Peeing for astronauts, a DIY breast reconstruction, and other tales from the field

Stories from the coolest day jobs in the world.

A heavy price to pay—literally

stone money
"Giant rocks aren't any stranger than gemstones as currency."Anuj Shrethra

Scott Fitzpatrick, Professor of Archeology at the University of Oregon

I research some of the world’s most intriguing coins. For centuries, the dominant currency on the island of Yap came in the form of large disks of limestone called rai. The Yapese exchanged them for key social transactions, like marriages and ransoms. But while stone money reigned on Yap, it mainly came from quarries on islands five to eight days away by boat in Palau. So that’s where I went to study its origins.

Extracting all that limestone was dangerous, and even going there to study the quarries is pretty tough. Palau's jagged topography will cut you to ribbons if you fall. And there are toxic vines a thousand times worse than poison ivy. One ­summer, there were so many chiggers that we stripped down to our underwear to work—the bugs go for sweaty spots. But that hostile terrain, combined with the arduous boat journey home, is what gave each stone its status. One prized piece is called the "stone without tears" because nobody died carving or transporting it. Giant rocks aren't any stranger than gemstones as currency. If a queen owned a ruby, its value would go up. Rai is similar in that its story adds to its worth. That stone without tears is especially valuable, because its lack of body count makes it such a rarity.

These days the Yapese use U.S. dollars for daily transactions. But they still break out their rai for ­special occasions.

As told to Kendra Pierre-Louis

My powerlifting pulpit

social media powerlifting
"Powerlifting changed my most basic interactions with the world."Anuj Shrethra

Casey Johnston, writer of the hairpin's Ask a Swole Woman column

When I'm telling the story of how I ­became a lifting evangelist, the aesthetic ­changes I had hoped for—and achieved—come up a lot. Lots of women get into lifting just to lose body fat, and others are afraid to try it because they think it will make them look bulky. But the more important narrative isn't how my looks have changed, it's about becoming stronger.

Powerlifting changed my most basic interactions with the world. Picking up groceries, reaching to grab something, or even going up stairs—it's all effortless. You just feel powerful, even as someone who's not that coordinated or athletically skilled. The mechanics of a dead lift or a squat are designed to use your body's strongest ­muscles in the most effective possible motion—the motions you need to navigate everyday life. Your body wants to work like this. You're building and growing in places where it's natural for you to get stronger, and you feel it quickly. That was three and a half years ago. I hate to say I've "fallen in love" with lifting, but it did take the pressure off ­everything I used to worry about concerning my body and food.

That’s why I started my ­column. I built this constructive relationship with my body where I fed it properly and gave it the optimal type of work, and that afforded it an opportunity to get stronger by building muscle. It’s philosophical for me, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. People write to me out of the blue saying: “I found your column, I read it, I took up lifting, and it changed my life. I’m so grateful.”

As told to Sara Chodosh

Building a hyperloop in high school

hyperloop
"When I got to SpaceX, I looked around and saw that there were 25 girls in a room of 400 competitors. It shocked me."Anuj Shrethra

Elizabeth Awad, Senior at St. John's School in Houston, Texas

When my older brother found out about the SpaceX-sponsored hyperloop competition in 2015, he immediately started a team at our high school—and I wanted in. We needed to design a pod that could carry passengers on the kind of high-speed-rail system Elon Musk proposed.

We wound up with the most detailed, intricate blueprint we could think of. It took a year of early mornings and late nights in our workspace at school to figure out how to turn those plans into something six students could actually build. It was always design, redesign, build, rebuild. Persistence was the most important part of the process.

At the big event at SpaceX HQ in California in January 2017, we were the only high school team left in the competition. Then, three days before we had to prove our pod could levitate, the air-compression system blew. Even though it was a contest, everyone was super collaborative; we asked other teams what they thought was wrong, and called air-compressor companies for advice. Having all that input paid off: We rebuilt in time to be the first vessel to levitate in the test vacuum. Seeing our pod finally hover in place was the most amazing feeling.

We came in ninth place overall, and I am ­determined to keep participating. I'd heard that women have a harder time in STEM, but I didn't really get it—my mom is a doctor and my grandma is a chemist. When I got to SpaceX, I looked around and saw that there were 25 girls in a room of 400 competitors. It shocked me. Since then, I've been working with elementary schools to inspire young girls to get into these fields. ­Underrepresentation is unacceptable. I believe this is our future. I'm planning to study engineering when I go to college next year. Wherever that is, I'll be on the hyperloop team. If they don't have one, I'll start it.

As told to Rachel Feltman

Don't fry this at home

Electric eel
"It felt like the shock from an electric fence, but it was worth it to get the data."Anuj Shrethra

Ken Catania, Professor of neurobiology at Vanderbilt University

In 2014, I set out to write a book about predator nervous systems. I got some electric eels to observe and photograph for a chapter about electrogenic fish. I could have just read existing studies on the animals and their behavior, but I wanted to get to know them for myself.

Soon I noticed something ­interesting. A fish would speed by the eel, and 3 milliseconds later, the zippy swimmer would freeze like a statue. It was like a superpower. That’s how I got hooked. Eventually, we found that eels use high-voltage ­pulses to remotely control nerve fibers in nearby animals.

