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Most disgusting professions: semen-washers and manure inspectors

manureEvery year American scientific journal Popular Science publishes ratings of the most popular and unpopular jobs. Today it presents the list of The Worst Jobs in Science

Human Lab Rat is the most unpopular job. 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!) 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.

Manure Inspector takes the second place. Almost 1.5 billion tons of manure are produced annually by animals in this country—90 percent of it from cattle. And it's loaded with nasty contaminants like campylobacter, salmonella and E.coli 0157:H7, which can cause kidney failure in children and painful, bloody diarrhea in everybody else. 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.

Kansas Biology Teacher is third. Actually there is nothing unpleasant about the profession of biology teacher, but not in Kansas where the evolution debate is most fierce. 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. 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."

Extremophile Excavator comes next. "Extremophile" microbe thriving in some of the most putrid, nauseating, arsenic-saturated mud on Earth has a very useful quality: it eats arsenic. 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).

Nuclear-Weapons Scientist is the fifth in the list. This job hasn't been any fun since the disastrous espionage trial against Wen Ho Lee in 1999. Now it's gotten worse. More over dealing with radiation is a very dangerous thing.

Volcanologist takes the sixth place. Almost nobody wants to be buried in lava or under a volcano rumbles, spews ash, magma and incandescent rocks.

Semen Washer takes the next line in the list. 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. Thanks to semen washers (and in vitro fertilization), more than 250,000 babies have been delivered in the U.S. since 1995.

Do-Gooder is another wonderful profession. 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." 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."

NASA Ballerina is the ninth. 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.

Orangutan-Pee Collector "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." 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.


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