The Worst Jobs in Science Popular Science magazine has published its fifth annual compilation of what its writers deem to be the low spots in the science job market. Editor-in-chief Mark Jannot discusses the list, which includes divers who swim in toxic waste and researchers who study garbage.
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The Worst Jobs in Science

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The Worst Jobs in Science

The Worst Jobs in Science

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I'm Ira Flatow, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.


You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Sure, every job has good things and bad things about it, but what could be that great about studying garbage for a living or spending weeks on end strapped to a bed in the name of gravity research.

Well for four years, "Popular Science" magazine has come out with a yearly ranking of what it calls The Worst Jobs in Science. This one is written by Jason Daley with illustrations by Chris Gall. And joining me now to talk about the jobs - and maybe you have a job of your own. I mentioned before the break, if you've got a really terrible job in science, in a laboratory - wherever you work - we want to hear about it. Our number 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

Mark Jannot is editor-in-chief of Popular Science, and he's here to talk with us about this issue. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. MARK JANNOT (Editor-in-Chief, Popular Science): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Whose idea was this idea anyway?

Mr. JANNOT: Well, it was a sort of collective eureka moment, I think. About four or five years ago, we were sitting in a conference room, you know, brainstorming ideas, and someone mentioned the notion of doing, you know, a classic sort of rundown of the best jobs in science.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JANNOT: And I think we all sort of yawned collectively and said, oh, God, the best jobs in science A, people are going to expect that to be, actually, objective in some way, or they're going to - they're going to expect it to be a sort of rigorous selection process there. And B, you know, the best jobs are all going to be kind of good in similar ways, but...


Mr. JANNOT: ...but maybe there's a different way to go at it. Maybe we could do the worst jobs and - oh my God. That's brilliance, you know.

FLATOW: So you hired a blue ribbon panel of experts to come in and judge, right?

Mr. JANNOT: Yes. Well, that first year, we hired a tremendous freelancer named Speed Weed who...

FLATOW: Is that right?

Mr. JANNOT: No kidding. And he contacted a thousand or more scientists and science professionals and researchers and drudges and whatever, and took as many nominations as he could. And then we, we just put it to a vote, basically, of our staff. There was truly nothing scientific about the ranking especially. Well, about any of it, really.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. JANNOT: It's just, you know, come up with some really noxious, horrible jobs...

FLATOW: Well...

Mr. JANNOT: ...that cast some interesting perspective on science and we'll vote as a staff on which ones are really the worst.

FLATOW: Right. Let's go to some of your picture. Top 10. Give me your number 10 pick.

Mr. JANNOT: Number 10. I love the fact that this is number 10, which means there are nine worse jobs than this. This is the whale feces researcher. These are basically scientists who trail along behind right whales out in the ocean, waiting for them to do their jobs, so they can, you know, scoop it up, get their big pooper-scooper out there and then analyze it for - to, you know, to study the whales themselves and in an obviously much, you know, non-invasive way.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JANNOT: It's, you know, it scores high on the smelly noxious ...

FLATOW: Yuck factor.

Mr. JANNOT: ...yuck factor scale, which is almost a guarantee. Every year, there's some very high-scoring yuck factor jobs in our list. So yeah - but, you know, like almost every one of these jobs, there is legitimate and important research going on here. And, you know, as - like most of the rest of the jobs also, the researchers themselves are incredulous when they hear, you know, when they get a call from us actually suggesting that they have one of the worst jobs in science, because think it's...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JANNOT: I guess the smell of the salty sea air is great until they get upon their prey, you know...

FLATOW: I'm sure. But what...

Mr. JANNOT: And they captured it on film recently, the first time they think that they actually got a whale fart on film. It formed a big bubble and then popped, and then you can imagine the smell of that.

FLATOW: It must be number one on YouTube.

Mr. JANNOT: Exactly.

FLATOW: Speaking of one, let's go right to the number one job that you had.

Mr. JANNOT: Number one. Well, you'll see a trend here. Number one this year is the hazmat diver. These are highly trained divers who go into a - basically they swim through sewage. Enough said. They go through sewage. They go through a swim in nuclear reactors and toxic waste spills to clean up those waste spills.

There is - the worst example that we found was a guy, a hazmat diver, who had to dive into a trough of pig excrements that someone had fallen into and died, and to retrieve the body, basically. So you've got, you know, death - rotting corpses and, you know, pig poop he has to deal with all at the same time.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. John(ph)is from Minneapolis. Hi, have you got a job as bad as that?

