Take this research job and shovel it

In response to numerous requests from people wanting to know how I got into doing research on nematode parasites of sheep, I thought I should go ahead and explain.  It doesn’t seem all that interesting to me, but apparently it is intriguing to the public. Of course, if the “public” is very small, each expression of interest does carry an elevated importance. (Okay. One person asked.)

Back then my major professor gave me this article about a new drug used to treat nematode infections in domestic animals. An interesting observation at the end of the article mentioned that at the end of the experiment the sheep quit passing viable eggs. But some of the sheep died later from the infection. 

Now you have to admit, that is fascinating! You don’t? Well, I’m sure you are wondering why, if the sheep still had worms capable of killing them, did the worms quit passing viable eggs. You aren’t? Well, we decided that possibly the drug was killing the nematode eggs. If we could kill the eggs, we could prevent the infection on the pasture by treating the pasture with the drug. Now I was really excited! That says something about me, I suppose. 

Anyway, I ended up with 17 head of sheep. Since I immediately infected them with a disease that was contagious to other grazing animals, they had to be kept in special pens. However, when grazing animals are kept in confinement, it creates certain difficulties in their care. This “difficulty” involved daily shoveling. The pens became somewhat aromatic, and the resultant odoriferous compounds tended to cling to one’s boots and clothing. Luckily I was already married and didn’t have to worry so much about courtship. However, my wife, who was concerned about continued courtship, informed me that the odor was objectionable enough that I had to change boots and clothes in the shed before I could come into the house. 

Then other students in the lab said I had to change clothes before I could work in the lab. Since I continually had to go back and forth between the pens and the lab in order to collect samples (never mind of what) for my experiments, I resorted to carrying “work clothes” in the trunk of my car and changing clothes, sometimes several times a day. I often had to change clothes in the car, which led to curious contortions and continuous anxieties. 

There was a small lab next to the pens. But it was being used by others for some extremely less important research, I might add. Then, inexplicably, one day the lab door was open and the previous research materials had been removed. I was advised that the other researchers, for some reason, had requested another space. No one else seemed to want the now-available space. This expedited my research tremendously by reducing the number of clothes changes each day.

I learned a lot from this experience. For example, I learned that it is cheaper to do research on cockroaches than sheep. Sheep are expensive, and they eat a lot. I also learned that one of the difficulties of doing biological research is knowing what to do with the experimental animals when you are done. If the animals survive, you gain dependents for life. But you can’t take a tax write-off for them! 

It’s almost worse if your experimental animal dies. I mean, if your pet dog or cat passes on, you can always have a funeral and bury them in the backyard. But what do you do with 17 head of sheep: some dead, some alive, all old and sick, and no one wants any of them? Grad students can’t even take it as a business loss. With cockroaches you can just flush them and no one, like a wife, will care. Actually, she might be relieved at not having them in her house anymore.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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