Think your job’s bad? Try dragging a bedspread around tick-ridden thickets, pausing regularly in the 100-degree heat not to squeegee the sweat from your brow but to tweeze dozens of the tiny pests into a collection jar. Reconsidering your career choice? Imagine training for years as a veterinarian, only to find yourself engaged in labwork designed to make the tail-wagging puppies in your charge sick, knowing all the while that when the study is over, the pooches will be euthanized. Having a bad day? Just be glad you’re not spending it in minute examination of unusual growths on a dozen or so people’s posteriors.
But don’t feel sorry for the scientists and staffers employed in these travails—they probably wouldn’t want your job any more than you’d want theirs. Case in point: As we canvassed hundreds of scientists for worst-job nominees, an inexplicable thing happened—the glorious and esteemed calling known as “science journalist” kept garnering votes. Something about missing out on the chance to do real science ourselves, coupled with our need to simplify (or was it “oversimplify”?) the subjects we cover.
That, of course, is part of the fascination of an exercise such as this. Job horror is in the eye of the job holder. And to the great benefit of society, most of these job holders simply don’t regard their occupation as being that horrible—or, at any rate, are willing to endure the horrors for the opportunity to do virtuous and important work. We salute them.
Click here to launch our special fifth anniversary gallery to relive five years of the the most inglorious, demoralizing, and, in the end, beloved professions. Does yours make the list?
The Worst, Most Torturous, Icky, Painful, Stinky, Dangerous, and Just Plain Horrible Jobs in Science
Ah, science! Ennobling. Fascinating. Deeply challenging. Also, dangerous, gross and mind-bogglingly boring. We at Popular Science are sometimes brought up short by the realization that there are aspects of science—entire jobs, even—that, when you strip away the imposing titles and advanced degrees, sound at best distasteful and at worst unbearable. Having chosen last month our second annual Brilliant 10—a group of dynamic researchers making remarkable discoveries—we turned to this pressing question: For the rest out there, just how bad can a science job get? The answer: Really, really bad. We solicited nominations from more than a thousand working scientists and culled the list for the most noxious. Then we voted. Which is to say, there is absolutely nothing scientific about the ranking of the worst jobs in science that appears on these pages; it is simply the collective opinion of a group of alternately awestruck and disturbed editors who rarely suffer anything worse on the job than keyboard- induced repetitive-motion syndrome. As happens in science, fundamental assumptions are herein turned on their heads. If you assume, for example, that people employed to supervise fart-smelling research would dislike such work, think again. Ditto Robert Jones, who adores working with flesh-eating beetles to remove every last morsel of decay and make his skeletons truly gleam. Mosquito researcher Helge Zieler says the beauty of the Brazilian rainforest far outweighs the thousands of mosquito bites and the malaria he suffered there. Science is full of inquisitive people who take great pleasure in doing jobs that others would not touch with a 10-foot pole—and the world is indisputably a better place for their efforts. We’re grateful that someone out there is doing these jobs. Even more grateful that it isn’t us. -William Speed Weed (2003)
Isolation Chamber Tester
“Imagine taking a car trip cross-country with your family. Now imagine that it lasts for months on end, that you can’t open the windows, and that you can never get out of the car.” That’s how Marc Shepanek, NASA’s deputy chief for medicine in extreme environments, once described the psychological challenge astronauts will face on long-distance space missions. But hey, at least they’ll be going somewhere. In the meantime, we put people through the torture in immobile isolation chambers on the ground. At NASA, engineers responsible for life-support systems sign up to spend a few months in cramped captivity to test their equipment—for no additional pay. In one 91-day test at NASA, the crew recycled their urine into drinking water 13 times. But—as Jean-Paul Sartre almost said—forget recycled urine; true hell is other people. In a Russian chamber on New Year’s Eve 1999, Canadian subject Judith La Pierre was pulled into a corner by a burly drunk Russian and kissed—possibly, she said afterward, a prelude to rape. In another incident, a fistfight spattered blood on the chamber walls. Perhaps the worst indignity of all? Most isolation-chamber subjects are would-be astronauts who undergo the torture to buff up their résumés—yet none of NASA’s recent chamber testers has made the astronaut corps.
Researchers who want animal sperm —to study fertility or for artificial insemination—have a suite of attractive options: They can ram an electric probe up an animal’s rectum, shove an artificial vagina onto the animal’s penis, or simply do it the old-fashioned way—manual stimulation. The first option, electroejaculation, uses a priapic rectal probe to send electricity pulsing through the animal’s nether regions. “All the normal excitatory signals that stimulate ejaculation, like touch, sight, sound and smell, can be replaced with the current from the probe,” says Trish Berger, professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis. “It’s fascinating. Of course, this is a woman talking.” Electroejaculation generally requires anesthetizing the animal and is typically used on zoo dwellers. The other two methods—the artificial vagina, or AV, and the good old hand—require that animals be trained to the procedure. The AV—a large latex tube coated with warm lubricant —is used primarily to get sperm from dairy bulls (considered the most ornery and dangerous of bovines). The bull gets randy with a steer; when he mounts the steer with his forelegs, a brave technician, AV in hand, insinuates himself between the two aroused beasts and deftly redirects the bull penis into the mock genitalia, which he must then hold tight while the bull orgasms. (Talk about bull riding!) Three additional technicians attempt to ensure this (fool)hardy soul’s safety by anchoring themselves to restraining ropes attached to a ring in the bull’s nose. Alas, this isn’t always absolutely effective: Everyone who’s wielded an AV has had at least one close call, and more than a few have been sent to the hospital. The much safer “digital pressure” is used mostly with pigs, who are trained from an early age to mount a small bench while the researcher reaches around with a gloved hand and provides appropriate pleasure—er, pressure. The best job in science? We nominate the pig.
Brazil Mosquito Researcher
Scientists fighting malaria must study the biting habits of the mosquito that spreads it. In Brazil, that’s the Anopheles darlingi, which doesn’t fall for the light or wind traps researchers use in Africa: This smart little sucker will come near scientists only when they offer themselves as bait. In the early evening, when mosquito activity is busiest, a mosquito dinner—er, researcher—finds a nice buggy area and sets himself up inside a mosquito-netting tent with a gap at the bottom. Mosquitoes fly in low and get trapped inside, where the researcher sits stoically, sacrificing his skin to science. He need focus only on his legs to keep him busy: Whenever a mosquito chooses a drumstick dinner, the researcher draws it into a mouth tube (!) and then expels it into a container. Veteran researcher Helge Zieler used to put himself on the menu twice a week. On his best evening, he caught 500 Anopheles in 3 hours. Meanwhile, of course, the skeeters feasted on his entire corpus—a grand total of about 3,000 bites, or an average of 17 per minute for 180 minutes on end. “It’s not so bad,” he says, explaining that his personal response to mosquito bites is an immediate itch that goes away naturally in a few minutes. Except when his response is to contract malaria. Despite taking prophylactic chloroquine, Zieler developed a case that took him two years to shake. Perversely, the human-pincushion act doesn’t end when the fieldwork does. Normally, captive mosquitoes are fed by lab animals—just shave a guinea pig’s belly and secure it to the top of the cage. But the anti-cruelty protocols for using the guinea pigs are stringent. “Sometimes,” Zieler says, “it’s easier to roll up your sleeve.”
“So many people think flowers smell sweet and, you know, attract cute honeybees,” notes University of Washington greenhouse manager Douglas Ewing. “But I think when the corpse flower blooms, that’s the best part of my job.” That is to say, he likes it best when he’s tending a phallic flower that’s taller than a man and gives off an overwhelming scent of rotting flesh, a pungency it evolved to attract very un-cute Sumatran carrion beetles. The stench? “Pretty much like the worst roadkill you can think of,” Ewing says. And there’s lots of it: In the wilds of Indonesia, the plant must pump out enough scent to be smelled miles away; at the University of Washington, all that reek is confined in the greenhouse. Does Ewing wear a gas mask when the corpse flower blooms—or, better yet, call in sick? “No, I’m right in there with it the whole time,” he says. “It’s just incredible to watch this massive structure come up, and it changes every day.” The hundred or so greenhouses that grow this plant are competing to produce the world’s tallest putrid flower; Bonn University recently claimed the record for a 9-foot, 120-pound stink bomb. Douglas Ewing, eat your heart out.