JOHN (Caller): Actually, my job right now is very good, but I used to have a pretty poor job. Not quite as bad as swimming in poop, but I got to weigh it in little dishes and put it in the oven.

FLATOW: Hmm. And to what end?

JOHN: I was working for the sewage treatment plant in Saint Paul, Minnesota. And it was gravimetric analysis of the sewage at every point to determine the solids that they were taking out of the water.

FLATOW: Right.

JOHN: So you would weigh the sewage and - before and after drying and before and after burning it.

FLATOW: Did you have to have special clothing for this?

JOHN: No (unintelligible).

FLATOW: You weren't going in with your flip-flops on, I don't think.

Mr. JANNOT: Special gas masks, perhaps?

JOHN: No. No funny clothes, really. It was pretty much a lab job, but it stunk pretty bad.

Mr. JANNOT: Nothing to protect you from major (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Well, it's good that you don't have that now, part-time job I was hoping.

JOHN: Yeah, yeah. I like what I'm doing now a lot better.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling.

JOHN: Yup(ph).

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's work our way up down again from nine. Let's see at number nine on your list.

Mr. JANNOT: Number nine this year - forensic entomologist. Of course, this is sort of a sexy job, I suppose, these days with CSI being so popular. But you know, entomology, as you well know Ira, is the study of bugs, and forensic entomology is the study of bugs on corpses - so it's sort of like two great tastes that go great together or something like that - you get to hang around rotting corpses.

And I found in - this year, the guy that we interviewed, that Jason Daley interviewed, really proves to me that it takes an entirely different breed of human to do this. I mean, the first guy that he end up working on, he was - a detective at the local police department called him in because he knew he was an entomologist and studied bugs, and he said, you know, I've got this corpse I really need to figure out when he died or whatever. And the guy, it turned out, was a guy that this guy knew and had breakfast with regularly. And - but he just got so into it, he's like, wow, actually I found some maggots in his eyes. And then I, oh, and in his mouth, and God, was so cool, you know...

FLATOW: Right. Okay, (unintelligible).

Mr. JANNOT: Yes, yes.

FLATOW: I think we've had him on the show. Oh, years ago, yeah. This is a great pick I think. Because I can't think - they have a laboratory where the bodies lie around in the backyard and decay there.

Mr. JANNOT: They let them decay. They use pig, pigs also, I think, to study. So they can compare. I think pigs and human decay are the same...

FLATOW: May not be PC anymore to use real bodies. But they used to use real corpses...

Mr. JANNOT: Yeah.

FLATOW: different positions. So, that's a terrible job. All right, I want you - any of these, as you say, could be number one.

FLATOW: Yes, exactly.

Mr. JANNOT: Exactly. There's - we often get into a, you know, debates and fisticuffs in the office.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JANNOT: Different people have their job that they're advocating for.

FLATOW: Let's speak to somebody on the line. Hi, Eric(ph) in Madison. Hi welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ERIC (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

FLATOW: Hi, go ahead. What is your worst job?

ERIC: Well, I actually - I make penguins puke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ERIC: In Antarctica, I study the diet and foraging behavior of Adelie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula, which entails me making them puke.

FLATOW: Isn't that against the law or the treaty or something?

ERIC: No, no, no. That's all - it's all sanctioned by government agencies and all the appropriate permits, and it's all in the name of science.

FLATOW: Eric, I'm not going to ask - oh, I will ask the obvious question, how do you make a penguin puke?

ERIC: Well, part of it entails me sticking my finger down their throat.

Mr. JANNOT: Awesome.

ERIC: Yeah, it's not that great of a smell when it comes up either.

FLATOW: You must have to hold them pretty tightly to get - are these Emperor penguins?

ERIC: These are Adelie penguins.

FLATOW: Adelie penguin.

ERIC: Yeah, you kind of hold them like a football or like a bagpipe under your arm. And you kind of - when you stick your finger down, you kind of give him a little squeeze with your elbow to help things come up.

Mr. JANNOT: Just to help, yeah.

FLATOW: Right. You got to assist them. And so what do you learn? What their diet is, obviously.

ERIC: Right. And actually what we're doing is we're looking at how their diet has been changing over the last 10-15 years because, well, because of the global warming and the sea ice has been declining down there and their major prey base - these shrimps and these krill - have been moving and have been changing also. And so that's kind of what we're looking at.

FLATOW: How long did you have this job for?

ERIC: Oh, I still have it. I just - I was down there this past January and we'll be going back again this coming January for another couple of months to start all over again.

Mr. JANNOT: You're just refining your technique, I guess.

