The worst jobs in science

Just last week, at the conclusion of the column on the dinosaur extinction debate, I wrote this: “Science is anything but a collection of dull facts: it’s a living, breathing, growing and very human enterprise. That’s what makes it fascinating.”

That is, of course, true (would I lie to you?), but the fact is, nothing is fascinating ALL the time, and often to get to the good parts of any activity, you must first go through a lot of unpleasantness. With that in mind, the good folks at Popular Science recently set out to find the worst jobs in science.

To do so, the editors solicited nominations from more than a thousand working scientists, picked out the jobs they thought sounded the worst, and then voted to narrow it down even more. Just for good measure, they threw in some “Hall of Fame” examples from the history of science.

There are too many jobs included in the Popular Science article for me to go through them all, which is just as well, because some of them–those surrounding the study of the reproduction of barnyard animals, for example–I’d just as soon not have to talk about. (Or think about, actually, but it’s too late for that…)

But I thought I’d give you a few…um, highlights. Or lowlights, I guess.

We’ll start with one of the members of the worst-job hall of fame to give you an idea of just how bad a bad job in science can get. Pre-med student Stubbins Ffirth (1784-1820) ate, drank, breathed, dropped into his eyes and rubbed into cuts on his skin the bood, urine and vomit of yellow-fever victims. He didn’t get sick, and thus concluded that the disease was not caused by germs spread by bodily fluids. He was wrong–the victims he was working with happened to be in a late, uncontagious stage of the disease. He thus enters the hall of fame not only for having done something disgusting and dangerous in the name of science, but for having utterly failed to advance the sum of human knowledge in the process.

Some of the modern “winners” may surprise you. For example, astronaut is on the list. Personally, I’d love to go into space–but as Popular Science points out, it’s not all looking out the window and waving at the Earth. Astronauts spend years in rigorous and difficult training for a few days in space, if they make it at all. On the ground, they’re often treated as much like human guinea pigs as anything else, stuck in high-G centrifuges, spun around until they get sick, poked and prodded with everything from IV lines to rectal probes. In orbit, they can be called on to do any number of menial tasks. Norm Thagard, for example, had to clean animal cages in orbit back in 1985. The Engineers said the cages would be at negative pressure so none of the waste produced by 24 rates and two monkeys could escape. But the engineers were wrong, and Thagard had to chase down floating droppings that rushed out into the shuttle when he opened the cage.

Speaking of waste, it figures in several of the worst jobs in science. Dysentery Stool-Sample Analyzer is high on the list. It’s very important to be able to detect dysentery, a disease that leads to deadly dehydrating diarrhea. A company called Techlab makes stool-analysis kits designed to do just that. It employs 40 people, 19 of whom spend their working hours opening containers of (other people’s) diarrhea and analyzing the contents. The company motto: Techlab: #1 in the #2 business.”

Bad smells seem to have been a big selling point in placing some of the jobs on Popular Science’s list. For example, they include Corpse-Flower Grower. This giant flower, taller than a man, blooms infrequently and smells, in the words of University of Washington greenhouse manager Douglas Ewing, “like the worst roadkill you can think of.” Just as lilacs smell beautiful to attract bees, the corpse flower smells awful to attract pollinating insect to itself–in this case, Sumatran carrion beetles. In the wild, the flower has to pump out enough scent to travel for miles in the open air. In the greenhouse, that scent has nowhere to go–except into the nose of Ewing and the other greenhouse managers around the world who grow the flower. (They compete to grow the tallest flower; the record-holder, grown at Bonn University, was almost three metres tall and weighed about 55 kilograms.)

It’s not just plants like the corpse flower that attract insects; we humans can do a pretty good job of it, too, when the insect in question is the mosquito. Normally we prefer not to attract mosquitoes–but not if we’re researching them. Which brings us to another job on the list, Brazil Mosquito Researcher. In order to fight malaria, we have to understand the mosquito that spreads it, which, in Brazil is a species called Anopheles darlingi–a species which can’t be effectively trapped by the same kind of traps used in Africa, which use light to attract the mosquitoes or simply rely on the wind to blow them in. The only way to get Brazilian specimens is to bait a trap, and the only bait the mosquitoes are interested in is nice, fresh researcher, who finds himself a nice buggy area in the early evening and sets himself up bare-legged inside a mosquito-netting tent with a gap at the bottom. The mosquitoes fly in to feast, then can’t find their way out again. To collect them, the researcher waits for a mosquito to land on his legs, then sucks it up with a mouth tube and expels it into a collection jar. A researcher named Helge Zieler who used to do this once caught 500 mosquitoes in three hours, while enduring 3,000 bites–an average of 17 per minute. Zieler took chloroquine as a precaution against malaria, but caught it anyway–it took him two years to shake it.

Anyone saddled with any of the jobs I’ve mentioned so far might enjoy, as a change of pace, being a fish counter. It’s a very quiet job that involves sitting by fish ladders built on large dams in the Pacific Northwest and counting the fish swimming upstream. Every species of fish has its own button. As you see a fish of a particular species, you push the appropriate button. If you see two fish of the same species, you push the button twice. And so on…and on…and on…for an eight-hour shift. Fish counts determine fishing limits, so this data is very important. When the salmon are running hard, a fish counter might push 300 buttons an hour, which, the counters (mostly retirees say) is “more exciting.”

Boring? Sure. But I still say fish counting beats the number-one worst job on the Popular Science list, which is…ahem…Flatus Odor Judge.

Odor judge in general is not a job I would aspire to. Remember that famous National Geographic photo of a few years ago of researchers sniffing armpits? Important research for the antiperspirant industry, to be sure, but still… Mouthwash companies also employ odor judges to sniff bad breath in the hope that their product will lessen its offensiveness. But Flatus Odor Judge has to be the worst. In an effort to discover exactly what it is that makes human gas emissions smell bad, Minneapolis gastroenterologist Michael Levitt hired two volunteers (at least, I hope they were volunteers) to repeatedly smell other people’s…emissions.

He had 16 healthy subjects eat pinto beans, then inserted small plastic collection tubes into their rear ends to collect the resulting flatulence, syringing it into containers. The judges sat down with around 100 samples, and sniffed each one in turn, rating it for noxiousness. By chemically analyzing the samples, Levitt was able to determine that the stinkiness in human flatulence is primarily caused by hydrogen sulfide.

Not surprisingly, Levitt is somewhat defensive about his research. He notes that doctors have never studied flatulence in detail and that smell could be a potentially critical medical symptom, an indicator of gastrointestinal health–hydrogen sulfide, he points out, is a toxic gas to mammals, and could play a role in ulcerative colitis and other diseases.

Ultimately, that’s the redeeming thing about all of the worst jobs in science collected by Popular Science (and you can read the complete list at almost all of them actually make valuable contributions to science.

In other words, it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it…although personally, after this, I’m glad I chose to just write about science, instead of actually doing it!

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Easy AdSense Pro by Unreal