And here’s another twist: Imagine that you duck behind your bed to hide from a monster. Then suddenly you jump up off the ground, and you didn't even try to do it. That movement would give you away. If you’re hiding from an electric eel, all it has to do is fire off a blip of current to make you twitch. That tells it exactly where dinner is hiding.

But defensive moves take a little more muscle. Eels don’t always have enough power to take down predators while they’re swimming underwater. It’s best if they break the ­surface and deliver the shock directly, skin to skin. To see how efficiently an eel passes current in the open air, I actually let a small one jump up and zap my arm. It felt like the shock from an electric fence, but the pain was worth it to get the data.

I never did finish writing that book. These discoveries are a great way to procrastinate.

As told to Ellen Airhart

Wake up, sheeple

sheep
"You're allowing others to think for you."Anuj Shresthra

Uffe Schjødt, Associate Professor at the Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University

I study social psychology, especially the effect that charismatic religious leaders can have on their followers. In one of my group's studies, we brought in Christians who believe in the healing powers of the divinity. Using an fMRI machine, which highlights active areas of the brain, we saw that when they listened to prayers from healers, areas associated with reasoning and skepticism were immediately suppressed. Nonbelievers didn't have the same apparent loss of rational thought.

We all experience versions of that. Many bosses exert this kind of charisma, and it likely causes the same brain behavior.

My colleagues and I think this could be a survival mechanism. Spending all your time on critical thinking keeps you from getting ­everything else done, so you build trust in other people. You’re allowing others to think for you. But the power of charisma doesn’t come from any particular skill in the person influencing you. It’s all about the faith you put in them.

Understanding how this all plays out neurologically has completely changed the way I interact with the world, but that’s not necessarily a positive thing in every scenario. It’s ruined my relationship with doctors. Sometimes I wish I could just blindly trust that my physician is prescribing me the right medication.

But I’ve come to appreciate that trust needs to be earned—whether it’s in a doctor, a news source, or a person of authority.

As told to Claire Maldarelli

Struck down in his prime

king primate
"It was a good reminder of how quickly things can change when you're on top."Anuj Shresthra

Martha Robbins, Research Scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Big fights between gorillas don't happen that often in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, but when they do, it's all about what we call dominance turnovers—changes in power. One of the most memorable involved an ape called Rukina. In 2001, the young male challenged his leader, Zeus, for control. Leaders decide where the group forages and get to mate with the females, so there's a lot of competition.

The struggle between them lasted for three years—­until Rukina grew strong enough to beat Zeus in a fight. Rukina ruled for 11 years, attracting new members, and we all thought he would lead the band for several more. Then one day I got word from my team that Rukina was dead, but not at the hand of another silverback. He was struck by lightning while lying in his nest. To me, accidents like these seem even more ­shocking in the animal world.

It was a good reminder of how quickly things can change when you’re on top—literally in a flash.

As told to Mary Beth Griggs

Total eclipse of the power grid

eclipse glasses
"Who else can say they've had to figure out how an eclipse would affect our electricity?"Anuj Shresthra

Sammy Roberts, Director, System Operations, Duke Energy

On your average August day, about 6 percent of the power generation we oversee in the Carolinas comes from solar. So we knew we'd see some kind of impact as the 2017 total eclipse darkened our sky.

We worried that people flocking in to see it would clog up the roads and keep us from responding to problems, or that all the livestreaming would bog down the cellular channels we use to acquire data from the field.

What we actually saw was a big drop in power usage, probably due to the no-sun decline in temperature—less AC use—and the fact that everyone shut down whatever they were doing to go outside. Gas-fired generators had no problem making up for the missing solar.

So, it all went pretty smoothly. But it’s still a once-in-a-lifetime event. Who else can say they’ve had to figure out how an eclipse would affect our electricity?

As told to Rob Verger

I flew combat drones, but I'm no pilot

combat drones
"It's like playing StarCraft."Illustration by Tobatron

Mike Bailey, Field Engineer at Kratos

Mako combat drones can accompany U.S. Air Force fighter jets on missions, kind of like robotic wingmen. They can fly around 700 mph, almost the speed of sound, and you control them from a special tablet. I was on the Mako design team at Kratos, which is a military UAV-maker. We wanted to build it for use with a simplified interface so any enlisted soldier could fly one without the ­expensive pilot training you need for most unmanned aerial vehicles.

Even though I was on the software team and I’m not a pilot, I was the one who spent hundreds of hours in the simulator. I found every quirk inside and out. When it came time for them to pick an operator, I was kind of the last one standing.

Since my first flight in 2015, we’ve changed the software a lot. I’m a gamer, so I took what I hated about the first interface we built and I made it fun. I wanted it to be like ­playing StarCraft, or one of those strategy games on an iPad.

You have your little character, you click it to go somewhere, and then it automatically navigates to get there. It’s the same idea with the Mako. With our tablet, you have a top-down view of the drone on the map, you click and hold it, and then just drag an arrow icon toward the jet you want to follow. A pop-up window asks how closely you want to tail. I can command a Mako to trail the jet’s wing at whatever distance I want, and it will stay right there. Every turn the jet makes, your drone makes. You can even switch to a first-person view as if you’re sitting right there in the cockpit, even though the Mako doesn’t have one.

