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Essay

You do what?

An entomologist’s guide to dating

Madeline McCurry-Schmidt 4 February 2012

www.lablit.com/article/706

Unsexy job: making them squirm

Picture the most grossed-out face ever: one eye twitching, lips pursed, nostrils flared. Not the best look to see during a date

I used to be a paid worm-masher. For about three years, I dissected moth larvae on a regular basis. These larvae were infected with tiny roundworms called nematodes. I needed to count the nematodes inside the larvae to learn more about nematode behavior.

To properly dissect a larva (at it's third instar stage!), I’d take my forceps and squeeze the dark brown head capsule. It would break apart, the chiton cracking. Nematodes like to hide in the head capsule. Can’t have that. Then I’d squeeze the little larval anus. Nematodes hide there too. I’d tear the larva’s yellowish skin into tiny pieces. Guts would meet air, and I’d slip the pulp of a cadaver under my microscope.

If you think that description looks gross in print, try telling it to a potential love interest. The response to the “so what’s your job like?” date question among scientists is what can weed out the great guys from, well, the larva anuses.

Picture the most grossed-out face ever: one eye twitching, lips pursed, nostrils flared. Not the best look to see during a date.

Even if the guy is okay, the whole dating environment is wrong for scientists. Think about the stereotypical first date scene: a coffee shop. Maybe a Starbucks. Starbucks is a perfectly normal place to chat about one’s job. Unless one’s job involves worms.

I used to work with an entomologist who went out to the barns to collect buckets and buckets of fly-egg-infested cow poop. And there was my fellow lab assistant who studied the nematode population under a rotting pig cadaver.

Try talking about that over mocha lattes, Tori Amos playing in the background.

These days, I write about animal science for a living. I can tell the signs of hypothermia in neonatal pigs and name the four compartments of a cow’s stomach. Even guys who don’t know the “animal science” side of things can picture what a writer does. It wasn’t so easy in my worm-masher days.

In my first year as a nematology lab assistant, as I hunched over my bike, trying to change the tire, I looked up to see a guy I’d had my eye on. He offered his bike-mechanic advice and helped me get the inner tube out. We got oil on our hands. Ha, ha, ha! It was very rom-com — a meet-cute — until he asked me about my job.

“I work with nematodes. They’re tiny worms,” I said, watching for the moment when he’d check his watch. But he seemed interested, enthusiastic even. So I gave my spiel about the dissecting and the microscope stuff.

I was enthusiastic too. I even mentioned the meet-cute to a couple friends. But I ran into the guy a couple days later. To his credit, he tried, he really tried.

“So…” he said. “You study toads.”

Maybe someday I’ll meet the right guy. I’ll say, “You complete me.”

And he’ll say, “You had me at ‘cow stomach compartments.’”

Other articles by Madeline McCurry-Schmidt