Dangerous Jobs in Science

You’re about to leave the house for work. Don’t forget your lunch, your brolly and your silver fireproof suit. JV Chamary meets the researchers who risk their lives daily to carry out their work
1st July 2008
Dangerous Jobs in Science

Volcanologist

Stanley Williams, Professor of Volcanology, Arizona State University, US

“My friends in the crater were vaporised, shredded into tiny particles at a thousand degrees centigrade”

On 14 January 1993, Stanley Williams was collecting samples on Galeras, a Colombian volcano that he believed was stable. He was wrong. The volcano exploded suddenly and violently, killing six scientists and three tourists.

“My friends in the crater were vaporised, shredded into tiny particles at a thousand degrees centigrade,” Williams recalls. “In an instant, Galeras went from doing nothing to screaming, roaring, shaking the ground, and throwing rocks in all directions.”

Williams ran from the crater rim, away from white-hot missiles the size of cars that were travelling faster than bullets. He didn’t get very far. “Rocks broke my legs – my right leg was essentially severed from my body,” Williams recalls. “I was also on fire.”

Most worryingly, his skull had been cracked open and rock fragments were lodged in his brain. Despite years of rehabilitation, the traumatic injury still makes it difficult for Williams to control emotions, and he warns students that his lectures can be confusing.

His story doesn’t put everyone off volcanology, however. “Some people are ‘volcano groupies’ who want to go because it’s exciting and sexy,” Williams says. But the job is unforgiving and predicting eruptions is not like forecasting the weather. At Galeras, the geologists had been measuring sulphur dioxide – little gas was being released, suggesting it was stable. Only in retrospect was it clear that the volcano had become clogged and was acting like a pressure cooker. The eruption was inevitable. That event helped scientists to better understand volcanos, but Williams says that to accurately predict eruptions, volcanologists will have to put themselves in further danger. “What we need are more eruptions.”

Williams is leading the way. Once he could walk again he returned to Galeras, and the 400,000 people who live at its base. “Half a billion people live too close to volcanoes,” he says. “An eruption killing a million people isn’t a crazy idea.”

Snake Milker

Dr Bryan Grieg Fry, Head of the Venomics Research Laboratory, University of Melbourne, Australia

“He came out with a highly venomous krait hanging off his finger. He was dead right then and there”

Bryan Fry hit the ground ten minutes after his first snake bite. There was no pain, but before he blacked out the effect was something like a hallucenogenic drug. “All I could taste was metal,” he remembers. “I could only see shades of yellow – I lost my ability to see reds, blues and greens.”

Untreated, the bite would have been lethal. But Fry has been bitten 24 times by venomous snakes and has never been discouraged from milking them. He knows that toxins in their venom help to produce anti-venoms and can even help prevent blood clots.

Fry prevents mishaps by understanding how the animals behave – and he never makes assumptions. “Don’t trust what someone tells you is in a bag,” he says. “A friend of mine died that way. A local told him that it contained a harmless wolf snake, but he came out with a highly venomous krait hanging off his finger. He was dead right then and there, it just took his body 24 hours to realise it.”

Toxins can sometimes work incredibly quickly. Fry’s most terrifying encounter was with a Stephens’ banded snake, whose venom stopped his blood clotting. Lying on the hospital bed, bleeding out of every needle hole, Fry worried that even if he survived, a brain haemorrhage would turn him into a vegetable. “I came close to giving up snakes,” he admits. But instead of quitting, Fry did his PhD research on the species that nearly killed him. He’s since patented its toxin as a treatment for congestive heart failure.

Hurricane hunter

Dr Jim McFadden , Chief of Programs, Aircraft Operations Center, US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

“There are four engines on this airplane and in less than three minutes, three of them stalled”

The crew of a Hurricane Hunter aircraft experience more than a little turbulence. Strapped into their seats, they concentrate on their monitors as winds of up 350km/h buffet the plane. Sounds are drowned out by the roar of the engines but, as the aircraft passes through the storm’s rain bands, water and ice pelt the fuselage. “You’re concerned about safety,” admits Jim McFadden, “but as a scientist, you’re there to do a job.”

The aircraft’s probes measure everything from humidity to wind speeds. Some of this data is used to research long-term trends in weather, but most is transmitted via satellite back to the National Hurricane Center on the ground, where staff immediately use it for forecasts. The data also vital for getting out alive. “The onboard meteorologist provides constant updates of the conditions,” explains McFadden, who has done the job on 350 flights. Working with the pilots, the meteorologist guides the plane through the storm, avoiding the most severe turbulence.