It’s so easy to use that I can fly 10 of these at once. Really anyone can. It’s similar to ­controlling a generic, store-bought quadcopter—except you’re ­going close to Mach 1.

As told to Kelsey D. Atherton

Going for Boeing

astronaut pee in space
"I had to pretend to pee in space."Illustration by Tobatron

Kavya Manyapu, Flight Crew Operations and Flight Test Engineer at Boeing

Boeing's Starliner space capsule is supposed to start ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station in 2018. I've worked on the program for a little more than six years. My main job is to make sure the craft and the space suit we're designing work well together. Sometimes that means I get to test it out for myself.

One of the first things I worked on was waste management—specifically, figuring out how astronauts will relieve themselves when they’re stuck in the suit, either on the launchpad or while waiting to reach orbit. Initially we tried out a system, worn like underwear, that can wick waste fluids from the body. We didn’t know if it could pump all the urine it captured into a bag and keep it there so it didn’t spill all over the capsule, or leave astronauts soggy.

My boss invited me to participate in the test. He knew I’d be ­excited, but I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. I had to pretend to pee in space. To do that, I put the underwear with the pump and the bag on underneath my regular clothes. Then I had to recline, as if I were seated in Starliner. So I’m sitting there in my work clothes—along with my boss, who was serving as the male test subject—and the engineer running the show was just like: “Go. Pee.”

I said, “I can’t look at you and just start peeing!”

But I did. I actually had to do it three times—back to back. We had to make sure the system would hold up if astronauts were stuck in the capsule during a launch delay. I drank a lot of water that day. At my job, we all do unusual things in the name of testing. They’re the kinds of things you wouldn’t do at any other job. It’s definitely fun.

Luckily, the pump worked and kept me clean and dry. But I had brought an extra pair of work clothes. Just in case.

As told to Sara Chodosh

Charged up for battery recycling

lead-acid battery
"A funny thing happened."Illustration by Tobatron

Stephen Clarke, CEO of Aqua Metals

Lead-acid batteries start car engines so well that we’ve used them in pretty much the same way for more than a century. Everyone always figured something clean and new would eventually come along to replace them. Instead, the demand for lead-acid just keeps growing.

But recycling all those old batteries requires smelting, where you melt lead to remove impurities. It’s dirty and costs a ton. You have to heat the lead to near its boiling point to get the right chemical reaction, and some of the lead evaporates, releasing pollutants that elude even the finest filters.

In 2013, we finally found a new way: using a chemical bath and electricity to purify the lead at room temperature. The day I presented our prototype to an industry conference, I had to stand at this podium and look out at all these people whose livelihood depended on lead smelting. “I’m here to tell you that what you’re doing is wrong,” I joked. “If I make it off the stage intact, I’ll consider that a win.”

But then a funny thing happened—I was mobbed with interest. To my delight, I realized the smelters aren’t just smelters; they’re battery recyclers. Smelting is the best tool they have. If there’s something better and cheaper, they want it. This cleaner process puts lead-acid front and center for the future.

As told to Mary Beth Griggs

Say "cheese" for border security

Jetblue face recognition
"Of course there are people who make silly faces at the camera."Illustration by Tobatron

Kelly Ford, Airport Operations, Crew Member for JetBlue

Some people might be a little surprised when they walk up to our gate at Boston Logan International Airport and we don’t ask for a boarding pass. JetBlue just rolled out a new facial-recognition device for our Aruba-bound flights there. You just look at the thing, it takes your picture, recognizes you from your passport photo, and you get to walk on board. In my experience, flyers tend to think this process is pretty cool.

A few passengers—mainly the ones who are constantly flying down to their Caribbean timeshares—are already used to it. And it’s not much different than posing for selfies, which we all do all the time anyway. Little kids especially love it—when they can actually use it. The camera is 5 feet off the ground, so they’re not always tall enough. Their parents sometimes hoist them up. When that doesn’t work, the kids are often so ­disappointed that we give them pilot-wing pins as a treat.

What’s kind of funny to me is that plenty of people really care about how they look in this quick little snapshot. They’ll say things like: “That’s a terrible picture of me. Can I take it over?“ or “Oh god, I look like my mother.”

And of course there are people who make silly faces at the camera. They can’t help themselves, especially big groups of vacation-goers. Luckily, the software doesn’t care if you smile or goof off. It actually recognizes features. So it has no problem ID’ing you no matter your expression. But there is at least one thing it struggles with: eyeglasses. Those are trickier for the camera than funny faces, so it’s best to remove them.

As told to Sara Chodosh

Breast reconstruction, on my own time

breast reconstruction pump
"I once did my daily expansions at the office, sitting right at my desk."Illustration by Tobatron

Ana Alvarez, breast cancer survivor

Earlier this year, I had a mastectomy to treat my breast cancer. The reconstruction process involves stretching the skin to accommodate implants. Normally doctors do that by injecting saline into temporary implants over the course of weeks or months. It means lots of trips to the doctor, and lots of needles. But I work in the surgical department of a hospital, so I’d heard about a new device that was supposedly less painful, and something you could do yourself.

The AeroForm System uses silicone implants, but each expander has a CO2 cartridge inside. A few times a day, you use a handheld controller to trigger the release of gas. It inflates gradually instead of with big, doctor-administered doses of saline, so it’s less painful. When my physician first demonstrated it on me, I kept waiting to feel the expansion—until he told me he was already finished.

