Friday, November 04, 2005

When I grow, I'm going to be a scientist—and get really dirty

I’ve spent 8 years working on this damned Ph.D., and I’m supposed to go into a jungle and collect monkey piss?—Most people have a wonderful idea of what it is like to be a scientist. You get to wear a white lab coat, sit around all day and pour things into test tubes. Or you go off to exotic places and take notes about native mating rituals. Well, some do that. Others have a different life than the one advertized in graduate school recruiting pamphlets. [One of my favorite students quit being a scientist after earning her Ph.D. because she spent most of her time decapitating rats.) Popular Science magaine, a magazine often ignored by serious science writers for no particularly good reason (it’s "popular?”] collected what it calls the 10 worst jobs in science. It’s hard to argue with the choices.

[My wife, a cetacean biologist, had two dolphins in her lab. She regularly had to slice and dice herrings, putting vitamins and medicines in some of them, so the cute darlings could get their meds. She smelled of herring constantly. People would move away from her in supermarket lines. I apparently liked it.]

Drum roll:

10. Orangutan pee collector. Harvard anthropologist Cheryl Knott has been doing that for 11 years in Indonesia so she and her colleagues can measure fertility and hormones in these endangered animals. And yes, she’s been peed on.

9. NASA ballerina. Her name is unknown but she was hired to dance with a robot outfitted with special electronic skin, designed to let robots know when humans touch it so they can move out of the way. See for yourself. It's quite lovely.

8. Measuring permafrost in Manitoba. It doesn’t sound too bad but it means slogging through melting peat bogs, avoiding bears and fighting entire clouds made up of mosquitoes. Most of the work is actually done by Earthwatch volunteers, who volunteered for the duty and as a result, Peter Kershaw of the University of Alberta has measuring stations across considerable Arctic terrain measuring how the permafrost is melting.

7. Semen washer in a fertility lab. You sit in the lab waiting for a guy, surrounded by Playboys and Penthouses and porno films jerk off into a test tube. When he is done, you do a motility count under a microscope and then "wash" or separate out the plasma from the motile cells for storage. I bet they have stories.

6. Volcanologist. No argument. Easily the most dangerous job in science. It makes herpetologists look like pussies.

5. Nuclear weapons scientist. You have to deal with the extraordinary security, which means no one outside the profession knows if you have published anything, you have to cope with Los Alamos and it’s incompetent management, and with FBI agents. Remember Wen Ho Lee? Throw in lab accidents and you are not having a good time.

4. Extremophile excavator. Extremophile means an organism that lives in extreme condition, such as very hot, very smelly, very poisonous conditions. Like in the muck at Mono Lake in California, which one scientist explains this way: "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." We got the picture, dude.

3. Kansas science teacher. No explanation required.

2. Manure inspector. The University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety is knee-deep in poop, which, besides smelling like hell, contains all kinds of bacteria including campylobacter, salmonella and E. Coli. Chicken poop stings the eyes. Pig shit smells the worse. Researcher say they can’t get rid of the smell. Hi honey, I’m home. Honey?

And now, the number 1 worst job in science. Let me guess. President Bush’s science advisor.

Nope. Human lab rat. For $15 an hour the pesticide business will pump vile shit into your eyes to see if they get red and watery or go blind. That includes choloropircin, the basis for tear gas. They did it at UC San Diego in an industry-sponsored experiment.

I still think science advisor still tops them all.

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