ERIC: I am. I'm getting it down pat(ph).

FLATOW: So you are a true specialist in what you do there?

ERIC: I think so. I think so.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you and thank you, and have a nice trip down to the ice.

ERIC: All right, thanks a lot.

FLATOW: Bye, bye.

Mr. JANNOT: I'm taking notes on these, you know, we're doing research for next year here on the air.

FLATOW: I don't think you'll ever hear somebody say that they make penguins puke.

Mr. JANNOT: I know. And it's not one we've come up - It's not one we had come upon and then rejected because it wasn't good enough.

FLATOW: You see? You could sit around a table think - you know, brainstorming but there are some things that just...

Mr. JANNOT: Yes. Truth is far stranger than brainstorming.

FLATOW: Let's go to number two on your list.

Mr. JANNOT: Number two, working down from the top - oceanographer. Now this isn't the grand...

FLATOW: You wouldn't think an oceanographer...

Mr. JANNOT: You certainly wouldn't. And every year, there's one or two that kind of fall into this category of jobs that you would expect to be tremendous and that for certain reasons are less tremendous as you would - than you would think.

In the first year, we had astronaut, you know, many people think that's one of the best jobs in the solar system.

FLATOW: Yeah. Sure.

Mr. JANNOT: But because A, many astronauts don't even make it into space, they have to suffer tremendous indignities and centrifuge training and all these stuff.

FLATOW: Right. Right. Right.

Mr. JANNOT: And they have the risk of getting killed and whatever. That made our list. Now, oceanographer, you know, this is in the category of, you know, spirit breaking. You know, you're a passionate scientist who's an oceanographer because he loves the sea. He loves sea animals. And every year, it's just more doom and gloom. And basically, you are the messenger and the discoverer of how bad things are getting.

FLATOW: Another dead coral reef.

Mr. JANNOT: Exactly. The coral reefs are, you know, going to be rubble.

FLATOW: Another empty fishing ground gone.

Mr. JANNOT: Exactly.

FLATOW: Dragnets scraping the bottom.

Mr. JANNOT: Yup. And you feel like - I mean, obviously, you wouldn't do it if you didn't feel like: A, the research was important; B, the research you're doing could have an effect. And obviously, one hopes that it will. But day in and day out, discoveries can be quite soul-zapping.

FLATOW: I wonder what the rate of people going to, you know, into therapy is.

Mr. JANNOT: Right. We had - I think it was our second year...


Mr. JANNOT: of the jobs we had was similar in a way. It was veterinarian.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JANNOT: And it was - the reason for this was that you get in - the veterinarians get into it. It's lab animal veterinarians, Number three in 2004.

FLATOW: A lab animal...

Mr. JANNOT: Lab animal veterinarian. You get into - you know, become a veterinarian because you love animals.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JANNOT: And then - but when you want to get into research, because you're serious about it, you realize that you've gone from making animals - taking sick animals and making them healthy to taking healthy animals and making them sick or killing them.

FLATOW: All those mice you have to deal with.

Mr. JANNOT: Yes, and worse.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JANNOT: So - and we had people caught in there saying that, yes, it does lead to, you know, psychological, you know, therapeutic and intervention necessary. So yeah, it can be spirit-crushing in some ways.

FLATOW: All right. Let's see who else we got on the line. Let's go to Kaleb in Jamesville, Wisconsin. Hi.

KALEB (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi. There.

KALEB: I'm definitely not going to top the guy with the penguin poop. Wow. Or the penguin - making the penguin throw up. I'm sorry. Wow.

When I was a freshman at the University of Arizona, I was in microbiology, you know, going for my Bachelor's in Microbiology. And I got this great job in the laboratory. They were studying nitroform fixation in rats and insects. I thought it was fascinating. When I went in for the first day, they told me that what I'd be doing is cleaning out the containers where they stored the media that they grew E. coli in. But I'd be cleaning out the ones that went bad.

Mr. JANNOT: Oh, nice.

KALEB: Yeah.

FLATOW: Oh, what a discovery on your first day of work.

KALEB: Oh, wow. Everyday, when I got done with the work, my eyes were watering. You know, my throat hurts. I just - I came home, I couldn't do it. I had to quit the program and go off and do something else. It was terrible.

FLATOW: What did that pay - that job?

KALEB: $7.50 an hour.

FLATOW: Minimum wage.

Mr. JANNOT: I thought you were going to tell me it was free.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KALEB: Well, they did invite me to the lab meetings, which would have been great for, you know, the whole learning experience thing, but after about a week I decided it really wasn't for me, you know?

