Monday, August 2, 2010

My Brief Career as a Sex Researcher

Once upon a time I lived in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was a graduate student in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Tennessee between 1992 and 1994. I was working on my MS degree, specializing in medical/veterinary entomology. In particular, I was examining the impact of a topically applied anti-parasitic compound on the invertebrates found in the emphemeral resource of bovine dung.

In other words, I spent a lot of time looking at bugs in cow poop.

Knoxville was a rather fun place to be in the early 1990s. Lots of tanned, blonde women with bows in their hair and good ol' boys in Duck Head shirts dying for the next football game. The internet did not really exist then and no one had uttered the words "dotcom" yet. Since there was no Facebook back then, we had to fill up our free time with other activities, such as watching "Friends", gawking at the current fad of country line dancing, and waiting for the next football game. Mostly I dove into my graduate studies and my research.

(You're probably wondering where the sex research bit comes in here.)

Generally I would try to come up for air from my research and go home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's about a 9 hour drive from Knoxville to Poquoson, Virginia, a long, long stretch of I-81 with a dogleg turn at Stanton, Virginia, onto I-64. I didn't mind the drive too much as it was 9 hours I wasn't sorting insect specimens in the lab, but traveling took two days out of my all too brief holiday time at home. By my second year in Knoxville, my mom insisted that I fly from Knoxville into Newport News, which condensed my travel time into a mere fraction of what the drive required.

Both the McGee Tyson Airport in Knoxville and the Newport News International Airport in Newport News are not very big. Certainly their names were bigger than their physical size back in the early 1990s. Little commuter prop planes, really just puddle jumpers, flew between the two airports. This meant my flights always left from a dinky little commuter gate, where I would walk out a glass door to the plane right there on the tarmac. The commuter terminal was very loud, with the noise from the planes taxing up to the gates and continual announcements on the intercom for flights arriving and departing.

One Thanksgiving a man and his wife struck up a conversation with me as we waited for our plans to begin loading. They, too, were traveling someplace for the holiday. We did the usual small talk and inevitably they asked me what I did. I paused, as I generally tried to gauge how much someone might want to know about beef cattle, ivermectin, and bugs before I gave them a verbal overload about my research, and simply told them I was a grad student at UT.

The University of Tennessee is revered in eastern Tennessee. It is the Holy Mecca of Football each fall. I have never seen such diehard football fans as these people in my entire life. They live, breathe, eat, and sleep orange and white. There is an entire flotilla of fans that arrive at the stadium by boat. If you want to get an automatic approval of most people in eastern Tennessee, you just tell them you're a student at UT. Go Vols!

The couple beamed and congratulated me on being a student at VT. I held my breath, expecting their next question to be something about how well the football team had done that season. Here I must admit that I hadn't ever attended one UT football game, rarely caught any of it on TV, and generally know diddly squat about football in general. I have a fear of crowds and Neyland Stadium seated over 90,000 fans back then. There was no way I was getting anywhere close to the stadium on game day. I steeled myself for the usual disappointment people showed when they learned that I didn't follow the UT football team.

Instead, the couple began asking about my research. Ah-ha! Now here was an interesting subject I could talk about with some authority. Indeed, I may have been the only authority on aphodiine dung beetles in the tri-state area at that time. But still, I disliked being seen as a biology geek so I just told them that I studied insects.

"REALLY?" they laughed. The intercom blared another announcement. "So what exactly do you do?" they continued when the noise subsided.

I waited for a dozen people hauling luggage to pass on their way out of the terminal so the couple could hear me. "I'm conducting a field study on how a specific medication limits the spread of parasites." Now this was a slight fib. Most of the insects living in cow poop are not really parasites of cattle, although face flies and horn flies can annoy the animals enough to cause problems. I just figured this wasn't an appropriate topic for polite society, lest the memory of my description of maggots, grubs, and feces bother them as they settled down to a Thanksgiving dinner the next day.

"Oh my!" gasped the lady. Her spouse chuckled, and to my surprise, another man sitting several seats over joined in on the conversation. "Do you really study this?" he asked.

Another announcement blared on the intercom.

"Yep. I'm working on my master's degree," I answered.

This garnered general laughter from several people sitting around us. Apparently the conversation had captured the attention of more people. This was very unusual, as most people couldn't care less about bugs.

"So how do you study this?" someone asked.

A prop outside the gate began to whine for take off. I waited a minute until it was quieter and then told them how I went to the field and collected samples of the "parasites." Then I looked at them under a microscope to identify the invertebrates and measure the impact of the medication.

More twittering. More travelers passed by with noisy wheeled suitcases.

"And the university lets you do this?" another person ask.

"Oh yes," I nodded. "There's a lot of need for researchers so they do what they can to encourage people to enter the field. I don't pay tuition for my classes and they even give me a stipend to live on."

"Wow. I just can't imagine anyone doing something so, so....daring."

At this point a tiny voice in my head informed me that perhaps the ten or so people enraptured by my description of my research did not entirely understand what I was saying. People often find entomologists to be interesting in that they study bugs for a living, but generally they shake their heads in disbelief and say, "Gee, that is just so weird." My audience in McGhee Tyson reminded me more of the audience on Oprah Winfrey's talk show, hanging on to my every word.

In a flash I knew exactly what had happened. When I told them I studied insects, they misheard me and thought I said "incest." And my attempt to shield them from the uglier particulars of my research by talking about parasites and medication and field studies merely enforced their misunderstanding. I'm sure my face must have flamed scarlet as I stammered, "No wait, you didn't hear me right, I study bugs, I'm an entomologist!"

The whole group broke into laughter for a minute then immediately went back to reading their newspaper or talking about Thanksgiving dinner with their travel companions. Just like that, I'd gone from being a captivating young woman studying a taboo subject to merely a geeky biologist who looked at bugs in cow poop. I was tempted to say something about the mating habits of yellow dung flies and aphodiine dung beetles, but I held back in a rare show of prudence. No one wants to look desperate, not even former sex researchers.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

That is a hilarious story! You commented on a post over at my blog and I thought I would check yours out and say thanks for the encouraging words and the welcome to VA! I apperciate it!