The freedom it gave me was great.

It takes less than a minute to use, and you can do it without taking off your clothes. I once did my daily expansions at the office, sitting right at my desk.

Cancer is scary, and it can feel like you have so little control. Having a small choice in this part of it made a big difference.

As told to Claire Maldarelli

Is your mouse trapped?

mousetrap
"Almost everything about it is new."Illustration by Tobatron

Fabrice Sauterel, Project Leader for Logitech G PowerPlay

We wanted to create a wirelessly charging mouse back in 2013, but we ran into a lot of roadblocks. One thing was figuring out how to get enough power from a single USB connection to a charging pad, and then getting the mouse to pick up that juice as it moved over the surface.

Another challenge was latency. We had linked several electrical coils under the pad’s surface, but it took up to a second for the mouse to switch among them as you used it. You can’t have that kind of interruption in charging. And then there was the pad’s layered construction, a sort of sandwich of components. That required lamination to hold it all together. In the first prototype, we actually applied the lamination with a baker’s rolling pin. Let’s just say there were lots of bubbles.

In all, we built about 10 different designs over four years before we got to that first one. Almost everything about it is new. We had so many concerns, there were 12 or 13 times we thought about killing it.

As told to Stan Horaczek

Putting an IMAX inside your house

home imax theater
"We recently installed one in Seth McFarlane’s home in Beverly Hills."Illustration by Tobatron

Theo Kalomirakis, Home Theater Designer at Rayva

In the past 30 years, we’ve moved from doing single theaters to entire themed entertainment environments. We had one wealthy client who requested a theater surrounded by a replica Tuscan village with a private restaurant and pizzeria.

Today people want the IMAX treatment. I work with IMAX to create these massive wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling screens just like you'd see in a full-size theater. They require one 4K projector and four surround-sound speakers. These things start at $200,000 just for the AV hardware. Then it's another $120,000 for design, engineering, and installation.

Only the most wealthy people have enough space for the full IMAX experience. That comes with a pair of 4K projectors and a much bigger screen, big enough to replicate the cinema experience. It can cost $2 million. We recently installed one in Seth MacFarlane’s home in Beverly Hills. It was a 36-seat auditorium the size of a real theater. We customized everything from the seats to acoustics. That kind of budget and space gives you room to be really creative.

As told to Stan Horaczek

On a space walk, flying blind

space walk flying blind
"That slide of time is as clear and vital and beautiful and important as any other time in my life."illustration by Jungyeon Roh

Chris Hadfield, Retired Canadian Astronaut

Time is your enemy on a spacewalk. When you’re outside the ship, everything that keeps you alive is on a clock.

Carbon-dioxide-absorbing chemicals work for only a certain number of hours. Your batteries wind down. You carry a fixed amount of oxygen. There’s very little room in the schedule if something breaks or if there’s an emergency.

During my first spacewalk, our mission was to install an ­antenna and a robotic arm on the outside of the International Space Station. About five hours in, I noticed droplets of liquid floating around inside my helmet. Then, my left eye started burning. It slammed shut, and I couldn't see out of it. I couldn't rub my eyes, because of the space suit, and tears don't drain without gravity. I tried to keep working, but the burning spread into my right eye too. I was blind in both eyes, in space. I didn't know what was causing it, or whether my eyes would be permanently damaged. But what bugged me most was the passage of time. I had a lot of stuff to get done, and I could almost hear the clock ticking. Eventually I realized that I could get rid of the irritant (which I later learned was soap and oil from my helmet defogger) by venting oxygen from my space suit to create airflow. After a while, my tears evaporated and I could see again.

We’d lost half an hour and hustled to catch up, but there were still moments when I had to stop and marvel at the beauty ­surrounding me. Like when it was dark just south of Australia—suddenly we go through the aurora, and all the colors of the rainbow are rippling around us like this great curtain. When you’re in one of those moments, everything seems crystal clear, both at the time and afterward. I’ve been alive for 57 years. I’ve been outside in space for only about 15 hours. Yet that slice of time is as clear and vital and beautiful and important as any other time of my life.

As told to Sarah Fecht

A Trip To The Other Side

trip to the other side
"Because the definition of death has changed before, we know it will shift again."illustration by Jungyeon Roh

John Troyer, Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath

I study the intersections between death, dying, and the deceased. What does it mean to be dying, to be dead? The answer has changed a lot throughout history.

It’s not hard to figure out how I got here: My dad was a funeral director. I grew up around death. In the early 2000s, he called and asked if I’d help him exhume a grave that was about 30 years old. Unfortunately, the concrete around the casket had cracked, and the whole thing was full of water. It was a big, brown soupy mess. I got into a haz­-mat suit and climbed down with a bucket and a rope.

I filled up the bucket, scoop by scoop, and my dad hauled it up when it was full. That experience really seared itself into my mind. It made me think about what it means to move a body when time has broken it down and about what it means to be dead in the first place.

Around the time that man passed away in the 1970s, the discourse around our final mo­­ments was shifting. Life-support machines changed our definition of what it means to be alive, raising all these ­questions about when death happened and what it really meant. We moved away from defining dying as when the heart stops and toward an understanding of personhood as being in the mind. That was important in deciding that when a brain is dead, a person is gone.