Mr. JANNOT: Wow.

FLATOW: Wow. And you're doing something better now, I hope.

KALEB: Well, I'm in IT. So...

FLATOW: All right, Kaleb. Thanks for calling.

KALEB: All right. Thank you.

FLATOW: Bye, bye. 1-800-898-8255 is our number. We're talking about the worst jobs you can have at science on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News, with Mark Jannot, editor in chief of Popular Science. This month's issue called - well, it's got a picture of a dive from space on the cover but the article is about the worst jobs you can have in science.

And if you've got one we want to know about, our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's - a lot of - oh, some jobs here. Let's go to Todd(ph) in St. Louis. Hi, Todd.

TODD (Caller): Hi. How are you doing today?


TODD: Good. I guess I kind of consider my job a job of science. I operate a company called Traumatic Cleanup and Restoration. I clean up homicides, suicides and natural deaths.

Mr. JANNOT: Hmm. Oh my goodness. That does not sound fun.

FLATOW: How do you steel yourself for this? I mean, do you remember your first day on the job?

TODD: Well, yeah. The first one that I've ever did was a - I think it was a 14-year-old Kid whose girlfriend broke up with him so he shot himself in the chest with like a .357. And he had an arterial bleed so he had an adrenaline rush so jumped up off of the couch, ran throughout the house before, obviously, there was no more blood to pump out.

FLATOW: If you're at California and you're eating lunch now. This is...

TODD: We won't get to the part with the maggots until after lunch.

FLATOW: Okay. And so your job is you go to these crime scenes and you clean them up.

TODD: Right. Right. And I think the worst jobs there are are probably decompositions where someone's gone unfounded for say four to six weeks. And by that time, the flies are probably as big as dragonflies. They've got a pretty good food source. The odor is unbelievable. Many times, we have to tear out dry wall, carpet. If it's a wood floor, we have to completely remove the floor. We have to completely remove the source of the odor, obviously, before we can attempt to get the odor out of everything else, which it permeates anything that's porous.

So anything that's in the house is basically ruined. We do run ozone generators to try to help mitigate the odor. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Just every case is different.

FLATOW: With all these crime-scene shows on television, have you ever seen one that looked realistic enough for what you've seen?

TODD: You know, I tried to watch "CSI" a couple of times and no, it just -going in and seeing it on my level, it's really hard to watch it on TV and say, oh, this is great, this is so real. Because, I mean, they do a good job but for the person that's not used to going in there and seeing all these, I guess that it's great. I mean, the show has great ratings. But for me, no. It doesn't do anything for me.

Mr. JANNOT: How does one get inspired to go into this line of work?

TODD: Well, my trade was a funeral director - mortician. And just going on various calls to remove bodies, people asked me probably 50 times - who can we call? Who can we call to do this? Because a shotgun under the chin is like sticking a stick of dynamite in someone's mouth and just lighting a fuse. It's just an explosion. It's all over the ceiling, walls, floors - you name it. And one day I just said, hey, I can make some money doing this. I've been doing it for 12 years.

FLATOW: Well, Todd, I never thought I'd say this in earnest but it's a terrible job and somebody's got to do it.

TODD: That's right. And every time I do a job, 99 percent of the time, the person always says, oh, we didn't know anyone like this existed. Well, yeah. And you hope that you don't have to use me again. But we have had repeat customers, believe it or not. Only a couple of times, but, unfortunately, some families have had a couple of suicides.

FLATOW: All right, Todd. Thanks for calling.

TODD: Thank you.

FLATOW: If you've got a job that - we're having - can you top this hour at SCIENCE FRIDAY with terrible jobs?

Mr. JANNOT: Bottom. Bottom this.

FLATOW: Button this. They're hard to, really, to bottom them, with Mark Jannot, editor-in-chief of Popular Science magazine. Stay with us. We'll take a short break and come back and see if you can bottom this. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, with a program note on Monday's TALK OF THE NATION. When it comes to food, we're basically foragers. Joining Neal Conan, an author of "Wasteland", on reasons why we grab fruity pebbles instead of fresh fruits and what you can do about it.

We're talking this hour about the worst jobs in science with my guest Mark Jannot, editor-in-chief of Popular Science, with their July issue, which features a rundown on 10 jobs they think are specially bad. And we're topping those today.

Mr. JANNOT: Yeah. Not as bad as the listeners out there.

FLATOW: Go ahead, Mark. Give me your number three.

Mr. JANNOT: Number three, elephant vasectomist. Separating the boys from the pachyderms.


