Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Life Lessons Learned

I had some pretty painful jobs in my early life. I worked at a DQ for $1.25/hr (I was only 14 so apparently that was OK), suffered through a short stint of telemarketing for Olan Mills, and spent a few weeks doing some sort of mysterious assembly in a machine shop. But the most interestingly painful was the summer of '77, right after high school graduation, when I was awarded an internship in a biology lab. I was so excited! A real science lab! Doing real live researchy-biology-sciency stuff!! And they would pay me $500 whole dollars!1!!11!!!

Then I learned that I was going to be working in an entomology lab. Where the entomologist was studying the breeding habits of mosquitoes.

Ohhh... kaaayyy... exactly what part of mosquitoes breeding haven't they figured out yet?

That was Chapter One of a summer-long crash course in Welcome to Reality.

I quickly learned that undergrad summer interns are the lowest caste in the ranks of indentured academic servants. I was to tend the mice used to feed mosquitoes. Oh yeah, and count the mosquito eggs. And go into swamplands (on purpose!) to catch mosquitoes, using my forearms as bait. And mount mosquitoes on slides -- hundreds and hundreds of slides -- using adhesives and solvents that dried and cracked my fingertips until they bled, transforming them into something that looked not quite human*.

The mosquitoes were kept in those big round cardboard ice cream cartons (think Baskin-Robbins) with mosquito netting secured over the top. A mouse would be placed on top of the netting so the mosquitoes could feed, for as we all know, fresh live mouse is the best.

The big problem was how to restrain the mouse. The grad students had tried drugging the mice but that impaired the mosquitoes, thus compromising their egg-laying habits. Not to mention OD'ing more than a few mice.

A grad student came up with what seemed like a good idea: He built a small wooden frame with mosquito netting on the bottom and a square of dental dam nailed along one edge of the top. See, you just slap the mouse onto the frame and stretch the dental dam across just so, snagging it on the nail heads placed on the opposite edge of the frame, completely immobilizing the mouse. You then set the frame, with only a little pink nose and tail sticking out, on top of the netting and the buffet is open.

If you got the tension of the dam just right, all was well and the mouse was returned to his little cage none the worse for wear, excepting a few little stars and tweety birds circling his head. But if you stretched it just a little too tight, you'd come back to find the nose and tail all purple and swollen... and the poor little mouse came out with 'Xs' on his eyes.

We went through a lot of cute white mice that long, long summer. To this day I hate the smell of rodent bedding. And it was years before I was able to stop flinching at the whining buzz of a lone mosquito flying by.

As horrific as that whole experience seemed to my 17-year-old self**, one of the grad students regaled me with the tale of the worst job she'd had, in a lab researching something to do with wound healing. She used to have to put the mice in tumblers, like clothes dryers with spikes inside, for some pre-determined number of spins then pull them out and catalog their injuries.

That, I realized, was Chapter One in the advanced course: It Can Always Be Worse.

* And babysit the entomologist's preschool-aged daughter. Oh yeah, and spend a weekend helping to re-roof his house for free. I'm just lucky he wasn't a pervert.

** Especially the babysitting.

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