Because the definition of death has changed before, we know it will shift again. As our DNA comes to identify us, will we say that if it still sends instructions to our cells, we’re still alive? I have no idea what death will mean in the future, but I can tell you that it will change.

As told to Rachel Feltman

Smell ya later

the nose knows
"Corpse smell is easy to get."illustration by Jungyeon Roh

Jorge Otero-Pailos, Director and Professor of Historic Preservations, Columbia University

Scents give you a sense of continuity with the past. That’s why I study how to preserve the odors of historic places.

The molecules floating off pages at the J.P. Morgan Library in New York, for example, reveal how it smelled before the books were all behind glass. We create chemical cocktails of those molecules to bottle up historic perfumes, and we hope to share them with visitors someday.

We can re-create the smell of specific moments too. When Morgan died in 1913, the family laid out his weeks-old corpse in the library for viewing. Corpse smell is easy to get; it's used to train police dogs. Records say 5,000 pungent roses masked the stench, so they're in our mix as well.

It’s all about capturing the essence of a space. Visitors might not care to smell Morgan himself, but these scent snapshots can help preserve the library’s magic forever.

As told to Mary Beth Griggs

Hammer time

Hammer time
"We'd learned our lesson about baby-blue hammers."illustration by Jungyeon Roh

Patricia Ryberg, Assistant Professor of Biology, Park University

In 2010, I was on my first research trip to visit Antarctica’s Skaar Ridge, a 2-mile-long stretch of rock and fossils near the side of a mountain. It can be accessed only via helicopter, so it doesn’t see much foot traffic. The last research team to visit did so back in 1990, and they had left behind one unfortunate casualty: my colleague Professor N. Rubén Cúneo’s hammer.

We joked about rescuing our fellow scientist's old tool, but the odds of finding it were incredibly slim. A hunk of metal and wood could certainly survive a couple of decades in that barren, frozen landscape, but Skaar Ridge is a big place, and wind constantly blows the snow around in Antarctica. There's a reason it got lost in the first place.

You can imagine our surprise when just two days in, we spotted a handle poking out of the snow. How were we certain that it was Cúneo’s, you ask? Its head was painted baby blue. The 2010 expedition carried only hammers painted fluorescent pink, to make them easier to spot if and when we dropped them into the snow. We’d learned our lesson about baby-blue hammers back in 1990.

As told to Jason Lederman

I catch clouds for a living

cloud in jar illustration
"We want to know what makes each seed grow."Laura Breiling

Daniel Cziczo, Associate Prof. at MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

I study clouds because they both trap heat and reflect solar radiation to cool us. So figuring out their net effect helps us create climate models as the planet warms.

The water droplets and ice crystals that form clouds only start gathering together when they cling to tiny ­particles—little cloud seeds made of dust and minerals. We want to know what makes each seed grow.

At Mount Washington Observatory, a system of tubes captures and heats the cloud moisture, evaporating everything but the particles. We put similar seeds in a chamber and tweak humidity and temperature until we have a new cloud. Then we can see how it behaves under various conditions. But first, you have to catch a cloud.

As told to Kelsey Atherton

Departing the waters

helicopter drawing
"All told, I helped rescue 127 people."Laura Breiling

Dylan Hernandez, U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Maintenance Technician

The first two people I ever rescued—during a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, flood in 2016—were a mom and daughter. They had a very high back deck, and the water was right there. We flew past them at first in our chopper, and when I turned to look behind us, I just happened to see a guy waving. So we made a turn and lowered our swimmer. He put them in one at a time, and we picked them up in two separate hoists. The father decided not to leave. A lot of people didn’t want to leave their homes that day. We did two days of nonstop back and forth, refueling, going back, saving people.

We were all nervous, but the conversation that goes on between you, the pilot, and the swimmer, you do it so many times that it becomes natural. You know where to position the helicopter and how many you can fit on board.

All told, I helped rescue 127 people. I’m not sure what happened to that dad. I believe a boat came by later, and he decided it was finally time to go. I hope he got out, because when we went back a few days later, the deck was completely submerged.

As told to Eleanor Cummins

The night we evacuated Oroville

dam drawing
"I had 30 family members and their pets staying with me."Laura Breiling

Matt Murray, civil engineer/liaison officer at Oroville Dam

At 770 feet tall, the Oroville Dam, where I work, is the tallest dam in the United States and holds the second-largest reservoir in California. I’m from Oroville, and I was there this past February, the day the dam threatened to flood thousands of homes.

In just six weeks, storms had delivered six months’ worth of water to the region. The last one hit us much more squarely than we thought it would. The reservoir was rising fast. To drain it, we had to first let it reach the top so it could run into the spillway—the emergency overflow outlet we use only for catastrophes. We sent out about 20 engineers and geologists to monitor potential erosion on the dirt slope.

Then on February 12, one of our monitors radioed that the water was destroying the hillside. He estimated that in an hour, the erosion would reach the barrier holding back the reservoir. If it failed, 30 feet of water would race downhill, flooding several communities.

That’s when the sheriff, who was in a control room with us, took over. He said this emergency wasn’t about moving water anymore; it was now dedicated to saving lives. Then he shouted, “Does everyone support that plan?” The entire room yelled in unison, “Yes!”