Mr. JANNOT: Yeah. It doesn't pay to make a randy bull pachyderm angry.


Mr. JANNOT: Which is why they use a dart to sedate them before they do this. But down in African wildlife parks, the elephants have been breeding too quickly and eating up more than their fair share of the surrounding habitat. So they've decided that they want to sterilize at least some of them. So they get out these - they sedate them, then they lift them up by a crane, cut open some incisions and the vas deference in the elephant is a centimeter thick. And they - which, you know, so they use big scissors in there to cut a couple inches out of it and then, you know, run as fast you can in the other direction before the guy wakes up.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Heather(ph) in Tucson. Hi, Heather.

HEATHER (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there. You've got a terrible job?

HEATHER: Well, not anymore. But years ago, I used to have a job rendering road kill for an archeological lab. They wanted to get the skeletons for their comparative collections. So we took things out of the freezer that people, like, collected over the last few years and boil them in a pot with detergent and then basically pulled everything apart with our fingers because we do not have much equipment in the lab. We were changing buildings and they've taken all the equipment with them.


Mr. JANNOT: You know, that job was on our list the first year.

HEATHER: Oh, really?

FLATOW: That's right. That was on yours.

Mr. JANNOT: It wasn't road kill, but it was a carcass cleanser for, you know, specimens that would, you know, they wanted to the skeletons for a natural, you know, history museums or whatever. And everyone had their own way of doing it. They had beetles that would eat away at the carcass, and they had, you know...

HEATHER: Oh, we were not that sophisticated.

Mr. JANNOT: Yeah. Well, I like your can-do spirit.

HEATHER: Well, I'm now a forensic anthropologist and I spent a lot of time in mass graves and pretty fresh ones, including one that was under a pile of pig manure. And I can tell you, rendering road kill is worse.

FLATOW: No kidding.

Mr. JANNOT: Wow. All right.

FLATOW: Do you remember there was a book out a few - about 10 years ago how to recognize road kill by it's silhouette? I can't remember the name of it.

HEATHER: I missed that one.

FLATOW: It followed - I think that followed the book how to recognize - how to recognize what bugs were splattered on your windshield. I think it followed -anyhow. So, that was the worst job. Wow. I can't imagine that. Thanks for calling, Heather.


FLATOW: Glad you did it and not me.

1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's move up from number four, from elephant vasectomist to a little better than that one.

Mr. JANNOT: A little better, yes. The margins here are very small in some cases. Garbologist is number four. Now, this is not - we didn't come up with the name garbologist. William Rathje of Stanford University calls himself a garbologist. He is a guy who, with his students, sifts through tons and tons of landfill garbage to, you know, discover things about how we, as consumers, you know...

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Mr. JANNOT: ...consume things. And what, you know, what does or does not, you know, decompose fast or slow. One of - my favorite thing that they discovered was that there is a correlation between cat-ownership, which they decided had to do with litter - you know, they found litter in the garbage - and National Enquirer readers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JANNOT: I mean, I don't know if that actually overturned anyone's expectations.

FLATOW: Well, wow. But the Enquirer was not in the cat litter box, was it?

Mr. JANNOT: No. No. Well, I guess right nearby, you know? This is important research that's going on out there, Ira.

FLATOW: This is important research. 1-800-989-8255. I think we have - boy, there are so many jobs here. Maybe we'll do a blog on this today. We'll get more people who could not submit their jobs. Let's go to - I think the last time we have John(ph) of Fort Wayne. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Howdy. When I was in college we had a local meatpacker and you had to transport the blood from the meatpacker to the people who rendered the meat or the waste and made blood meal. And you'd have to fill 50 gallon drums, half full, of blood so they could put them on these trucks. And it all got collected in this tank and you had to actually scoop this out and then it had to be inspected by the inspectors to make sure it was clean because it was a food-processing plant.

Mr. JANNOT: Wow.

JOHN: But you had to scoop blood, put it in these tanks and you also had to take the guts that didn't fall down the shoots and go into the tank or into the tank or into the fit the gallon drums properly. You had to shovel those with pitchforks.


JOHN: And it was not an exciting job.

FLATOW: All right, John, thanks for sharing that with us.

JOHN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Take care. I want to thank also Mark Jannot - thank you for coming by...

Mr. JANNOT: Thank you.

FLATOW: ...who is the editor-in-chief of Popular Science. And their July issue features a rundown of 10 jobs that they think are especially bad, and they're as bad as the ones we've gotten here today. Thanks for joining us today.

Mr. JANNOT: Sure.

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