Metric System Advocate
The Metric Program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology has a bold, if Napoleonic, motto: “Toward a Metric America.” That is, a fanciful future in which we’ll buy decagrams of hamburger and liters of gas. Problem is, the Metric Program employs just two evangelists—hail, ye lone voices in the wilderness!—to convert 281 million recalcitrant American imperial-unit holdouts. Launched with much hope by the Federal Metric Conversion Act of 1975, the Metric Program 28 years later meekly soldiers on, advising federal bureaucracies and trying to pitch the system to—well, to anyone who will listen. The dynamic decimal duo, who declined interview requests, did say that they really work only part-time on metric salesmanship. So it would seem: A spokes-man for the program, when queried, didn’t know his own height in meters.
Flatus Odor Judge
Odor judges are common in the research labs of mouthwash companies, where the halitosis-inflicted blow great gusts of breath in their faces to test product efficacy. But Minneapolis gastroenterologist Michael Levitt recently took the job to another level—or, rather, to the other end. Levitt paid two brave souls to indulge repeatedly in the odors of other people’s farts. (Levitt refuses to divulge the remuneration, but it would seem safe to characterize it thusly: Not enough.) Sixteen healthy subjects volunteered to eat pinto beans and insert small plastic collection tubes into their anuses (worst-job runners-up, to be sure). After each “episode of flatulence,” Levitt syringed the gas into a discrete container, rigorously maintaining fart integrity. The odor judges then sat down with at least 100 samples, opened the caps one at a time, and inhaled robustly. As their faces writhed in agony, they rated just how noxious the smell was. The samples were also chemically analyzed, and—eureka!—Levitt determined definitively the most malodorous component of the human flatus: hydrogen sulfide. Levitt defends his work against the reflexively dismissive by noting that doctors have never studied flatulence and that smell is a potentially critical medical symptom: “The odors of feces and intestinal gas and breath could all be important markers of gastrointestinal health,” he says. Hydrogen sulfide, for instance, is an extremely toxic gas to mammals, potentially playing a role in ulcerative colitis, among other diseases. And so Levitt has dedicated his career to the study of the myriad fragrances produced by the human gut and imprudently ignored by the medical establishment.
Dysentery Stool-Sample Analyzer
In the early ’80s, Virginia Tech profs Tracy Wilkins and David Lyerly studied the diarrhea-causing microbe Clostridium difficile in sample after sample after sample of loose stool from the disease’s victims. They became such crack dysentery docs that they launched a company, Techlab, dedicated to making stool-analysis kits. Today, Techlab employs 40 people, 19 of whom spend their working hours opening sloppy stool canisters and analyzing their contents in order to test the effectiveness of the company’s kits. You’d have to have a pretty good sense of humor, right? Well, fortunately, they do. The Techlab Web site sells T-shirts with cartoons on the front (two flies hover over two blobs of dung; one says to the other, “Pardon me, is this stool taken?”) and the company motto on the back: “Techlab: #1 in the #2 Business!”
During Ebola and anthrax outbreaks, the media shine spotlights on the brave scientists who don high-tech space suits and step into a Bio-Safety Level 4 (BSL4) laboratory, the designation given to labs that study lethal airborne pathogens for which there is no known cure. BSL4 scientists themselves generally enter the hot zone only occasionally, when they need to do an experiment; the really dangerous job is that of the BSL4 superintendent, who enters this lethal-bug petri dish far more regularly, to fix equipment, clean up, and ensure that the lab is airtight. He also has to change the pathogen-saturated air filters on the top of the building and bake the deadly sewer effluent underneath. No one in the world comes more constantly in touch with the Earth’s deadliest microbes.
One method used by veterinarians to study how bovine innards work is to install a hole, called a fistula, into a cow’s rumen, the 30-gallon forestomach, where microbes ferment grass. Such rumen fistulae are used for a wide range of bovine digestive research, from testing new feed additives to discovering the roles various enzymes perform in digestion. “There’s a plug on the left side of the cow, about six inches around,” says Dan Sehnert, animal facility manager at UC Davis. “It’s easy. You just take out the plug and reach your hand in.” Holey cow!
“Future generations will need fusion. No other energy source compares with this,” says 85-year-old Lawrence Livermore National Lab physicist Richard Post. Yet fusion is meaningless as a power source until the reaction of combining atomic nuclei produces more energy than scientists put in to get it going. Post has devoted 50 years of his life to achieving this critical point, called breakeven, and it’s still up to 20 years away—”and always will be,” joke many scientists. Post and his colleagues compare themselves wistfully to the stoneworkers of medieval cathedrals: “They had a certain faith that they were making something crucial for future generations,” Post says—a faith that allowed them to grunt and sweat toward a fruition that would come only long after they were gone.
Planetary Protection Officer
Sounds like a job giving away condoms at high school homecomings—but it’s actually much worse. NASA’s John Rummel must save the solar system from interplanetary biological contamination, and whether he succeeds or fails, people will hate him for it. Before missions launch to other planets, Rummel enforces a strict regimen of cleanliness to ensure that we don’t carry Earth microbes to other solar system bodies—lest we then “discover” strangely familiar life-forms out there. Engineers generally resent having to bake their supersensitive instruments at 111°C (230°F), Rummel says, “so I get to be the heavy.” In 10 years, when we return Mars rocks to Earth, he’ll be the guy locking the samples in quarantine until he can guarantee they’re not crawling with dastardly Martian microbes—essentially an impossible task, given that we have no clue what Mars life might look like. Should the life he can’t detect escape and wreak a plague upon humanity, we’ll blame him.
Click . . . click . . . click. Mostly retirees, fish counters sit for 8-hour shifts, April to October, watching our gilled brethren swim up fish ladders built on large dams in the Pacific Northwest. When a counter spies a fish, she pushes a button to record its passage. Click. When she sees two fish, she pushes the button twice. Click. Click. Here’s the racy part: There are different buttons for different species of fish! Fish counts determine fishing limits, and this management system may have contributed to record salmon returns the past couple of years—which, in turn, is good news for the fish counters, who can punch 300 buttons an hour these days. “It_ is_ more exciting on a good day,” allows fish counter Marty Schluterbush.
Endangered Species Ecologist
Tiny Hawaii has 34 bird species on the endangered list. Half a dozen of them haven’t been seen for decades, but scientists don’t have the heart to declare them extinct. Nor do they have the heart to give up on some of the only marginally less hopeless cases, like the po’ouli bird [left], of which there are three left, two females and one male (think of the performance anxiety!). Recent efforts to capture the birds for breeding failed, though Scott Fretz of the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife vows to try, try again. Sure, we all know that it’s not over until the fat dodo sings, but these guys make the list for laboring virtuously in the face of impossible odds.
Sure, some Ph.D.s do enriching work in their postdoc “year” (this limbo between earning the doctorate and getting a real job has in fact grown to a more typical two, three or four years)—but in an obscene number of cases, it’s just drudgery leading to dashed dreams, for the simple reason that we produce many more science and engineering Ph.D.s in this country than we have professorships to fill. The academy line is that, overall, the postdoc is a beneficial “winnowing-out time”: The fittest scientists are selected, while the rest flee to lesser callings (like . . . picking randomly here . . . science journalism). But, to extend the Darwinian metaphor, overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that the postdoc limbo selects not for intellectual fitness to be a scientist but for sheer endurance to put up with 80-hour weeks of, say, sticking electrodes in rat brains and getting bitten. People with interests in family, art or recreation are the most likely to bail. As well-rounded minds, they’re also potentially the best scientists.