We evacuated about 188,000 people downstream. I had 30 family members and their pets staying with me. Luckily, the spillway held. In the end, we corralled one of the largest storms this area had ever seen. Months later, we’re still rebuilding. We’re making half a million cubic yards of concrete on-site rather than trucking it in so we can work faster and repair the damage by the end of the year, when water ­season begins again—there is no other option.

As told to Mary Beth Griggs

Exit, pursued by bear

Polar bear boat drawing
"At first seeing a polar bear up close was exciting."Laura Breiling

Laura Levy, Postdoctoral Researcher in Geoscience, Aarhus University, Denmark

The Greenland ice sheet is shrinking faster than anticipated. But it's not like it's never changed before. I study how the sheet responded to previous climate shifts so I can compare that growth and shrinkage with what we see today. That means giving up my warm Danish springs to travel to Greenland.

When my team travels to the far north to take sediment core samples from lakes, it’s so cold that our instant meals sometimes freeze solid in minutes. Climate change is shortening that cold season, which means less sea ice. Because polar bears use sea ice to hunt prey, warm temperatures leave them hungry—and dangerous.

About three years ago, as we worked from a sailboat in the fjords, one of those hungry bears swam up and swiped a barrel of emergency supplies from a raft tied to our ship. He ate the chocolate bars inside and ­immediately swam back for more.

At first seeing a polar bear up close was exciting. But we realized that if he really wanted to get onboard, he could. That was less exciting. We lit flares and scared him off. But he came back a few hours later—so we lit more flares. The next day he was sitting on shore watching us, like a dog looking for scraps. That’s when we decided to move. You don’t want to be a bear’s favorite lunch spot.

As told to Kendra Pierre-Louis

99 fried weather balloons

ben franklin with a key and a kite
"Some flashes stand out, even to me."Laura Breiling

Don MacGorman, physicist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory

I've studied lightning for more than 40 years. It's beautiful from afar, but my team gets pretty close. During storm season, we hang sensors from weather balloons and launch them up to study the bolts—sometimes from directly beneath a squall.

Lightning forms when ice particles smash into each other. Our imager captures them as small as one-tenth of a millimeter. Another sensor measures the electric field’s direction and magnitude. Understanding how this ­unfolds helps improve forecasts.

Some flashes stand out, even to me. There’s bead lightning, where parts of the strike stay bright longer so it seems to break into a string of gems. Spider lightning stretches along the bottom of a cloud, forming a web from one horizon to another.

Sometimes sensors show a huge electrical buildup—then zilch. That means a balloon’s been struck. But the sacrifice is worth it.

As told to Cici Zhang

A not-so perfect storm

drawing of tornado
"It was exhilarating."Laura Breiling

Jamey Jacob, professor of aerospace engineering at Oklahoma State University

When most storm chasers want to see inside a tornado, they set down sensors in its path. But those just sit in one place while the storm passes over. We build rugged drones that collect temperature, pressure, and humidity data to hopefully improve weather forecasting—while we keep our distance. Sometimes that means flying into extreme weather just to see what happens.

This past year, we were setting up equipment in a field when a tornado suddenly formed about a mile away. In our world, that’s right on top of you. This massive cloud wall dropped down, like a cliff. We could smell it emitting ozone and feel its electricity. It was exhilarating.

Tornadoes typically last less than five minutes once they touch down, so we had to act fast and launch an off-the-shelf quadrocopter with just a few sensors on it. You can’t get much data from one drone, but we did learn the winds weren’t as violent as we thought: about 40 or 50 miles an hour.

Now we have drone swarms that fly in different configurations, giving us multiple data points for each storm. Hopefully we'll be ready next time one forms on top of us. You never know. Forecasting has a long way to go!

As told to Sarah Fecht

On tears and rocket fuel

rocket
"I still choke up over that motor."Peter Oumanski

Victor Singer, former Structural Engineer for Orbital ATK

My first interplanetary rocket motor was a ­solid-fuel ­Star-24. I can still picture it: 24 inches in diameter, almost spherical, with a nozzle sticking out. That nozzle was mine. I designed it. NASA employed the Star-24 on its 1978 Pioneer Venus multiprobe, which studied the planet’s atmosphere. Once the probe reached orbit, the rocket’s job was to slow the Pioneer enough so it would fall toward Venus, gathering data until it burned up. During the week prior to launch, the company left our newly minted design in the final assembly building so we could say goodbye. I remember it was there in the shipping box. I stepped in, put my arms around the motor, and I cried. It’s a privilege to put your hands on a rocket destined for another planet. I still choke up over that motor. It’s a piece of me.

As told to Sara Chodosh

Six Flags is my science lab

six flags ride
"Luckily it took me only 25 runs."Peter Oumanski

Larry Chickola, Chief Corporate Engineer, Six Flags

I’m responsible for all of Six Flags’ amusements, from the kiddie rides to the roller coasters, in all 18 parks in North America. Right now we’re considering making a new roof for Zumanjaro, the world’s tallest drop tower.

The seats have mesh roofs to protect riders as they shoot 415 feet into the air and plunge into free-fall. We want to make the whole roof bigger because that would make certain design changes easier in the future. But we don’t want to increase the air resistance on a ride that relies on speed. That means finding a light mesh that will cut through the air with less resistance.

