast beach studded with pearls guarded by a sole protector, and you get a sense of paleontologist Barbara Beasley's hopeless task. Based in the Nebraska National Forest, she is charged with protecting the more than five million acres of public land in the Northern Great Plains from fossil poachers. As the only such paleontologist on staff (or on the federal payroll, for that matter), her job is to investigate sites that have been vandalized, estimate the damage done, and help law enforcement catch thieves of the park's cache of bones. She's just plain outgunned. Of more than a dozen poaching cases she investigates every year, only one or two make it to court, and that's if the poacher is caught red-handed. Fat chance. "All that's usually left is a hole in the ground," Beasley says. Some poachers, who net anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a set of teeth to tens of thousands for rare skulls, are bold enough to rent summer houses near fossil grounds to spend the warm season prospecting. Sometimes they plunder academic dig sites sponsored by real paleontologists. Beasley recalls a site in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland where poachers stole the skeleton of a mosasaur, the T. rex of the sea, failing to realize that there was an intact fossil of a baby mosasaur right next to it. "Poachers don't pay attention to context," she says. "They usually go for the sexy fossils, like skulls with teeth." Beasley is a realist—because of lack of evidence, most poaching investigations aren't pursued and are usually just recorded as theft of public property—but hopes she can help slow the leak of fossils by educating the public in the Great Plains to report incidents as they happen. "At times, sure, it's frustrating," she admits. "If it's worth money, someone's taking it."Trip Park

Hurricane Hunter

If you freak out when turbulence threatens to topple your ginger ale, you probably won't get into the U.S. Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. Based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, the 20 pilots and their crews fly into the eyes of dangerous hurricanes, usually four times on missions of up to 12 hours. Think of it: After making it through, they circle around to do it again. (The first flight was in 1943, when an Air Force colonel pierced a Texas hurricane just to show British trainees that he could.) Why risk it when satellites and radar do a bang-up job of tracking storms? Because it's hard to gauge the strength and growth of a hurricane without measuring the pressure in its eye, and although radar can map the center of a storm to within 60 miles, being inside it brings accuracy to within two. Missions are round-the-clock when a storm is on, and the goal is to parachute two-foot-long instruments called dropsondes through the storm to measure barometric pressure, wind speed, and so on. Inside the storm, usually at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet, the plane can freefall 1,000 feet. The Squadron has a plethora of applicants, says Major Chad Gibson, and no deaths in 35 years. Nevertheless, it's a maniac's job. Since the 1960s, four flights—36 people—have been lost. One plane returned so damaged that it was sent directly to the scrap heap.Trip Park

Medical-Waste Burner

Ever wonder where your tonsils and gallbladder go once the anesthesia wears off? If your doctors are following the law, those go out the door as medical waste. At BioMedical Waste Solutions, based in Port Arthur, Texas, a fleet of leakproof trucks brings tons of trash each day to its processing facility, where a technician wearing gloves, goggles and a protective suit pulls the bags of waste from the tubs and loads them into a plastic-lined stainless-steel hopper, which is wheeled into a 6-by-13-foot autoclave. The operator vacuums the air out of the chamber before injecting it with 45 psi of 300ºF steam, cooking and sterilizing the syringes, bloody gauze, and bottles of semen and urine for 40 minutes. (Limbs and chemo supplies go to specialty incinerators.) The aroma is what gets to you. "When it comes out the other end, it smells like dog food mixed with burning plastic," says Wes Sonnier, who began the company in 2005 and now processes 12 tons of waste a day. The steaming glop, which is full of melted rubber gloves, bandages and syringes, is then machine-compacted before being dropped off at the municipal dump. Although the U.S. has medical-waste disposal down to a fine, smelly science, the rest of the world hasn't quite caught up, and teaching other countries to do it right is going to be awful work. In 2007, investigators in South Africa found an incinerator warehouse where workers were inexplicably storing rotting human limbs, used HIV test kits and petri dishes from 200 hospitals. It was thought to be one of 12 similar sites around the country.Trip Park

Leech Researcher

For Mark Siddall and his colleagues from the leech lab at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the primary tool for field research is a revealing pair of shorts. "Fieldwork involves wading through swamps, allowing leeches to crawl onto us," explains Siddall, the museum's curator of invertebrates, whose subjects are increasingly being used in reconstructive surgery and in the development of anticoagulants. In the past decade, Siddall has led leech walks everywhere from Argentina to Thailand. In Madagascar during the rainy season, he says, the forest floor comes alive. "You can collect hundreds on your body just over one walk." To remove a sucker, he simply peels off the edge with his fingernail, since burned leeches tend to regurgitate into the wound. Why, God, why? Siddall has discovered or studied dozens of new species, including a leech that prefers frogs and one that likes hippo anus. And the danger? "So far, no leech-borne diseases have been identified," he says. "And to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever been exsanguinated"—which is to say, entirely drained of blood.Trip Park

Experimental Taphonomist

Dying is easy. The study of how an animal wandering the tundra becomes a fossil underground: That's hard. To familiarize themselves with the mechanics of death and decay, taphonomists study the disintegration of worms, elephants and even humans. Travis Rayne Pickering, a taphonomist and paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, concentrates on big cat kills in Africa. The idea is to create a reference to help figure out whether fossil animals were killed by early humans—a sign of our sophistication—or by predators like big cats. Pickering and his team scour the countryside for the remains of a kill to assess the aftermath and flay the carcass. "Sometimes the flesh is loose enough to get your fingers in there and pull it off. But it usually takes quite a bit of boiling to get the skin off the head, and there's brain tissue to get out as well," says Pickering, who has had to fend off scavenging animals from his butchering camp. During other projects, he uses flint chips and rocks based on prehistoric tools to determine what kind of markings early humans made while butchering meat. Getting arm-deep in gazelle guts has helped reveal evidence of cannibalism, for instance, on a two-million-year-old human fossil. "It's the type of damage you get when removing the mandible to get meat off the face and the tongue. Without taphonomic research, we wouldn't be able to interpret those results."Trip Park

Mars Simulator Crew

there are plenty of technical problems on the way to Mars: how to avoid excess radiation, maintain food supplies, and generally not die. But the real hazard between here and there is going nuts. That's why this spring, six participants in the European Space Agency and Russia's Institute for Biomedical Problems's Mars500 program are going to lock themselves in a series of metal tubes in a facility in Moscow for 520 days, roughly the time it should take to travel 100 million miles to Mars, spend 30 days there, and return. Bozhe moy, that's a long time without a shower or a window. Psychologists and biologists will be observing the effects of cramped quarters and social isolation on the four Russians and two others chosen from an applicant pool of 5,000 pilots and scientists from 45 countries. The winners (who aren't earning a spot on any real Mars mission, by the way) will drink reprocessed urine and eat freeze-dried food, home-baked bread and whatever grows in the greenhouse. Any breakdowns, engineering or otherwise, must be remedied by the cozy crew, who will be constantly recorded by 18 cameras. Communication with mission control is delayed by 40 minutes. The reward: After 250 days, three lucky Marstronauts will be allowed to leave their 2,100-square-foot capsule, in spacesuits, to giddily explore some other unit dolled up to look like Mars for a month, before crawling back inside for the final 240 days. Have we mentioned how flippin' long that is? A similar experiment by the Institute for Biomedical Problems in 1999 ended in a bloody nose, sexual harassment and a deserter—after only 110 days.Trip Park

Help Wanted

Which of the Worst Jobs do you think is the worst? And what was the worst job you ever had? Read all about the worst jobs in science:
Worst Jobs in Science 2009
The Worst Jobs of the Future
The Worst Jobs of the Past
daniel spils