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Worst Job in Science

December 02, 2013

Jake Owens

Jake Owens wasn’t surprised that his stint collecting data from an African bush-meat market was named one of the “worst jobs in science” in the November issue of Popular Science magazine.

“It was definitely one of the worst working experiences I’ve ever had,” he said. “There is nothing good about working in a bush-meat market.”

The environmental science PhD candidate isn’t exaggerating.

For one month in 2010, Owens spent eight hours a day sitting at an illegal bush-meat market in Equatorial Guinea where merchants sold meat from endangered primates and other exotic animals. Owens wanted to use hair and tissue samples from the monkey meat to learn ecological information about a little-known primate species on Bioko Island, an island off Africa’s western coast, and determine if the samples could help to identify poaching “hot zones.”

Problem was, he didn’t want to pay for the meat or do anything else that would promote illegal business. His solution? Befriend four youths who charged shoppers a very small amount of money to burn the hair off or cut the scales off of the meat they had just purchased from the venders.

The middle school- and high school-aged boys were friendly toward Owens because of their love of American rap artists such as Lil Wayne, so they let him collect samples from the meat they were given.

Others at the market were not as friendly, and it wasn’t just because Owens was spending all day at the market without buying anything. Owens represented someone who wanted to put an end to their livelihood of selling illegally procured animals, which is why they tried to threaten him by hitting him with brooms, spitting at him, and getting too close with blowtorches and machetes.

“Basically they would wave them at me to tell me to go away, and when I was actually collecting the samples, the guys working around would scrape the burnt hair, scales, porcupine quills and blood off the carcasses, which would fling on me,” he said.

Owens saw the experience as a way to be outside and interact with the environment and the animals he wants to learn about so he can help others with research and understanding.

“Field work can be rough, but there are benefits to it,” Owens said.

Owens collected samples at the bush-meat market during one of his seven trips to Bioko Island, an island that is part of the Spanish-speaking central African country of Equatorial Guinea. He’s traveled there since 2007, when he first came to Drexel and became involved with Dr. Gail Hearn’s laboratory and the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program she established to conserve Bioko’s wildlife.

His research focuses on the behavior and ecology of the drill monkey, a large semi-terrestrial primate species found only in the coastal tropics of the Gulf of Guinea and endemic to southeast Nigeria, southwest Cameroon and Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. Sometimes, that includes obtaining samples from primates in some innovative ways.

“My work is either dealing with poop or the bush-meat market,” he joked.

Popular Science placed Owen’s bush-meat collecting on its “worst jobs” list for its risk of violence, disease, blood loss, olfactory overload and inclement reaction, and also for involving “dead things.” The other “worst jobs” included an Insane Clown Posse fan researcher, a moose dissector and a bedbug rearer.

The publication’s “best jobs” included ice cream flavor developer, Corvette performance developer and extreme product tester (testing products in extreme conditions to detect weaknesses).

For Owens, his research was worth smelling rotting meat for eight hours every day for a month. It was worth being attacked with brooms and spit and blowtorches and machetes. It was even worth having his hair mysteriously fall out for a month. And it was definitely worth getting “a little grief” from colleagues about having one of “the worst jobs in science.”