After 535 hurricane penetrations, McFadden now spends more time on the ground, but the scariest moment of his career happened just last year. “We were flying over the North Atlantic at night, 3000 feet up, in hurricane-force winds. There are four engines on this airplane and in less than three minutes, three of them stalled.” Orion P-3 aircraft are sturdy and reliable, but on this occasion salt had risen high into the atmosphere, coating the plane and entering the engines. “We were headed for 50-foot seas,” says McFadden. “Parachutes wouldn’t have done much good – there isn’t enough time to get out. If you’re in a hurricane, it’s all over. I thought we were all going to die.”

Just 800 feet above the water, the pilots restarted the engines. For some it was such a traumatic experience that they now refuse to fly – but not McFadden. Although mainly providing technical expertise these days, he still regularly flies. “Mother Nature can throw a real curve ball at you sometimes.”

HazMat diver

Alan Humphrey, Director of Special Operations, Dive Program, US Environmental Protection Agency

“Our targets may be contaminated sediments or
containers such as chemical drums that were dumped”

A thin layer of vulcanised rubber is all that isolates HazMat (hazardous material) divers from the toxic pollutants in the water around them. The drysuit is completely sealed to prevent contamination, but that isn’t always enough. According to Alan Humphrey, “We all have a suit leak at one time or another.”

Commercial HazMat divers get the dirty jobs – swimming through sewage, recovering dead bodies from lakes and diving into nuclear reactors. But when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needs scientific analysis, like underwater sampling of mystery contaminants, it sends specially trained in-house divers. HazMat assessors like Humphrey work to protect aquatic ecology and public health. “Our targets may be contaminated sediments or containers such as chemical drums that were dumped,” he says.

The biggest hazards, however, are not contaminants, but the dive itself. A few years ago Humphrey’s team members were sampling asbestos and chemicals lingering around a sunken submarine. Ninety feet below the surface, his two co-divers entered an engine room deep inside the sub, and disturbed some silt. “Visibility went to zero – they couldn’t find their way out,” Humphrey recalls. The divers rapidly removed their breathing apparatus and scuba tanks, passing them to Humphrey through a portal in the bulkhead. Unburdened, they were able to exit the tight space. “That was a wake up call to review our procedures for entries and exits from confined spaces.”

Humphrey is proud of the EPA’s safety record – they haven’t had a serious accident in over 30,000 dives. “But things do happen, especially in contaminated water,” he says. Divers are wary of things that may snag, like sharp surfaces on wrecks. Skin and ear infections are the most common consequences of suit breaches, and can be serious. “One of my divers sustained enough damage to the eardrum that he no longer dives.”

Humphrey loves the unconventional aspect of his job. “My wife accuses me of downplaying the hazards,” he says. “But I wouldn’t be sane if I spent all my time in an office.”

Animal researcher

Professor P Michael Conn, Associate Director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, Oregon Health and Science University

“He received a letter ‘dirty bomb’ containing needles infected with HIV – addressed to his children”

While most animal rights activists campaign against testing peacefully, extremist factions use intimidation tactics to scare scientists into stopping their research. Michael Conn, whose work includes research on primates, got first-hand experience when he attended a job interview at the University of South Florida (USF). After an online posting stated that ‘killing a vivisectionist is justifiable’, he was met at the airport by extremists wearing t-shirts which read, “KEEP PRIMATE TESTER DR PM CONN OUT OF USF”. Conn’s interview was constantly disrupted, prompting the institution to assign an armed police officer for his protection. “Even once it was over, they surrounded me on an airport escalator, telling me ‘We came to say goodbye’.”

Such incidents are far from isolated. In the late 1990s, at the height of UK extremism, the highest profile victim was Prof Colin Blakemore, then head of the Medical Research Council. On one occasion he received a letter ‘dirty bomb’ containing needles infected with HIV – addressed to his children. Such actions contributed to the University of Cambridge abandoning its plans for a neuroscience centre and delayed construction of animal facilities at Oxford. There has since been massive downturn in activity – most of the UK-based extremists are in jail. But danger lingers in the US, where extremists are known to target researchers indiscriminately, without advance warning.

In 2007, extremists flooded the basement of primate researcher Prof Edythe London. In 2008, her house was firebombed. Others have had their families trailed, their home addresses published on the internet and ther children’s schools identified. “A lot of it is psychological,” says Michael Conn, whose experiences led him to co-author The Animal Research War. “People go to my colleagues’ homes and chant ‘We know where you sleep at night.’”

Tracking down the people who do this can also be difficult. Conn reveals that, in the US, organisations like the Animal Liberation Front act as cells. “There’s no structured leadership,” he says. “They report attacks anonymously to the Animal Liberation press office, which then publicises and takes credit, preventing the police from tracing the actual perpetrators.”