Prison Rape Researcher
University of South Dakota psychologist Cindy Struckman-Johnson was one of the first to seek anonymous written narrative testimonies from prisoners about the realities of prison life, and she employed a handful of students to help process the returned surveys. What she got stunned them all: One in ten inmates in the survey had been the victim of a sexual assault, many repeatedly. But it wasn’t the numbers alone that made the impact, it was the vividness of the accounts and the desperation ex-pressed. To read page after first- person page of sexual torture—“This happens every day. Please, please, can you do something about it”—well, says Struckman- Johnson, “some of my students almost couldn’t handle it.”
Natural history museums display clean white skeletons or neatly stuffed animals, but what their field biologists drag in are carcasses flush with rotting flesh. Each museum’s taxidermist has his own favorite technique for tidying things up. University of California, Berkeley, zoologist Robert Jones swears by his strain of flesh-eating buffalo-hide beetles and has no problem reaching his bare hand into a drawer to pull out a rancid shrew skeleton swarming with thousands of these quarter-inch bugs. Jeppe Møhl at the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum deposits sperm whales and dolphins into vast empty tanks and lets nature take its course. And then there’s the boiling method, useful for chemically preserved samples that bugs won’t touch—an approach favored by archaeologist Sandra Olsen, who has done her own skeleton work. She recalls a particularly vivid experience boiling down hyena paws: “It felt like inhaling the gases would literally kill us.” Nah. It merely gave her a lung infection.
Yes, astronaut. By many lights, being an astronaut is the best job in the solar system, though one that carries with it the ultimate risk. But set aside the mortal danger and it’s still a job of great frustration, self-sacrifice, even debasement. Astronauts are subjected to the most arduous of tasks: sitting in high-G centrifuges so that doctors can study motion sickness, deliberately enduring hypothermia for hours on end, wearing rectal probes and central IV lines in all forms of stress training like so many guinea pigs (though—mitigating factor—no shaved bellies). Shuttle and Mir veteran Norm Thagard once objected to a study designed to make him wretchedly sick. NASA’s response? “They said I could be fired for good cause, bad cause or no cause,” says Thagard, “but I was required to participate as a condition of employment.” Thagard also had the distinction of being the first person ever to clean out animal cages in orbit, on the Spacelab 3 in 1985. Engineers promised him that the cages would be at negative pressure, so none of the weightless waste of 24 rats and 2 squirrel monkeys would escape. But when Thagard opened the cages, air rushed outward, leading to a frantic floating-feces chase scene. A day later, at the other end of the craft, commander Bob Overmeyer was accosted by a truant turd.
Disturbing! Disgusting! Discombobulating! It’s . . . The Worst Jobs in Science (2004)
Think your job’s bad? Try dragging a bedspread around tick-ridden thickets, pausing regularly in the 100-degree heat not to squeegee the sweat from your brow but to tweeze dozens of the tiny pests into a collection jar. Reconsidering your career choice? Imagine training for years as a veterinarian, only to find yourself engaged in labwork designed to make the tail-wagging puppies in your charge sick, knowing all the while that when the study is over, the pooches will be euthanized. Having a bad day? Just be glad you’re not spending it in minute examination of unusual growths on a dozen or so people’s posteriors. But don’t feel sorry for the scientists and staffers employed in these travails and the 14 others gathered in this, our second annual countdown of the worst jobs in science—they probably wouldn’t want your job any more than you’d want theirs. Case in point: As we canvassed hundreds of scientists for worst-job nominees, an inexplicable thing happened—the glorious and esteemed calling known as “science journalist” kept garnering votes. Something about missing out on the chance to do real science ourselves, coupled with our need to simplify (or was it “oversimplify”?) the subjects we cover. That, of course, is part of the fascination of an exercise such as this. Job horror is in the eye of the job holder. And to the great benefit of society, most of these job holders simply don’t regard their occupation as being that horrible—or, at any rate, are willing to endure the horrors for the opportunity to do virtuous and important work. We salute them. _ – William Speed Weed
Go to remote, densely overgrown forest. Take out giant white corduroy sheet. Drag it behind you as you sing loudly to ward off bears. After 20 meters, stop. Do not tarry to smack mosquitoes, for you must immediately tweezer several hundred tiny, potentially Lyme disease–carrying ticks that have covered both you and your white cloth, and drop them into a jar. Repeat 50 times a day. No, this is not the instruction set for hell week at Phi Delta Sade. It’s the protocol for a study assessing Lyme-disease risk across the eastern U.S., headed by Yale University epidemiologist Durland Fish. At any given time, Fish has dozens of students out “dragging for ticks”—and, incidentally, exposing themselves to these disease vectors. Although they protect themselves, they inevitably encounter far more of these vermin than the most careless of civilians—up to several thousand a day. “It’s a ridiculous job,” says Kim Powers, who drags her cloth in North Carolina. The pay is marginally better than what she’d get for flipping burgers, but she endures the torment less for the money than as a down payment on a career in epidemiology. “It’s hot as hell, I’m dressed head to toe to keep out the ticks, and I’m walking through the woods dragging a big white cloth, singing.” She’s been bitten by her subjects at least once and has nearly fainted from heat exposure, but so far she’s missed the bull’s-eye: no Lyme disease . . . yet.
“I see about 15 butts a day, and a third of them have warts,” says nurse practitioner Naomi Jay of the University of California at San Francisco. Jay and infectious-disease doc Joel Palefsky were the first to run extensive clinical studies on the sexually transmitted diseases that afflict the anus. “He’s the tushie king, and I’m the tushie queen,” Jay boasts. Each of us has about a 10 percent lifetime risk of contracting anal warts, the worst variety of which—enemy number one storming the battlements of Jay’s royal domain—is human papillomavirus. This same STD that can cause cervical cancer in women also causes anal cancer in both genders. And the only way to detect this rare but deadly disease is to ask a highly trained nurse like Jay to scrutinize your derrière. “A giant anal wart can be a couple inches large and blocking the anal opening,” Jay says with her customary vigor. The bright side? “In 13 years I’ve only been pooped on twice, and that’s not bad.”
“Most people go to veterinary school because they love animals,” says Colorado State University vet David Neil. “But then a very interesting transition takes place if you go into lab work”—which is what most research-minded veterinarians aspire to do rather than spend their professional lives flea-dipping the local Lassies and Garfields. It’s a fundamental but subtle shift, Neil says, one that many vet students make before they realize they’re doing so: “You go from someone who makes sick animals healthy to someone who makes healthy animals sick.” At one point in his career, Neil found himself taking perfectly vital, eager young beagles and surgically giving them arterial blockages to replicate heart disease. Then he implanted pacemakers to study what forms of artificial heartbeats worked best on failing hearts. “They’re so friendly; they love to be studied,” Neil remembers, his voice dripping with melancholy. “As far as they’re concerned, it’s the highlight of their week.” When the study was over, the dogs were euthanized. All across biological science, animals from rats to chimps are made sick, studied, and killed. It is usually done as humanely as possible; such studies save thousands of human lives; as a society, we have decided that the cost is worth the benefit. But it is veterinarians like Neil who must do the dirty work. According to Bernie Rollin, a philosopher at Colorado State University who has studied animal welfare, most vets are tormented by the moral conundrum at the heart of animal testing. Neil agrees: “I am always asking, Is this intrinsically right? Just because it works for the greater good, does that make it right? I don’t know that I’ll ever answer that question.”
If you’re interested in researching vaginal infections, you can do scrapes or urine tests, or you can draw samples with a pipette. Or you can collect your specimens from tampons. As Australian microbiologist Suzanne Garland and her team at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Victoria discovered, tampons are best for epidemiological studies of sexually transmitted diseases in large populations, because women are more likely to cooperate with a test that is familar and self-inserted rather than one that must be administered by a doctor. Normally, researchers would use a centrifuge to extract fluids to be tested. But this is the one way in which the tampon is not an optimal specimen-collecting tool, because its true purpose is to hold liquid in. “Optimal recovery,” Garland says, “requires manual squeezing.” Wearing gloves, of course.
