This summer, I decided to broaden the periphery of my learning, and do something unusual. I was skimming through the students’ board for campus job opportunities when something interesting caught my eyes.
Needed someone to feed the insects.
Now this was not exactly something I’d jump at. However, I emailed the professor and she agreed to meet me. She informed me that no graduate student had done anything like this before, and she also made it clear that the pay would be hourly and low. Moreover, I’d be expected to work on the weekends. But this being the time when the course load is low, I decided to give it a shot instead of whiling my time in shopping malls. We decided on a week’s training before I took charge.
She took me around to show me things and introduce me to the guy who’d train me. It seemed that he was leaving town for a while and the department needed a temporary replacement. The first thing that caught my nose is the stench so very characteristic of any animal lab. While she introduced me to the guy and left, I could almost feel my stomach churning and crying to puke.
My trainer was a Vietnamese guy, a short fellow reaching almost till my shoulders with hair standing out like a porcupine. And here read his English.
Trainer: There are many bokk of insek here. I go to Botton so you take care and feed insekk.
I could laugh and laugh the way he funnily skipped the S and replaced it by a K. What more, I went home and tried to peak like him. I mean speak like him.
I was taken to a lab full of these worms at different stages of their life. Anybody with a basic idea of entomology would know that most insects go through four main life stages of egg, larva, pupa, and adult. My job was to keep the cycle going, which consisted of about 25-30 steps daily. Mornings would take me some 4 hours while evenings would take me another one hour.
The first time I saw the insects, I wanted to flee as far from the department as I could. Let it suffice to say that I am an extremely touch-sensitive person who has never even let G's cat close till date in fear that the cat’s fur would brush on my skin. My nightmares consist of being in a room with insects let out, crawling all over me. It seemed that my nightmares we coming true after all.
My trainer told me to use forceps initially. I was pleased that he was aware of my discomfort. But he told me that that's because I should be gentle with the insects and not injure them and squish them in nervousness or fear, so it is better that I start with the forceps initially.
Now here take a look at the worms. They come in two types, the wild type (green ones) and the black type.
By the time I had watched him doing stuff on day 1, I had decided that I was not taking up the job. I could sell newspapers, work as a waitress, or do anything else. But it was a torture to spend five hours a day in such stench, letting hundreds of worms wriggle all over your hands. Come on, I was not really one of those shorts-clad guys from the Discovery channel who got their kicks out of jutting their hands into snake pits.
Later that night, she came into my room to have a talk with me. She as in my alter ego, my second half that talks to me during confusion and apprehension. And she told me this-
Look, someone has to do it. And you are helping someone in their research. If all this while you sold apple pies, now you are helping grow the apples. It might not be something as hot as learning to fly planes, but it is a job after all. If your dentist could make a living out of peeping and poring into people’s mouths (or worse still, think of your gynecologist), if masseuses could make a living out of oiling huge blobs of fat of strangers, if your local Govinda hair salon (pronounced as Gobindo heyar cheloon) could make business cutting lice-infested hair with dandruff, what was wrong in helping the department breed worms? For all the research you did with rat fetus, did you ever realize that someone actually does the job of extracting the rat fetus out of the mother’s body?
Will sunshine realize the point of her alter ego? Will she decide to go out of the way and take up the job that needed her to be in stinking places with worms all around her? Will she help the department and also gain some very unusual experience in the process? The experience might not make her a stellar resume, but it is an art learnt and a skill acquired nevertheless. Will her alter ego convince her that no experience in life whatsoever, goes waste? Will sunshine mentally prepare herself to deal with the occupational hazards of the job where she would have to touch the wriggling insects, clean insect exuvia (the dead remains of the insects or the skin they shed during molting), and work at weird timings like 7 AM on a weekend? Or will she chicken out, spend the summer comfortably hanging out in shopping malls and hogging on pizzas and burritos?
We will see.