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It could be worse...

Common job complaints voiced by scientists include the tedium of writing grants and the monotony of pipetting. But those who complain about such tasks may benefit from a little perspective. The worst job in science really stinks, quite literally, according to a recently released survey. And the runners-up aren't much better — they variously involve extreme tedium, the possibility of bodily harm or both.

The magazine Popular Science canvassed 1,000 scientists for nominations. The title of the worst job on the list, published this month, is 'flatus odour judge', a position held in the lab of Michael Levitt, associate chief of staff for research at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Close seconds include collecting mosquitoes — and bites — for malaria research, analysing stool samples of dysentery victims and working in Biosafety Level 4 laboratories that handle Ebola and anthrax samples.

But for historians of science — and people who need to put things into perspective — these positions aren't that bad, and are certainly nothing new, the article notes. Pre-med student Stubbins Ffirth (1784–1820) consumed bodily fluids of yellow-fever victims to pinpoint its cause — and failed, as the samples came from late-stage patients who were no longer contagious. And Marie Curie (1867–1934) exposed herself to radiation, suffering crippling pain, anaemia, cataracts and, eventually, fatal leukaemia. She at least received the Nobel prize in 1911 for discovering polonium and radium, which was some consolation.

The willingness of scientists such as Curie, the workers in Levitt's lab and the other 'winners' to put themselves in discomfort or at risk underscores a truth. They do it because it's worth doing. And as odious and noxious as those tasks can be, we can think of worse — like being unemployed. Or working in a profession that you never intended to and don't enjoy.

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  1. Naturejobs editor

    • Paul Smaglik
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Smaglik, P. It could be worse.... Nature 425, 745 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj6959-745a

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