Tie up your trouser legs, it's an American cockroach

September 9, 2005

Is your job making you sick? Olga Wojtas meets the academics for whom nausea, fear and puffy eyes are all in a day's work

Plenty of people would say that their job makes them ill, but in Ioana Oltean's case it's true. The Glasgow University archaeologist suffers from airsickness and since she is responsible for aerial reconnaissance, the condition has become unavoidable. When she learnt that such duties would be part of her work on becoming research assistant to William Hanson, Glasgow's professor of Roman archaeology, she was excited. "I'd never flown before and I didn't know I was going to be sick," Oltean says. The revelation has been painful.

The very nature of her work means that most methods of tackling the problem are useless. Oltean cannot look towards the horizon as some advise as she has to stare downwards. And she cannot take many motion-sickness pills for fear of becoming sleepy. "I have to know at every single moment where we are," she says.

But she would not consider quitting. Her enthusiasm is unabated. Oltean sees her work as a race against time, plotting the positions of existing archaeological sites in her native Romania as well as discovering new ones as modern construction destroys remains. "It's interesting work, very needed and very challenging and I like it," she says.

Oltean overcomes her sickness and presses on. One particularly unpleasant flight she made recently revealed the presence of a previously overlooked Roman site that she believes will prove invaluable to her own research into Roman frontiers as well as overturn previous theories of settlement in the area. She was very ill - but looks back on the episode fondly.

The compelling nature of their work means that many academics are driven to overcome personal difficulties that are exacerbated by the demands made on them. Joan Harvey, senior lecturer in psychology at Newcastle University, says Oltean's emotional attachment to her job is much higher than would be the case among the general workforce. Such strong motivation, Harvey believes, is common among academics.

In Patrick Miller's case, it helps him stay the course when chasing whales around the world. The Royal Society international fellow at the sea mammal research unit at St Andrews University suffers terribly from seasickness.

But to further his own research into the underwater behaviour of whales, he has to attach and retrieve radio tags from the backs of the animals to collect the vital data. He endures the intense discomfort because the work is so fulfilling and the results so exciting.

Mike Greenwood, head of biological, forensic and pharmaceutical sciences at Derby University, shudders every time he thinks of American cockroaches.

Other species of the beetle do not bother him. But while working on a PhD investigating the impact of insecticides on nerve and muscle physiology, he had to work on the type of cockroach that is typically found in bakeries, kitchens and hospitals.

"It's the thought of having a cageful of them and putting your hand in to get them out," he says. "They're smelly flying animals, incredibly skittery, very difficult to catch. My fear is of them running up any bit of loose clothing to the nooks and crannies of one's person. I used to tie up the ends of my trousers and shirts."

Greenwood never admitted his fears in the lab, partly because of embarrassment but largely because he accepted that the research had to be done. "We were adding to the knowledge of the mode of action of insecticide. It never occurred to me I wouldn't complete the PhD, although I did go to unreasonable lengths to avoid having contact with (the cockroaches) and made use of the technicians' service when it was offered."

For John Parker, director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, the problem was perhaps worse. For ten years he had worked on "a very obscure relative of the dandelion". Then, one hot summer's day, it happened. "My eyes blew up to huge proportions, to jelly-like bags. My nose was running, the whole works, and from then on, I've been sensitised," Parker says.

Researchers who are constantly exposed to one organism can become allergic to it. Throughout that hot summer, Parker continued his research. But he had to wear full protective gear, including a face mask and respirator. "I could hardly see," he says. "There was sweat running down the inside of the visor."

Parker does not suffer from hay fever and is not sensitive to grass or tree pollen, but he remains at risk of a full-blown allergic reaction to his beloved plant. "I have to be very careful," he says. "It's an occupational hazard. I guess you go into it assuming it's not going to affect you, and you're immersed in the science by the time you realise."

Abandoning the research is unthinkable, he says. "It's your favourite organism. You've developed knowledge by growing it, cultivating it, going through the whole life-cycle with it, and you're not just giving up an organism but your accumulated knowledge and understanding. It's your life and you're committed to it."

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