The 10 Worst Jobs in Science (and the Best One Ever)

Be grateful, dear reader, that someone else does the hard, dangerous and downright grody work involved in truly audacious science
Whale slasher
Michelle Berman, an associate curator of vertebrate zoology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in California, is wary of whale organs in general, but blue-whale kidneys top the list. "They fill the entire bucket of an excavator and weigh hundreds of pounds," she explains. "You have to make sure it doesn't fall on you when you cut it free." When a whale or dolphin washes ashore nearby, Berman and her colleagues study the remains. Smaller animals can be taken back to the lab, but whales—like a huge blue whale that washed up dead in 2007—have to be processed on-site. The crew, wearing yellow rain slickers and using long-handled knives, cuts the blubber off in yards-long strips before diving into the thoracic cavity. Berman then systematically cuts through the innards organ by organ, collecting samples before the organs are lifted carefully out of the way—sometimes using heavy machinery—to reveal the next layer. Besides researchers wading knee-deep in blood, the whale's fatty oils stick to skin and hair, and the smell can last for years. "[A fresh corpse] has a metallic smell to it, because the myoglobin has lots of iron in it," Berman says. "As the whale decomposes, it gets that rotting smell." Gases in a decomposing whale can build up and launch guts all over the beach if you make a wrong cut. (Luckily, Berman has only had a dolphin explode on her.) Her samples have helped determine that a killer whale had died of salmonella and that parasites were causing mass beachings of pilot whales. The more she cuts, the more she learns. "If I'm stinking up the place, that's how you know I'm working," she says. "Once we get enough samples, it benefits the species as a whole." Nigel Buchanan

We’ve been highlighting the down and dirty worst jobs in science for several years now, but 2010’s selections, presented here, are especially grody (dung curator? oceanic snot diver?). It’s lucky, then, that while reporting on the hardest, grossest and most dangerous, we also uncovered what might possibly be the best job in science.

For the ten worst, and one best job in science, see the gallery above.

Bad Dance Observer
Oceanic-Snot Diver
Dung Curator
Sneeze Modeler
Armpit Detective
Tissue Reaper
Doomsday Factchecker
Bean Counter
Feces Piper
Best Job: Multispecies Baby Tickler