So I hooked my laptop to sensors that measure air pressure 1,000 times per second, and brought it over to Zumanjaro with some mesh samples. I needed my laptop to stay open while it rode up and down, so I figured I’d just strap in and hold it myself.

We found a material that lowers the roof’s wind resistance by 30 percent, and weighs half of what we use now. Luckily it took me only 25 runs—and I got an amazing view.

As told to Mary Beth Griggs

Shaping the nation's biggest ships

ship
"The biggest challenge is seeing how the millions of pieces fit together—that’s my job."Peter Oumanski

Kari Wilkinson, VP of Program Management at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, MS

This is an 800-acre shipyard. When I first came here after college, I saw the massive equipment and huge ships, and realized how little I actually knew about naval engineering. Ingalls has built nearly 70 percent of the U.S. Navy fleet. We have 11 military vessels under construction, and nearly 12,000 employees. The biggest challenge is seeing how the millions of pieces fit together—that’s my job. To build one of these boats, which can reach more than 800 feet long, we create units. These are the building blocks, like Legos, that we connect and stack together to make bigger sections of the craft. Some units are four decks high, and some are a single level. We lay down the lowest units along the keel in a cradle while we’re putting together sections of piping and electrical components for the water, cooling, and propulsion systems.

Later, we launch the ship but continue to finish it in the water. You start seeing the paint and the deck covering and the furniture. At the very end, we’re testing everything, from the toilets to the water that cools the engines. It takes three to six years to build one of these ships, and by then, it’s almost like it’s part of your family. I've never been on a cruise liner, but I've been on sea trials plenty, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. When you feel the engines start and it takes off under its own power, there is no better place to be.

As told to Sophie Bushwick

I got my hand stuck in a cow—for science

fistulated cow
"The cow isn’t really bothered by this process at all. It’s remarkable. Sometimes the patient keeps eating during the surgery."Peter Oumanski

Matthias Hess, assistant professor at the University of California at Davis

I’m fascinated by cow guts. The microbes in the rumen—the largest of four sections in a cow’s stomach—break down plant materials extremely well. Studying that process can help us design better cow feed, which could minimize the greenhouse gases cattle emit. It could even help us find ways to optimize our own guts.

To study these questions in the lab, I designed an artificial cow-gut system. It looks a lot like a beer fermenter. But for the system to work, I need live rumen samples, and for that I have to literally reach into a cow’s stomach. You do this using a fistulated cow. That’s one where a veterinarian cuts a hole in its side, and inserts a tube between the rumen and the skin that can be sealed with a plastic stopper. The cow isn’t really bothered by this process at all. It’s remarkable. Sometimes the patient keeps eating during the surgery.

Once a cow is fistulated, you can stick your hand in and pull stuff out of the rumen whenever you need to. Liquids are easy to get: You place a tube in the opening and suck it out. Solids can get tricky, though. It starts out simple enough—you just put your hand deep into the opening. But it’s pretty packed in there. And the gut muscles are constantly moving. You can get your arm stuck. That sounds bad, I know. But you just have to stay calm and wait for the muscles to relax. Or you do what I do, and let your students handle the dirty work while you watch them get stuck. Don’t worry, they think it’s pretty funny.

That’s why my favorite cow is the artificial one in my lab. I can switch it on and off, and I can control all the variables, so every result is ­predictable. And your hand doesn’t get stuck in a gut.

As told to Claire Maldarelli

Pushing the limits of a giant plane

plane
"If there’s damage, your boss will want to know what happened."Peter Oumanski

Mark Feuerstein, Boeing test pilot

As a youngster, I liked airplanes, and I knew I wanted to be a test pilot. Today, I fly Boeing’s 747s, including the 747-8, the world’s longest passenger jet. We push planes to their limits, sometimes doing hazardous maneuvers so engineers can enhance the safety of the airliner. For instance, we’ll purposely stall an engine and let the craft pitch nose-down to make sure it behaves well without pilot intervention. Jets today generally recover quickly.

One of the most fun things we’ve done is a million-pound takeoff. One million is a big round number! We were testing how the 747-8 flies at its maximum certified takeoff weight of 990,000 pounds. Normally, as you burn fuel, that weight drops before you can get in the air. The extra 10,000 pounds of gas got us off the ground so we could see how the plane handles airborne at 990,000 pounds. When it’s that heavy, it’s harder for the structure to absorb a firm landing, so you have to be a little careful. If there’s damage, your boss will want to know what happened.

As told to Kelsey Atherton

What it's like to drink you own pee

astronauts drinking
"Youʼre drinking recycled sweat and urine."Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Jeff Williams, NASA astronaut and U.S. record holder for total days spent in space

"On Earth, not all water tastes the same. Some water is delicious, but some can leave a funny taste in your mouth—the result of a particular mineral or metal. This doesn't happen on board the International Space Station, even though you're drinking recycled sweat and urine. You don't sense any unusual flavors. The water—and the beverages we make from it—consistently tastes pretty good.

The process of treating wastewater up there isn't all that different from the natural water cycle on Earth—the runoff, the evaporation, clouds, and rain. The planet's water cycle turns water we might consider nasty into water we consider drinkable; so do the ISS's systems. And we test it almost every single day, so we're confident that our drinking water is clean. NASA has very strict standards for it. We joke about it a lot, but we really don't think much about what our drinking water used to be. I've been on board with 55 or so different people, and I've never seen anyone hesitate to drink it. We drink the Russian water, and they drink ours."