“Asbestos, radiation, plutonium and other bad boys of the chemical realm” are PopSci reader Will Clark’s bread and butter. After reading last year’s inaugural “Worst Jobs” countdown, Clark nominated his own work tearing down the grand 1.4-million-square-foot K-25 building at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The giant U-shaped structure was the place where scientists enriched the uranium for our first atomic bombs—and they kept making the hot stuff here until 1977. The building practically glows with radiation, and it’s jam-packed with asbestos, the cancer-causing fire retardant of choice in the ’40s. Now Clark and his tortured coworkers are, in a meticulous and sweat-drenched fashion, bringing it down. “You start off wearing scrubs and a paper suit,” Clark says, “two pairs of latex gloves, skullcap and rubber boots, a hard hat and a full-face respirator with dual filters. At the end of the day, you scrub and shower so you don’t contaminate your car, your family or anything else.”
Geology major Michael Harkleroad took the bait—hook, line and stinker . . . er, sinker. He’d spend his summer break from college doing geological field tests on water and soil to make sure that hazardous chemicals weren’t escaping from an old landfill. Real-world science research to trumpet on his résumé! What he wasn’t prepared for was just how bad the Bakersfield, California, landfill would smell in the 100°F heat of summer. Thousands of tons of decades-old garbage was breaking down and leaching a liquid condensate. “It had a burnt-ash, sour, metallic smell that often caused terrible nausea. By the end of the day, I smelled like chemical death,” Harkleroad remembers. “And I only later found out that the dump contained dioxin, one of the most carcinogenic substances known to man. The best part is that I was paid an hourly rate half that of the average hazmat tech.” Perhaps chastened by his experience, Harkleroad didn’t follow his original dream into geology. He became a high school science teacher. Out of the frying pan . . .
Ecologist at St. John’s Harbor
One hundred twenty million. As the most telling number about beautiful St. John’s Harbor, Newfoundland, this surely must be the count of resident shorebirds. No? Hmm. Then it’s certainly the number of stars visible on a pristine summer night. Strike two? Oh, got it! The number of species living vibrantly in this aquatic paradise! Wrong again: 120 million is the number of liters of raw sewage pumped into the harbor daily, straight from the city’s sewers. That’s about 50 Olympic-size swimming pools’ worth of potty wash. Historically, St. John’s assumed that it didn’t need a sewage-treatment system because its harbor is flushed out by the great North Atlantic. Let the whole ecosystem be our sewer, the citizenry decided. But even if you buy that logic, it’s not hard to grasp that as the city population approaches 130,000, there’s no way the North Atlantic can keep up. Microbiologist Deborah Squires-Parsons of the Memorial University of Newfoundland supervises a team of technicians who heroically venture out in boats and collect samples of the stew to measure the ecological harm caused by all that sewage. The place is spectacularly beautiful, Squires-Parsons says—“until you see an upwelling where the floatables come to the surface.” Floatables? “Condoms, tampons, bits of poo,” she clarifies. And the breathe-deep salt air is invigorating, until you’re hit by the latrine smell that increasingly permeates the region. Commercial fishing in the harbor was suspended in 2001 after a Memorial University study found Lysteria and E. coli in fish meat at concentrations as high as half a million bacteria per gram (acceptable levels top out at six a gram). St. John’s first-ever sewage-treatment plant is set to open in 2007.
The cradle of civilization and agriculture. The first place humans built cities. The birthplace of writing. And—oh, yeah—currently the best place in the world to get yourself kidnapped or killed. For archaeologists, there’s no plum like Iraq. Saddam actually let them do their job, and he even protected his country’s heritage in museums. But now no archaeologist can work in Iraq until security improves. Meanwhile more than 8,500 treasures have been stolen, and those are just from museums, where artifacts are cataloged. What truly troubles archaeologists is imagining what’s being taken from their dig sites in the field. Archaeologist Francis Deblauwe, who is trying to keep tabs on the looting, knows of more than 30 important digs, including ancient Babylon, that have been despoiled, but he notes that his list is “very preliminary and grossly incomplete.” When the researchers do get to go back in, they’ll be able to determine which sites have been looted. But they’ll never know what’s been taken.
In our Internet-based summons for readers to top (bottom?) last year’s “Worst Jobs” list, nurses nominated themselves in droves: “Still a no-respect profession. Doctors treat you like slaves.” “The pay is substandard for all the training.” “Just look at the current shortage.” Indeed, the government estimates that we’re short 110,000 nurses, and that by 2008 we’ll need half a million more. Numerous studies echo the dissatisfaction of our nurse readers. Nurses are fleeing the profession because of stress, long hours, low pay and lack of advancement opportunities. The cost? A recent University of Pennsylvania study found that surgical patients at hospitals with the worst nurse-staffing levels (ergo the most overworked nurses) have a 31 percent greater chance of dying. If this trend doesn’t improve, we might soon find “patient” topping our list.
Certainly, studying worm parasites isn’t nearly as bad as playing host to them. But here’s an essential distinction: The medicos who go into this line—God bless ’em—do it by choice. Supported by the World Health Organization and various international charities, they travel to the tropics to eradicate diseases that afflict millions of people. Yet although we’re regularly treated to tales of Ebola warriors, we rarely hear about the tribulations of the worm docs. For instance . . . [consider these ellipses a pause to enable the faint of stomach to flee the page] . . . Ascaris lumbricoides eggs hatch in the small intestine, then migrate to the lungs; they’re coughed into the mouth and swallowed back to the gut, where each worm will grow as long as 16 inches and where each female will lay billions of eggs to be defecated forth so that a new cycle of life can begin. (The adults can exit this way too, in a large bolus that resembles a tangle of spaghetti.) The Wuchereria bancrofti worm sometimes settles in the scrotum, where it blocks the flow of lymph. This can result in elephantiasis, a wretched condition that features scrotal swelling to jack-o’-lantern proportions and an infection that reeks of death. Moving right along . . . [see helpful ellipsis-related note, supra] . . . the female Dracunculus medinensis migrates from the gut to a point just under the skin of, say, a leg, where she then commences growth to a length of as great as three feet, and where, ultimately, she lays her eggs. When the thousands of babies make their joyous arrival, they blister the skin and pop through, leaving Mom behind. The traditional way to get rid of her is to wrap her head around a stick and twist very slowly—one turn of the stick per day—for weeks or months, depending on how long she is. (This treatment is so old that it inspired the ancient snake-and-pole aesculapius symbol of medicine.) And so worm parasitologists are unsung heroes—and decorum dictates that unsung they shall remain. “We can’t show pictures or even really talk about these diseases,” says parasitologist Eric Ottesen of Emory University. “Society just isn’t ready for it.”
Computer Help-Desk Tech
Don’t hate them because they’re inscrutable. These are people who love the subtle power and intricacies of computers, yet who must spend their days incarcerated in windowless rooms telephonically holding the hands of 16-bit blockheads. One computer tech in Delaware recently had an urban legend spring to life when a user called to complain, apparently in all sincerity, that his computer’s “coffee cup holder” (actually the CD drive) was broken. “We should all be issued side-arms so we can vent our frustration,” she says. It’s a lot to swallow for $35,000 a year. No matter—these jobs won’t last long in the U.S.; they’re being offshored to India in mega-numbers. RTFM indeed.
