10 bloopers of environmental research – EHN
As scientists and academics, our work is often careful and thoughtful. Our professional portraits depict a moment in time when we wore our Sunday best (and maybe applied a filter or two).
The truth is, looking isn’t always glamorous. Sometimes it’s hilarious.
Bed bugs are on the increase in motels; the smell of feces when taking water samples; or lock your car keys in the trunk and wait for the locksmith to come and rescue you.
In my university research lab, we used to call these times wildcards, because who can really foresee having to call their supervisor and explain that a storm blew away the field supplies from the van?
I’ve told scientists about their favorite research nonsense.
1: Lost in the transcription
Working with our collaborators in Mexico to study the impacts of exposure to heat and pesticides, we agreed to meet on 2/3/20. My criminal partner and I made the trip to Sonora, Mexico on February 3, 2020. We spend the next few days administering surveys, collecting pesticide samples, and plotting our research schedule. When we arrived at the lab, we unloaded the samples and kept everything in a safe place. A few months later, we noticed some missing samples and spent many hours trying to find them, only to find that we had written the dates down using the annotation DD / MM / YY, Day, Day, Month, Month, Year, Year. Lesson learned: Please stick to a predetermined labeling scheme, to avoid a “Lost in Transcription” moment.
Rietta Wagoner, doctoral student, University of Arizona; and Nicolas Lopez-Galvez, PhD Assistant professor – project coordinator, San Diego State University
2: Not one set but two
While packing cars after a community event, my coworker locked the keys in the trunk of her car. With the front doors locked, no sunroof, and no spare keys available, she did the best thing and called a locksmith. What are the chances that while the locksmith is working on his car, across the parking lot, someone else is locking their keys in a safe? I’m not sure what the odds are, but I was that second person. Luckily the locksmith was available, took the money, and later I invested in a travel lanyard which now runs around my neck.
Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne, PhD, Researcher Agents of Change in Environmental Justice, Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Division of Environmental Health, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California
3: Music to my ears
Although there was an expected chance of rain, a research participant and I decided to conduct our interview on a covered porch. It had been such a beautiful day. No worries, because if it rains, we’re protected, right? When a sudden monsoon fell on us, we realized the roof was tin, making the sound of the falling rain deafening. The swirling wind sprayed us with water intermittently. I shouted over the noise, “Are we going inside !?” She laughed and replied, “Oh, it never hurts to be a little wet! Pro Tips: 1) Do your best to memorize your interviewer’s script, especially if it’s on paper. 2) Place your audio recorder as close to the participants as possible and invest in good transcription software. You never know what kind of background noise you will get.
Abrania Marrero, Agents of Change in Environmental Justice Fellow, PhD Candidate in Population Health Sciences, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health
4: duct tape solves everything
Credit: Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne
After months of planning, we finally arrived on the ground with a total of 15 boxes, nine bins and two pickup trucks to study the impacts of the Gold King mine spill. With all the travel necessities, you know how to download offline Google maps, carry first aid kits, and extra water. However, what I didn’t expect was that a storm would come out of nowhere and manage to blow up trash cans in the backs of vans. Luckily the trash cans and blown away supplies were the extras, and we eventually managed to get them all back. Unsolicited tip: Invest in tie-down straps, or maybe duct tape.
Rachelle Begay, doctoral student, University of Arizona
5: Fish and tripe
While trying to study contaminants in fish, I convinced a friend from Fish and Wildlife to take me on his boat to aid in the catching process. We knew the area was a drainage area for sewage sludge, but we didn’t expect the smell to be so awful. The putrid smell combined with the difficulty of catching fish, the 100 percent humidity and 100 degrees Fahrenheit were almost too much; I almost spilled my guts. Oh, and did I mention I was pregnant at the time?
Jill E. Johnston, PhD, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine, Director of Environmental Health Community Engagement Division, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California
6: Is there a doctor on board?
During my thesis, I spent a lot of time with young grandmothers in rural Oklahoma surveying the soil and air near the Tar Creek Superfund site. On one of these occasions, I noticed a small red dot on my arm. I thought it was a mosquito bite, so I put a bandage on it and continued through the day. One of the young grandmothers noticed and said “Friend you have to ask Dr Osborn to take a look, you could have been bitten by a brown recluse spider, THESE ARE VOISONED.” We located Dr. Osborne who explained to me that I should play the waiting game, and that I could potentially lose my limb, as there is no cure for the venom. To say I was in a panic is an understatement, I waited and waited and waited. No lost member yet.
Ami Zota ScD, MS, Associate Professor, Founding Director of Agents of Change in Environmental Justice, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health
7: Images that lie
Credit: Melissa Furlong
It hadn’t happened to me, but it did, the dreaded flat tire. During one of our trips to collect tree rings in over 100 degrees of heat, my car tire decided to give way. I had taken out the spare part earlier to install my sapling equipment (regret UGHHH). Luckily I had AAA, which towed us to the nearest store, but they didn’t have my tire size. I was transported to another store, where they were finally able to fix it, and my coworkers and I did over 3 hours. return to campus.
Melissa Furlong, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Community, Environment and Policy, Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, University of Arizona
8: shut up the creatures
Doing fieldwork in rural Gambia meant spending time in the tall grass, with crocodiles and hippos in the river a few hundred yards from my hut. The first night I arrived my coworkers and I entered our hut, moments later one of them screamed. A black creature with who knows how many legs the size of a large grapefruit ran along the wall, through the ceiling, down and through the floor on an endless loop. After an hour of waiting, he seemed to be gone. Every night we check the straw ceiling for any snakes that might fall on our mosquito nets while we were sleeping. At the end of the week, when I walked into the bathroom and saw two scorpions between me and the toilet, I was completely out of step. Living among small and large wildlife has become the norm.
Michelle Gin, MPH, Fellow Agents of Change in Environmental Justice, Communications Planner in the Environmental Health Division of Minnesota Department of Health
9: Lost in the translation
As a student, I had the chance to visit Suriname and give a presentation focused on maternal fish consumption in a Surinamese cohort. During my presentation, I explained and described different Surinamese fish. One particular fish is called a “bang-bang” but it is pronounced “bong-bong”. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of the correct pronunciation, so I started to pronounce it the way it was spelled. Throughout the presentation, I received many nods and smiles from the Surinamese students. At the end of my presentation, a Surinamese student congratulated me on a wonderful presentation, but went on to tell me that the way I pronounce “bang-bang” in Dutch means vagina. While I thought I was talking about fish throughout my presentation, I was actually talking about the vagina all the time.
Cecilia Sara Alcala, PhD, MPH, Postdoctoral Fellow, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
10: The trip of a lifetime
Imagine it, the geological fieldwork on the Isle of Arran, Scotland, what a sight, what an adventure, so picturesque. The first cardinal rule of fieldwork, wearing appropriate attire, second cardinal rule of fieldwork, documenting everything, like my dreaded faceplant in front of the other students. In case you were wondering, I have since recovered.
Lauren Johnson, MSc Candidate in Public Health, Environmental Health Science and Policy, George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health
Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Division of Environmental Health at the University of Southern California. She is a first generation college graduate engaged in community-based environmental health; she can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @yoshi_ra