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Research Hazards

Research is not all white coats and sterile laboratories. The process of collecting data, the “gold” of science, can involve hazards and lead to some good stories. The adventures of three Minnesota Sea Grant researchers will give you an idea of what scientists sometimes go through while “panning for gold.”

Jean Captain, Nigel Wattrus, Erik Brown and Tom Johnson of the Large Lakes Observatory show reminders of their capture by pirates: bullet casings and belts like the ones their captors made of rope stolen from their research vessel.

(Left to right) Jean Captain, Nigel Wattrus, Erik Brown and Tom Johnson of the Large Lakes Observatory show reminders of their capture by pirates: bullet casings and belts like the ones their captors made of rope stolen from their research vessel.

Nigel Wattrus on Pirates
(Large Lakes Observatory, University of Minnesota)

“I went to East Africa to collect seismic data from Lake Edward, which sits on the border of Uganda and what was Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo). We were sailing along and I had just settled back to read when someone said, ‘Look, there’s a boat coming up behind us.’

“Eventually, we could see there were three guys in this dug-out with an outboard. One held a gun and another had a grenade. They boarded and demanded American money. Just to drive home the point, the guy with the gun, an AK-47, who has now removed his reflective sunglasses so we can see that he’s completely mad, lets off a few rounds. After they took money, they said, ‘Well, we have to take you back to the village so we’re going to commandeer your boat.’”

Wattrus eventually wound up with about 11 other members of an international research team in the custody of armed Zairians, just beyond the Ugandan boarder. Flanked by gunners, they marched, single file, to see the chief, a large, beer-drinking man dressed in a red velour track suit claiming to be the naval commander of the area.

“As we walked, we passed a heavy caliber machine gun on a tripod. At the entrance of a big hut there was another machine gun tripod but this one didn’t have a gun on it...it had a human skull.”

After much ado, officials examined their paperwork and extracted more cash. Upon departure, the research team was encouraged to let the village know when they entered Zairian waters again...“for protection.”

Ray Newman

Ray Newman on Urban Water Hazards
(Dept. of Fisheries and Wildlife, University of Minnesota)

“Certainly we get covered with Eurasian watermilfoil, but beyond that, we work in city lakes. One day last fall, police pulled a body out of Lake Calhoun as we were getting ready to collect samples. The year before, someone was taken out of Cedar Lake while we were out sampling. A body was also pulled from Lake of the Isles, another Twin Cities lake we work on.”

Newman’s urban lake crew must also deal with living people. “We were on Lake Minnetonka and we had our dive flags up and our boat in between them when another boat drove right between our dive flag and our boat! Fortunately our diver had just gotten out.”

Vandalism is probably the most maddening hazard, however. “On Lake Minnetonka we have buoys marking our stations. We noticed a few were missing and set out to replace those when we found that someone had sunk them all. We had a temperature recorder on one so we knew exactly when it sank; the temperature went from surface temperature down to the temperature of the sediment.”

Peter Sorensen.

Peter Sorensen on Explosions
(Dept. of Fisheries and Wildlife, University of Minnesota)

“When I was a grad student looking at the biochemistry of retinal pigments, I was on a research cruise removing eyes from deep sea fish and storing them on dry ice to bring back to the lab. I packed the eyes in thermoses in my suitcase but I screwed their tops on too strongly. As the crew hoisted my bag out of the boat, the thermoses blew up my suitcase. It was an enormous explosion. The crew thought the ship had been bombed; everyone ran for cover. All my stuff went everywhere--underwear, socks, fish eyes -- all over the dock. Fortunately, I retrieved most of the specimens. I remember sitting in the Greyhound bus going back home with these eyes in a cooler on my lap.

“But,” Sorensen continues, “Making discoveries is the thing I really remember, like the lamprey pheromones; that was pretty incredible. That was just a shot in the dark. I read about a compound in an old review paper and eventually got some money from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission to synthesize a few milligrams. In the kind of work we do, electro-physiology, you know results in five seconds. After spending months getting nothing, you put the pheromone on and, ‘Wham!’ it elicits a huge response. You say, ‘Wow, that is something pretty special, we’re in business here.’

“Research is gambling. Yes, it’s like panning for gold. You’ve got to pan long enough and eventually, maybe you’ll hit it. It’’s a lot of hard work and a little bit of insight because, of course, you have to ask the right questions.”


By Sharon Moen
January 2001

Return to January 2001 Seiche



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