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Off topic: The Worst Jobs in Science
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Nov 11, 2003

According to "Popular Science",12543,484153,00.html

Written by William Speed Weed

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.


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.


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!"


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.


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."


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.


"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 re-cycled 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.


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!


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 expressed. 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.


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.


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 spokesman for the program, when queried, didn't know his own height in meters.


"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.


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, 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.


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.


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.


Every year, in Europe and America, hundreds of thousands of embryos created for couples by in vitro fertilization (IVF) are thrown away. Every one contains embryonic stem cells, the amazingly potent cells that can grow up to be anything—from liver to blood to bone to skin. "From a pure-science point of view, embryonic stem cells are more powerful than the genome project," says Johns Hopkins pediatric oncologist Curt Civin. "They could tell us what each and every gene actually does. And they could be used to cure cancers, Parkinson's disease, diabetes." You name it. But by and large, American researchers must stop there—at the hopeful act of recognizing the potential. Their ability to study actual stem cells is hobbled by the federal regulation triggered in 2001 by President Bush's famously faux-Solomonic—tear the baby in half!—decision to limit the cells a federally funded researcher can study to those coming from the 78 cell lines cultured prior to the date of the regulation. In practice, though, only 11 approved lines have been made available to researchers. It's like handing an oceanographer a cup of salt water and saying, "Study only this."

In contrast, the sensible British have got it right, says Civin. Under strict regulation, and culling from IVF throwaways, doctors are allowed to create their own embryonic stem cell lines. "We're going to be trumped," says Civin. "I'd like to figure out everything there is about blood stem cells, but in all, the discovery is going to be slower, and as an American, I'm not going to be a part of it."


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.


"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.

[Edited at 2003-11-11 16:48]

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