Congressional Science Fellow
Selected from among the brightest young scientists in the country, they travel to Washington, like so many Drs. Smith, to serve their country and illuminate Congress with the bright light of scientific truth. And then . . . no one listens to them. Placed as official advisers to our congressional representatives, these fellows’ disillusionment is swift and merciless. “It’s an exercise in futility to get science across in Congress,” says Raphael Sagarin, a marine ecologist who just finished his year in D.C. “The side with more power wins, not the side with the best data or the most cogent argument.” Sagarin saw this happen on issues in his field from endangered species to global warming. Despite the din of scientific consensus on the latter, our government continues to ignore the problem. Sagarin’s boss, Rep. Hilda Solis (D–CA), sought to base legislation on solid science, as did many of her colleagues from across the aisle. But the committees that spawn environmental legislation—Resources, and Energy and Commerce—are chaired by Richard Pombo (R–CA) and Billy Tauzin (R–LA) respectively. Pombo has announced his wish to “update” the Endangered Species Act. Tauzin seems more interested in helping corporate polluters than in looking at greenhouse gas data. “It was so bad on this committee that they would not even pass an amendment that would have stated for the record that Congress has concerns about global warming,” Sagarin recalls. “It’s so highly politicized, the science just doesn’t matter.” Though he is now embarking on his post-doc [see last year’s “Worst Jobs” list], Sagarin feels great relief to be liberated from his government post. “I’m happy,” he says, “to come back to science.”
No, they don’t study noses, though they need skins thick as rhinos’ to endure the proboscis-related one-liners that get slung their way. Their jobs vary somewhat from state to state, but you can generally find them sitting in the lowest-salary cubicles at state health departments, tabulating mortality. Nosologists are the grunts who turn stiffs into stats. Hour after hour, day after day, they sift through death certificates, referring constantly to a 1,243-page manual whose heft and agate type might call to mind the arcana associated with that other inevitability in life. This tome, the_ International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems_, provides the cause-of-death codes nosologists enter in their spreadsheets. It’s an important job, because it helps public health officials keep solid stats on the Grim Reaper’s methods. It is from nosologists (noso is the Greek root for “disease”) that we learn whether, for example, breast cancer or diabetes is on the rise. But the work requires a tolerance for death, not to mention endless patience for forms and numbers and papers. “It’s fascinating,” says one nosologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Sometimes the death certificate lists several problems, and you have to classify the underlying cause.”
Take a 20-pound bag of mulch, dump it on a table, and sort its contents by size, down to the half millimeter. This is the mind-numbing task of the root sorter. “We know lots about the ecosystem above the ground,” says Ruth Yanai, a professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “But we’re just starting to get a sense of the ecosystem underground.” Among other things, Yanai studies how long roots live and what effect acid rain has on root growth. To do her research, she needs roots to be sorted by size—and we’re not talking inch-large tubers, but tiny tendrils. One of her workers does it eight hours a day. With a pile of roots in front of him, he uses tweezers to put them in size-appropriate piles. One batch of roots takes him two hours, for less money than he’d get busing tables at Denny’s.
Alfred Wegener withstood years of derision for his “preposterous” idea that continents drift. Judah Folkman was ridiculed for his theory that cancer tumors create their own blood-vessel networks. And we all remember what happened to Galileo. Today we celebrate these erstwhile crackpots, while their tormentors have faded into egg-faced obscurity. But until such vindication arrives (if it ever does) the torment endured by the crank, the maverick theorist, makes the perch a difficult one to hold. In 2004 the crank du jour is the big-bang denier. Geoffrey Burbidge of the University of California at San Diego is among the most prominent of this breed. He acknowledges that the universe is expanding but contends that this doesn’t mean it must have expanded from some seminal point, as just about every cosmologist now believes. In his view, the universe is a natural oscillator, expanding and contracting alternately—and infinitely—over time. Burbidge’s scientific credentials include the 1959 Warner Prize (awarded annually to a hot young astronomer) and the 1999 Bruce Medal (an astronomical lifetime achievement award), and he has published extensively on quasars and the physics of galaxies. But because he’s not on the big-bang wagon, he is refused funding and the chance to publish on his controversial theory. On the rare occasions he’s asked to speak at a conference, zealots shout him down while the rest of the audience snickers. He endures constant insult from young upstarts such as Sean Carroll of the University of Chicago, whose blog belittles big-bang deniers: “They just aren’t, for the most part, very smart.” Burbidge takes refuge in his native British stoicism. “It’s just the road to conformity,” he says. “They’re all happier thinking alike.”
In March 2001 in the northeastern U.S., the modern prophets of an angry god were in full herald mode. Wrathful Winter would strike again! They prophesied that many dozens of inches of snow would bury the people, and foretold the locations and times. Oh, what great TV it made! The weathercasters were the darlings of their bosses, as their dire warnings kept the populace glued to the tube. Until the storm never materialized. Not all television meteorologists are scientists. Many are journalists making a break for the big seat. And, contends Lee Grenci, a meteorology instructor at Penn State University, they’re not properly trained in the complexities of weather forecasting. Weather is naturally chaotic; forecasting precise snowfall three days out, Grenci says, is “disinformation.” Alas, those meteorologists who actually know better aren’t allowed to exercise scientific caution. “Weather forecasting in this country is dictated by news directors,” Grenci explains. If a competing station is predicting calamity, viewers are going to switch, so it’s time to dire up your own forecast to keep them. A couple of Grenci’s former students who have attempted to be more responsible about their forecasts have been threatened with sacking. “Weather forecasting,” he sighs, “has become a fast-food science.”
Pain, Tedium, Danger, Disgust, Humiliation . . . (2005)
It’s all just part of the average workday for the (often proud, more often smelly) members of our third annual honor roll of the Worst Jobs In Science.
Their work is noninvasive—for the apes, that is . . . “Have I been pissed on? Yes,” says anthropologist Cheryl Knott of Harvard University. Knott is a pioneer of “noninvasive monitoring of steroids through urine sampling.” Translation: Look out below! For the past 11 years, Knott and her colleagues have trekked into Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo, Indonesia, in search of the endangered primates. Once a subject is spotted, they deploy plastic sheets like a firemen’s rescue trampoline and wait for the tree-swinging apes to go see a man about a mule. For more pee-catching precision, they attach bags to poles and follow beneath the animals. “It’s kind of gross when you get hit, but this is the best way to figure out what’s going on in their bodies,” Knott says. Knott analyzes fertility through estrogen and progesterone levels, and weight gain or loss through ketone measurements. DNA is extracted from the orangu-dookie, and stress levels can be measured by cortisol in the urine. The goal is to understand great-ape reproduction, and because of her unique urine-collection method, Knott isn’t limited to visual observations, as previous researchers have been. She has documented, for example, that female orangutans’ reproductive-hormone levels surge during periods when they are eating more. That timing is critical for the apes, which reproduce only around every eight years. It’s also highlighted how vulnerable the animals are to extinction, and that’s why, when she’s not sampling urine, Knott is working to conserve the rain forest. Rampant illegal logging—even in the park—has led to an 80 percent decrease in the orangs’ habitat, making it all the easier for hunters to prey on the animals. By some estimates, 50 percent of orangutans have been wiped out in the past decade.
Give him an “A” for effort. Earlier this year NASA robot scientist Vladimir Lumelsky unveiled a revolutionary “skin” that will allow robots to sense the presence of astronauts and to move out of the way so that nobody gets hurt. Lumelsky’s skin is being developed to assist in NASA’s future space-exploration plans—trips that will rely heavily on robots. The current skin uses 1,000 infrared sensors to detect moving objects and then relays the data to the robot’s “brain,” which instantly signals the robot to skedaddle. Lumelsky envisions future skins with tens of thousands of infrared sensors able to withstand the extreme heat, cold and radiation of space travel. It’s serious science, and Lumelsky, being a serious man, gave nary a thought to the fact that his prototype robot bears a striking resemblance to a giant phallus. For the ‘bot’s public debut he hired a leotard-clad ballerina to dance with it ([see for yourself](http://www.nasa.gov/ centers/goddard/news/topstory/ 2005/vladskin.html)) “It takes two to tango,” Lumelsky e-mailed us, somewhat exasperated. “The astronaut must be able to turn his back to the robot and expect it to act adequately, like a dance partner. Our system does this; no other such systems exist. “We humans are completely unprepared to see a machine behave (literally) like an animal,” he added. “As with everything else in our culture, it wears off quickly, but it takes your breath away when seeing it for the first time.” We’ll say!