As told to Sarah Fecht

Battling a waterborne plague

giant bacteria
"We had to work quickly to get clean water to small communities fighting against the disease."Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Rick Gelting, U.S. Public Health Service Officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"When you're in a water emergency, it's really not the time to try something new. In 2010, when the cholera outbreak hit Haiti, the local government invited us to help implement a water-cleaning system. We had to work quickly to get clean water to small communities fighting against the waterborne disease. But we also couldn't introduce any new technologies or products that local workers and residents might not be familiar with.

Chlorine was our go-to: It's available, inexpensive, and incredibly effective. Problem is, there are different types of chlorination, so we had to trace where people got every drop of their water—whether they piped it in, hauled it from wells, or got it elsewhere. This is where local knowledge comes in handy.

For large community water systems, we used locally available materials to drip a liquid chlorine solution directly into storage tanks, a method that Haiti’s national water and ­sanitation agency (DINEPA) developed. But some people were bringing in small batches of water from other places. In those cases, special chlorine tablets and solutions let ­individual households treat their own water.

Working with DINEPA was key because they knew the local conditions and communities better than we did. Local knowledge ­ensures that what you build will sustain itself and make a difference in the long term—­because you will eventually leave."

As told to Claire Maldarelli

Flying straight into a tempest

Flying straight into a tempest
"We wound up hitting such a strong updraft, maybe 60 miles per hour, that we hit zero g for a couple of seconds."Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Robert Rogers, meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization

"When we fly Hurricane Hunter aircraft into cyclones, a lot of the data we gather is to monitor for "rapid intensification." That's when a storm increases in strength by 35 miles per hour or more within a 24-hour period, and it's a big concern for the forecast community. The nightmare scenario is for this to happen to a Category 1 hurricane just before landfall on the U.S. coast: It goes from a Category 1 to a catastrophic Category 4, and no one has any warning.

Back in 2007, during Hurricane Felix, we flew into a Category 2. But at 10,000 feet, I saw flashes—at first I thought someone took a photo, but then I realized it was lightning. When you see lightning in the core of a storm, it's a sign that it's really intensifying. We wound up hitting such a strong updraft, maybe 60 miles per hour, that we hit zero g for a couple of seconds. My notebook started to float, and drops of water from the cup next to me were hovering in the air. At that point, the mission switched from collecting data to just getting home safely."

As told to Rachel Feltman

That time I bombed Antarctica

blast in antarctica
"Explosives happen to be a great source of sound."Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Nick Holschuh, Geophysicist at the University of Washington

"If you were to melt Antarctica, the global sea level would go up by around 60 meters, which would obviously be pretty bad. But to understand how and when the ice sheet might melt, we need to measure its physical properties—the material of the rocks beneath, the temperature of the ice, defects gliding through the system. For something one and a half times the size of the United States, that's a crazy-difficult task.

So how do we do that? Well, if you use a thermometer to measure temperature, youʼre actually measuring the behavior of alcohol or metal within the thermometer itself. I used a similar principle to measure temperature through the ice. We sent sound waves down into the subsurface to get information on physical properties—like temperature—that affected them on the way.

Explosives happen to be a great source of sound. First, we bored a 20-meter hole down into the ice with a hot-water drill. Then we stuffed in a pound of Pentex H boosters and packed them in with snow. We covered the surface in an array of microphones. Then—boom!

After the explosion, we listened for echoes. Logistically speaking, itʼs not the simplest method of measuring the properties of ice, but having a variety of data-collection techniques at our disposal helps us understand how human behavior affects this massive system.

On quieter days, I use radio waves to peek through the ice sheets—to look at the configuration of the ice and the properties of the material it's sitting on top of—and I use satellite data to see how the surface is changing over time."

As told to Sophie Bushwick

Slip and slide

female storm chaser
"It’s like driving on black ice in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception."Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Emily Sutton, meteorologist and storm chaser at KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City

"When you're chasing a storm, hydro-planing and hail are usually scarier than the tornado itself. It’s like driving on black ice in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception."

As told to Rachel Feltman

The mysterious case of the cat-scented faucet

The mysterious case of the cat-scented faucet
"We sprayed chlorine dioxide into the air, and sure enough: cat urine."Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Andrea Dietrich, water consultant for utility companies

"About 25 years ago, some people would turn on their ­faucets and smell cat urine. It was one apartment in a building, or one house in a neighborhood. Residents would say, 'We don’t have a cat.' We were stumped for more than a year until a utility employee said, 'It’s not our water; it’s residents’ new carpets.'

He was half right, anyway. At the time, maybe 0.1 percent of utilities in the United States disinfected their water with chlorine dioxide. But chlorine dioxide isn’t water soluble, so when people opened their faucets, it would quickly fill the surrounding air. There, it reacted with chemicals in new carpets to create the signature stench. My colleague and I went to his church, which had a new carpet, to test the theory. We sprayed chlorine dioxide into the air, and sure enough: cat urine."

As told to Sarah Chodosh

These articles were originally published in the March/April 2017, May/June 2017, July/August 2017, and September/October 2017 issues of Popular Science, in the "Tales From The Field" section. Read more of them here.