Science writer Erin Biba has been profiling some of the most epic of gigs we’ve heard of–from tagging blue whales to exploring Mars (on Earth!) to plunging into the world’s deepest point. What’s more, the working lives of these extreme scientists parallel our own: from the how individual glories require collective effort to why the
happiest people have the hardest jobs.
“A blue whale is 80 feet long and you have a lot of area to put the tag,” says Ari Friedlaender, a whale tagger–that’s a thing–and marine ecologist.
Why tag a whale? To track and understand them, of course. But how? Friedlaender says that’s “the fun part, the hard part, the frustrating part, and the most exciting adrenaline filled part,” for while it’s easy to see a whale from a distance, it’s another story to get in the 20-foot or less range to tag the cetacean in question.
In whale-tagging, as in business, as in life, many causes need to come together in order to succeed: “It takes patience, weather conditions, whales in the right mood to allow you get that close, a great boat driver, and steely nerves,” Friedlaender says.
“When it works it looks beautiful and very coordinated,” he continues. “It’s almost like a race car team. There’s a driver that’s the very end of everything, but there’s also a pit crew and a support team: tag engineers, people that find the whales, measure the prey, drive the boat. Somebody has to put the tag on at the end of the day but that’s the very end of the process that involves a lot of people.”
Getting a group of people to do something extraordinary? That’s the essence of the leadership challenge.
“I wanted to be an astronaut, definitely,” Nathalie Cabrol tells Biba. “It’s the space program that died on me not the other way around.”
So, instead, Cabrol has become a planetary scientist and now dives some of Earth’s highest lakes–she holds the record for highest altitude dive by a woman.
Why the high diving? Because humanity will one day be exploring bodies of water that aren’t on our home planet–she talks about Mars and Titan, Saturn’s moon–so we need to hone our techniques here. Before we can pull an Elon Musk and set foot (or snorkel) on the Red Planet, we need to know how to operate there. Which means, for Cabrol, some epic dives in the Andes–those high altitude lakes are analogs for those on other planets, so you can start building the skillsets here.
But before we send a human to Mars, she says, we need to be absolutely certain of whether or not life is there. Humans are microbial factories, she says, so we need to complete that step of finding life before sending a person. Which, of course, takes a while–so when the time for a manned mission comes, she’ll be too old be an astronaut.
Which, with a nod toward the legacy that will follow her, Cabrol says she’s fine with.
“I don’t mind being a stepping stone on that process,” she says, noting that she’s helping make advances toward the exploration of Mars while here on earth and learning about our own planet. “I’ll be an astronaut in my next life.”
Kevin Hardy is the dude who built the deep sea vehicle that brought our buddy James Cameron down into the Mariana Trench, which, at about 7 miles down, is the deepest spot on earth.
Hardy, as you may expect, finds a lot of meaning in his work:
“We think, from the site that we went to at the Mariana Deep, postulating based on our knowledge, that life may have started down there. We had this whole series of postulations but had no evidence and it was unbelievable the things we saw down there.
The reason I consider it important is the massive forces that come out of there. The beginning of life is potentially down there. We actually found some microbes down there that will help us fight against cancer and Alzheimer’s and improving life in general.”
Hardy says that he finds everything interesting, and he has a Buffett-like sense of devotion to his life-long craft. Soon turning 60, he says that he still gets goosebumps on the back of his neck when he learns something new–thus why he’s always sticking his neck out into pressurized places.
“The great thing about being an engineer is I get to go to Norway, Antarctica, Australia,” he says. “I once landed on an uncharted island that nobody’s been to before except the turtles. It’s lovely to be alive.”
What do you think is the most awesome job? And what’s the most awesome job you ever had? Tell us in the comments and we might include it in a follow-up post!