Bugs, bears and a melting earth—you call this a vacation? Every year thousands of desk jockeys sign up with the nonprofit Earthwatch Institute and pay as much as $3,000 a week to pitch in on scientific expeditions. While some select romantic projects like studying the giant statues and the ancient inhabitants of Easter Island in the Pacific, others choose to slog through peat bogs near Churchill, Manitoba, ducking polar bears and fending off biblical swarms of blackflies, blood-letting mosquitoes and deerflies known locally as “bulldogs.” “One guy was recently bitten, and it left a golf-ball-size welt on his forehead,” says Peter Kershaw, a biogeographer at the University of Alberta who leads four Earthwatch groups a year in Churchill. “Sometimes people’s eyes get swollen shut. It usually happens to the Brits for some reason, I don’t know why.” The vacationers aid Kershaw in his investigation of melting permafrost in the world’s peatlands. As much as 30 percent of the Earth’s carbon is locked up in these frozen bogs, and if they melt, all that carbon and methane will be released—potentially catastrophically—into an already warming world. Thanks to the volunteers’ hard work, Kershaw has established a network of fixed study plots across a wide range of Arctic terrain. The plot network has given him, and future scientists, a much-needed baseline to see how quickly once-frozen peat decays to carbon. And it will allow them to monitor how the inhabitants of the Arctic’s ecosystem, from polar bears to grasses, are being affected by climate change. Volunteers dig soil pits, analyze dirt, measure the depth of frost melt, and play a game called Page Count: “You close your notebooks as fast as you can and see how many mosquitoes you kill,” Kershaw explains. “I think the record is 56 mosquitoes in one whack. I like to say that our research bites.”
It’s a job that separates the boys from the men. OK, OK, their real job title is usually something like “cryobiologist” or “laboratory technician,” but at sperm banks around the country, they are known as semen washers. “Every time I interview someone I make sure I ask them, ‘Do you know you’ll be working with semen?’ ” says Diana Schillinger, the Los Angeles lab manager at the country’s largest sperm bank, California Cryobank. Let’s start at the beginning. Laboriously prescreened “donors” emerge from a so-called collection room that is stocked with girlie mags and triple-X DVDs. They hand over their deposit, get their $75, and leave. The semen washers take the seminal goo and place a sample under the microscope for a sperm count. Next comes the washing. The techs spin the sample in a centrifuge to separate the “plasma” from the motile cells. Then they add a preservative, and it’s off to the freezer, where it can stay for 20 years. Or not. Thanks to semen washers (and in vitro fertilization), more than 250,000 babies have been delivered in the U.S. since 1995. “The hardest part is explaining it to friends,” Schillinger says. “But we do have stories.” Like what? “Like the donor who was in the room for the longest time. We had a big discussion about who was going to check on him. Turns out he thought he had to fill up the entire specimen cup.”
When the earth heats up, they head in. Here’s how basic fear-psychology saves lives. A volcano rumbles, spews ash, magma and incandescent rock, and the brain’s amygdala says, “Good god! Flee!” Then there are volcanologists, who—loaded down with monitoring gear and charged with the mission of predicting eruptions before they kill thousands—ignore the amygdala and run toward volcanoes. Let us count the ways you can get offed as a volcanologist: There’s the magma, of course. There are also pyroclastic flows—incinerating clouds of gas, rock, ash, trees and other debris—sulfur dioxide gas, and volcano-melted glaciers called lahars that descend down a mountainside like an avalanche of quick-dry cement. And then there are the garden-variety hazards of mountain climbing, and all those hours in helicopters. In the past couple decades, dozens of volcanologists have been killed on the job, and scores more have been wounded in near misses. “It’s dangerous,” says Jeff Wynn, chief scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program, which monitors the country’s active volcanoes. “Just last September, when Mount St. Helens was getting very active, we had a failure of our seismic gear. A scientist flew up in a helicopter to replace the batteries. He was only allowed to stay on the ground for five minutes, and the pilot was told to keep the rotors going. Two days later there was an eruption, and the site was obliterated.”
They’ve mastered fusion. Next up: filing. This job hasn’t been any fun since the disastrous espionage trial against Wen Ho Lee in 1999. Now it’s gotten worse. Lee was a naturalized citizen who had worked for 20 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s highly prestigious and supersecret X Division, where some of the world’s biggest eggheads handle the applied physics of our nuke stockpile. The FBI suspected him of selling secrets to the Chinese. After some seriously abusive jailhouse tactics, for which an appalled federal judge apologized, Lee pled guilty to one, almost trifling, count of mishandling classified data and was immediately released (the judge sentenced him to the 278 days of solitary he had already served). Nevertheless, the X Division’s sterling reputation had been badly tarnished. Not long after, more classified data-storage tapes went missing and then showed up behind a copy machine, and the FBI returned for more interrogations . . . er, interviews. Then, in 2004, came an eye-burning laser accident with an intern, and yet another case of missing data tapes. In a lab-wide lecture, the since-retired director called his scientists “buttheads” and “cowboys” (never good for morale) and ordered a costly months-long lab shutdown so that the scientists could learn to file paper like pro bureaucrats, not absent-minded professors. But wait, those last missing tapes? An FBI investigation concluded that they probably never existed in the first place; it was all a clerical error. But the damage had been done. For the first time since Oppenheimer, the federal government put Los Alamos’s management up for industry bid, offering an annual $79-million contract—nearly 10 times as much as the University of California is now paid to run the lab and fed-up scientists are retiring in droves. As for the younger brain-iacs, surely they can find a job in academia, right? Not exactly, lamented one X Division scientist, who declined to be quoted for fear of retri-bution. Since most of their work is classified, there’s often no record of having ever published anything.
Never has success smelled less sweet. “Take some of the most dramatic shoreline you can imagine: seabirds, gigantic mountains and volcanoes—truly dramatic. Now imagine that you are on this beach tightly surrounded by 100 overweight and_ extremely_ flatulent people,” Ron Oremland says of Mono and Searles lakes in California, where his U.S. Geological Survey team has been working for years. The team recently made scientific history at Searles with the discovery of an “extremophile” microbe thriving in some of the most putrid, nauseating, arsenic-saturated mud on Earth. To harvest that mud, once thought to be sterile, the researchers suffer through 125-degree days, blinding sun reflecting off the salt-caked lake, and so much noxious gas that it makes their eyes water. The air is stewed with copious amounts of hydrogen sulfide (rotten-egg smell), methyl mercaptan (the noisome fumes added to natural gas) and highly volatile methylated amines (think: dead fish). Aside from earning Oremland the honor of documenting the arsenic-eating extremophile in the journal Science, his work is a step toward finding other microbes that could potentially clean arsenic contami-nation from the nation’s freshwater supply. The Searles microbe can survive only in extreme environments, but Oremland suspects that there are other microbes out there that could survive in places that aren’t so disgusting. Happy hunting!
Kansas Biology Teacher
On the front lines of science’s devolution. “The evolution debate is consuming almost everything we do,” says Brad Williamson, a 30-year science veteran at suburban Olathe East High School and a past president of the National Association of Biology Teachers. “It’s politicized the classroom. Parents will say their child can’t be in class during any discussion of evolution, and students will say things like ‘My grandfather wasn’t a monkey!'” First, a history lesson. In 1999 a group of religious fundamentalists won election to the Kansas State Board of Education and tried to introduce creationism into the state’s classrooms. They wanted to delete references to radiocarbon dating, continental drift and the fossil record from the education standards. In 2001 more-temperate forces prevailed in elections, but the anti-evolutionists garnered a 6-4 majority again last November. This year Intelligent Design (ID) theory is their anti-evolution tool of choice. At the heart of ID is the idea that certain elements of the natural world—the human eye, say—are “irreducibly complex” and have not and cannot be explained by evolutionary theory. Therefore, IDers say, they must be the work of an intelligent designer (that is, God). The problem for teachers is that ID can’t be tested using the scientific method, the system of making, testing and retesting hypotheses that is the bedrock of science. That’s because underpinning ID is religious belief. In science class, Williamson says, “students have to trust that I’m just dealing with science.” Alas, for Kansas’s educational reputation, the damage may be done. “We’ve heard anecdotally that our students are getting much more scrutiny at places like medical schools. I get calls from teachers in other states who say things like ‘You rubes!'” Williamson says. “But this is happening across the country. It’s not just Kansas anymore.”
