You may not think of scientists as adventurous risk-takers, but I’m pretty sure this job is going to kill me. Scientists have a reputation for being geeky and just plain awkward people. We’re modest and enjoy outwardly boring tasks like watching mold grow or math, right? As a grad student in biology I can honestly say that some of my most thrilling memories have been spent doing science. Field biologists are sent to those rare places still relatively untouched by industrialization and get to witness some of the most awesome plants, animals, and ecosystems the world has to offer. I have never felt more alive than when I’m doing biology- which is ironic because I can recall over a dozen quasi life or death experiences that science has put me in the middle of.
About 1/3 of the time, being a field biologist is the best job in the world. You’re somewhere beautiful and remote, somewhere the public can’t access. Your job is to watch cool animals do cool things. I once saw a snake jump and catch and eat another snake! Often you are somewhere you can live super cheaply. In Puerto Rico we could get two beers, two empanadas and an arepa for only $5. You spend your days off snorkeling in the protected bay that’s right outside your door, trying to get a sea turtle to sit still long enough for you to touch it. It’s a working vacation. Even when I’m not actively doing science, a lot of my free time is spent trying to learn as much about nature as I can- a never ending adventure that has allowed me to meet and hand feed mangos to hungry and inquisitive wild lemurs like this guy.
A wild male White Fronted Brown Lemur in North Eastern Madagascar
Another 1/3 of the time it’s the worst job in the world. You’re in the tropics so you’re always sweaty and smelly which makes you cranky, and all the people you work with are also smelly and cranky. You’re equipment is heavy and awkward to carry. You don’t speak the language. You’re hungry but you’ve already eaten the sandwich you packed and you’re still several miles away from camp and dinner. Electricity and running water aren’t reliable. Refrigeration is poor so you can’t remember the last time you had something to drink that wasn’t lukewarm. You stub your toe on a sea urchin. You’ve never seen so many mosquitos in your life, and these mosquitos carry malaria and dengue fever.
Bug bites on the back of my legs, acquired at the Virgin Islands Environmental Research Station, St. Johns
Then another 1/3 of the time you’re sure you’re going to die. Forest guards come to your cabin in the middle of the night and tell you to grab your passports and important belongings because there is a flash flood and they’re evacuating your side of the camp. As you’re crossing the footbridge to the safe side of the field station you run into a baby fer-de-lance. (Fun fact: Adult snakes know that venom is costly to produce, and have developed the muscle control needed to inject only as much venom as is necessary. Baby snakes haven’t learned this yet and may just inject all of their venom into the victim.) Your friends don’t realize the low-battery light has gone off on the water purifier and they’ve been drinking Malagasy river water all week. You’ve acquired a gross mystery rash that is spreading dangerously high up your legs. You want to go home, but even if you decided to quit right then and there, you’re possibly days away from an international airport and you’d STILL have to walk past the angry monkeys and the poisonous snakes to get there.
Flooded bridge at La Selva Biological Research Station, Costa Rica.
When you’re in the moment, constantly having to watch your back contributes to the “worst job in the world” feeling, but once you’re home and have been cleared by your doctor it actually contributes to the “best job in the world” feeling because you feel like a badass. A badass that comes home with a seriously painful sunburn to your parent’s basement because you can’t afford the cost of being a full time masters student in New York City. I appreciate all of your help mom and dad! (And please try not to worry).