The smell is just the start of the nastiness . Almost 1.5 billion tons of manure are produced annually by animals in this country—90 percent of it from cattle. That’s the same weight as 14,432 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. You get the point: It’s a load of crap. And it’s loaded with nasty contaminants like campylobacter (the number-one cause of acute gastroenteritis in the U.S.), salmonella (the number-two cause) and E.coli 0157:H7, which can cause kidney failure in children and painful, bloody diarrhea in everybody else. Farmers fertilize their fields with manure, but if the excrement is rife with E.coli, then so will be the vegetables. Luckily for us, researchers at the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety are knee-deep in figuring out how to eliminate these bacteria from our animals, their poop and our food. But to develop techniques to neutralize the nasty critters, they must go to the source. “We have to wade through a lot of poop,” concedes Michael Doyle, the center’s director. “If you want to get the manure, you’ve got to grab it. Even when you wear gloves, the fecal smell tends to get embedded in your skin.” Hog poop smells the worst, Doyle says, but it’s chicken poop’s chokingly high ammonia content that brings tears to researchers’ eyes. Doyle’s group is testing everything from campylobacter-destroying bacteria—a kind of germ warfare—to killing salmonella with chemicals. The science isn’t the dirtiest part of his job anymore, though: “Most of the BS I deal with is in making sure there’s money to keep this place running.”
Human Lab Rat
Warning: pesticides are bad for you. Pharmaceutical companies have long relied on hard-up college students to act as guinea pigs. (Dudes, I was in a double-blind Viagra trial! And I got paid!) But did you know that the pesticide biz is hiring too? Last year an industry-funded University of California at San Diego study paid students $15 an hour to have the root killer and World War I nerve agent chloropicrin shot into their eyes and noses. Chloropicrin is also a component of tear gas—that trusty suppressor of Big 10 sports riots—and at high doses can lead to nerve damage and death. Duuude. Because of its irritating qualities, small doses of the chemical are often added to other pesticides to act as a “warning agent,” and it’s the safety of those doses that the study looked at. Coincidentally (or not), within a week of the UCSD study’s completion, its industry funders submitted the results to the EPA to support chloropicrin’s re-registration as an independent pesticide—not as a warning agent. Meanwhile, Congress is debating a moratorium on human testing.
The Worst Jobs in Science (2007)
The men and women on our annual bottom-10 list dive into toxic sludge, sterilize elephants, and pull bugs out of corpses—all in the name of science. _ – Jason Daley_
They scoop up whale dung, then dig through it for clues “Brown stain ahoy!” is not the cry most mariners long to hear, but for Rosalind Rolland, a senior researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston, it´s a siren song. Rolland, along with a few lucky research assistants, combs Nova Scotia´s Bay of Fundy looking for endangered North Atlantic right whales. Actually, she´s not really looking for the whales-just their poo. “It surprised even me how much you can learn about a whale through its feces,” says Rolland, who recently published the most complete study of right whales ever conducted. “You can test for pregnancy, measure hormones and biotoxins, examine its genetics. You can even tell individuals apart.” Rolland pioneered whale-feces research in 1999. By 2003, she was frustrated by the small number of samples her poo patrol was collecting by blindly chasing whales on the open ocean. So she began taking along sniffer dogs that can detect whale droppings from as far as a mile away. When they bark, she points her research vessel in the direction of the brown gold, and as the boat approaches the feces-the excrement usually stays afloat for an hour after the deed is done and can be bright orange and oily depending on the type of plankton the whale feeds on-Rolland and her crew begin scooping up as much matter as they can using custom-designed nets. Samples are then placed in plastic jars and packed in ice (the largest chunks are just over a pound) to be shared with other researchers across North America. “We´ve literally been in fields of right-whale poop,” she marvels. In the past few years, other whale researchers have adopted Rolland´s methods. Nick Gales of the Australia Antarctic Division now plies the Southern Ocean looking for endangered blue-whale dung, a pursuit that in 2003 led him to a scientific first. While tailing a minke whale, Gale´s team photographed what is believed to be the first bout of whale flatulence caught on film-a large, disconcertingly pretty bubble trailing behind the whale like an enormous jellyfish. “We stayed away from the bow after taking the picture,” Gales recalls. “It does stink.”
Solving murders by studying maggots “One day a local detective called me who knew I´d majored in entomology in college and said, “Hey, Neal, we got a body at the morgue with insects on it. You wanna give it a shot?´ The corpse turned out to be a guy I used to have breakfast with, and there were maggots in his teeth. Then I found some in his eyes, and I thought, “This is what I want to do. This is just way too cool.´” Neal Haskell´s eagerness could easily be interpreted as insensitivity. But it takes a unique sensibility to rise to the top of his particular field. Now, 700 maggot-infested corpses later, the former Indiana farmer is one of the nation´s leading forensic entomologists, teaching at St. Joseph´s College, testifying in roughly 100 cases, and co-authoring the first entomology book for law enforcement. His job, like that of the country´s 20 or so other insect investigators, is to estimate the “postmortem interval” (the time between death and the body´s discovery) by charting the life stages of the blowfly, the world´s predominant cadaver connoisseur. Picking through rotting corpses for eggs, maggots, pupa and adult blowflies-as well as the larvae of odd species like cheese skippers, a type of fly fond of cheddar, ham and human fat-FEs can help estimate time of death (essential in a murder case) by determining when decomposed bodies first became critter food. Occasionally forensic entomologists get a case that requires more participatory research. To help solve a crime in Cleveland, for example, Haskell mimicked the case details by wrapping 17 dead pigs (“they approximate human corpses surprisingly well”) in plastic to determine the order in which flies are likely to colonize bagged corpses. “I´ve done an awful lot of neat things in my life,” Haskell says. “But this maggot work and getting the bad guys off the street is the neatest.”
Olympic Drug Tester
When your job is drug testing the world´s top athletes, there´s no way to win Every two years, the athletes of the world light a torch, gather together, and cheat like crazy. To combat the inevitable underhandedness at the 2008 Beijing Games, dozens of officers at doping-control stations will watch jocks urinate into cups about 4,000 times over 21 days. And even then, testers will still find themselves in a lose-lose situation. If they catch a cheat, they anger an entire nation. If they don´t nab a cheat who later tests positive, they´re berated in the media for incompetence. And even their most sophisticated tests are probably missing the big sins. That´s because in the arms race to make performance-enhancing drugs more powerful and less detectable, the dopers are winning. “By the time a drug is known to testers, it´s often passe,” explains University of Western Ontario bioethicist Kenneth Kirkwood. “Coaches and team doctors scour scientific literature to find cutting-edge therapies and experimental drugs,” he says. “The testers don´t even know what to look for.”
Gravity Research Subject
They´re strapped down so astronauts can blast off Spend time in outer space, and the lack of gravity will earn you the bloated look astronauts call puffy face, as well as atrophied muscles and bone degeneration. Researchers hope to combat these symptoms by developing artificial-gravity therapies for long voyages. But the only way to approximate the effects of weightlessness is by having volunteers lie still-for weeks on end. Liz Warren, a researcher at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, managed to convince 15 men to spend 21 straight days in bed. They were tilted head-down at a 6-degree angle, which, along with their inactivity, mimicked the restricted muscle use and increased blood flow to the head experienced in space. The subjects showered using handheld hoses, relieved themselves in bedpans, and were occasionally wheeled out to a common area to socialize with other bedridden guinea pigs. What´s more, every day technicians strapped the subjects to a gravity-simulating centrifuge and slung them around for an hour, creating 1 G near their hearts and 2.5 Gs at their feet. Their vitals were then compared with subjects who had skipped the ride. For actor Tim Judd, it was a life-changing experience; the $6,000 payday gave him enough cash to move to Los Angeles to pursue his film career. It´s a good thing he had such a strong motivation. “Your body cavity is upside down, and after the first day you can feel your internal organs start to shift toward your head,” he says. Although Warren´s study is now complete, NASA is still far from a full understanding of how to mitigate the effects of weightlessness. “We´ve got a whole wing at the University of Texas hospital in Galveston,” Warren says, “and it´s always full of NASA bed-rest subjects.”
Microsoft Security Grunt
Like wearing a big sign that reads “Hack Me” Do you flinch when your inbox dings? The people manning firstname.lastname@example.org receive approximately 100,000 dings a year, each one a message that something in the Microsoft empire may have gone terribly wrong. Teams of Microsoft Security Response Center employees toil 365 days a year to fix the kinks in Windows, Internet Explorer, Office and all the behemoth´s other products. It´s tedious work. Each product can have multiple versions in multiple languages, and each needs its own repairs (by one estimate, Explorer alone has 300 different configurations). Plus, to most hackers, crippling Microsoft is the geek equivalent of taking down the Death Star, so the assault is relentless. According to the SANS Institute, a security research group, Microsoft products are among the top five targets of online attack. Meanwhile, faith in Microsoft security is ever-shakier-according to one estimate, 30 percent of corporate chief information officers have moved away from some Windows platforms in recent years. “Microsoft is between a rock and a hard place,” says Marcus Sachs, the director of the SANS Internet Storm Center. “They have to patch so much software on a case-by-case basis. And all in a world that just doesn´t have time to wait.”
Coursework Carcass Preparer
They kill, pickle, and bottle the critters that schoolkids cut up Remember that first whiff of formaldehyde when the teacher brought out the frogs in ninth-grade biology? Now imagine inhaling those fumes eight hours a day, five days a week. That´s the plight of biological-supply preparers, the folks who poison, preserve, and bag the worms, frogs, cats, pigeons, sharks and even cockroaches that end up in high-school and college biology classrooms. At Ward´s Natural Science in Rochester, New York, one of the nation´s largest suppliers of coursework carcasses, an 18-member crew processes dozens of species every year. Insects like fleas and cockroaches are the easiest, according to Jim Collins, the interim supervisor in the company´s preserved-materials department. They´re simply preserved in jars of alcohol. The pigeons and frogs, though, come live from collectors and breeders and must be euthanized on-site (usually in a CO2 chamber for the pigeons and immersion in benzicane, a chemical used to treat tooth pain, for the frogs). Once the deed is done, workers embalm small corpses and inject colored latex into their arterial and venous systems to make identification easier for the kids. Then the specimens are packed in 55-gallon drums to cure for a few weeks before they´re ready for the dissecting table. Collins and his team aren´t put off by the job, although the lab does have a high dropout rate. “We have people who come in and work for a day or two and then say they can´t do it,” Collins says. “But most of us enjoy the work.”
Think Indiana Jones–in a Dumpster Archaeologists usually pick through ancient garbage. But William Rathje of Stanford University won´t wait. Since 1973 the self-termed “garbologist” has sifted through at least 250,000 pounds of refuse to analyze modern consumption patterns and how quickly waste breaks down. He typically drills 15 to 20 “wells” to the bottom of a landfill, some 90 feet deep, and pulls 20 to 30 tons of material from each well, which he and his students then catalog. What he´s learned: Dirty diapers make up less than 2 percent of landfills, while paper accounts for 45 percent. Hot dogs can last up to 24 years in a dump, and there is a correlation between cat ownership (litter) and National Enquirer readers (discarded copies). Rathje looks at other trash, too. One project involved scouring garbage cans in Tucson, Arizona, cataloging candy wrappers and used dental floss, toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes to compare survey claims about dental health with reality. The conclusion: There´s far more junk out there than ways to get it off your teeth.
When your patient is Earth´s largest land animal, sterilization is a big job What´s one foot across and sits behind two inches of skin, four inches of fat and 10 inches of muscle? That´s right: an elephant´s testicle. Which means veterinarian Mark Stetter´s newest inventionaa four-foot-long fiber-optic laparoscope attached to a video monitorahas to be a heavy-duty piece of equipment to sterilize a randy bull pachyderm. Stetter, the head doc at Disney´s Animal Kingdom in Florida, created the device to help control elephants in African wildlife parks, where the jumbos have been breeding too quickly and eating up more than their share of the surrounding habitat. The snipping began last summer when Stetter and his team field-tested the device on four unsuspecting bulls at the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve in South Africa. After a pachyderm was sedated with a dart from a helicopter, the team used a crane truck to pull the sleeping beast upright. Four-inch incisions were made, and the laparoscope was inserted into the abdomen near the reproductive organs (an elephant´s testicles are on the inside, like ovaries). When he located the centimeter-thick vas deferens-the tube that carries semen from the testicles to the penis-Stetter inserted a long pair of scissors through the scope and cut out a two- or three-inch section. So far, the method seems to be working. The first four test subjects survived the ordeal with no complications (except the possibility of bruised pride). If things go the way Stetter plans, elephants throughout southern Africa will soon be crossing their legs in fear: He has begun training other field vets to perform the procedure, and hopes to have multinational trials up and running soon.
Nothing but bad news, day in and day out Scientists estimate that overfishing will end wild-seafood harvests by 2048 and that Earth´s coral reefs will be rubble within decades. About 200 deoxygenated “dead zones” dot the world´s coasts, up from 149 in 2004. Meanwhile, a vortex of plastic the size of Texas clogs the North Pacific, choking fish and birds; construction is destroying coastal habitats; and countless key marine species are nearly extinct. To top it all off, if global warming goes the way scientists predict, the uptick of carbon dioxide levels in the seas will acidify the water until little more than jellyfish can live there. With so much going on, there´s plenty of work for oceangoing scientists-if they can stomach bad news. Carl Safina, the founder of the nonprofit Blue Ocean Institute, is proud of the work he´s done to battle overfishing in the U.S., where some species are actually on the mend. Nevertheless, he says, humans are “poised to remake the ocean into a new kind of environment”-one that might require a toxic-containment suit. Recently, Ron Johnstone, an Australian marine biologist, broke out in boils while studying sediment. He was poisoned by fireweed, a toxic cyanobacteria exploding across the globe in response to pollution.
They swim in sewage. Enough said. “The worst was at a factory pig farm,” says Steven M. Barsky, the author of Diving in High-Risk Environments, the industry bible for hazardous-materials divers. “A guy had driven his truck into the waste lagoon and drowned. Not only was it full of urine and liquid pig feces, the farmer had dumped all the needles used to inject the pigs with antibiotics and hormones in there.” Someone had to recover the body, and the task fell to commercial hazmat divers. Outfitted with fully encapsulating drysuits, these Jacques Cousteaus of the sewers swim into clouds of waste, inside nuclear reactors and through toxic spills on America´s coasts and inland waterways. When the Environmental Protection Agency identifies pollutants, it contracts with a hazmat team to clean things up. That means using giant vacuums to suck up a polluted lakebed, hoisting leaking barrels to the surface, or diving into the heart of an oil spill or into a sewer to fix a clog. It´s dangerous work-one breach in the drysuit, and a whole stew of bacteria and toxins can fill ´er up. Jesse Hutton, of Ballard Salvage and Diving in Seattle, has seen his share of close calls. “I´ve been on jobs where suits have been breached by rough steel or something sharp,” he says, pointing out that divers must keep their shots up to date. The divers are generally well-paid, but hey, so are accountants. “To be an expert,” Barsky says, “you need to be a chemist, a physician, a biologist and 10 other things. Not many people are.”
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