Thursday, July 26, 2012

Occupational Hazards OR The Massacre of a Manicure

Field work, she is a cruel mistress. For what she gives in snails, she takes back two-fold in personal injury. The system is just primed for misery: if you do it like me, you spend your winters sitting at the computer and/or listening to people talk for hours on end (1). Muscles atrophy, and I can hear a soft "click" every time a ubiquitin is attached to my muscle proteins, targeting them for degradation. Callouses are resorbed, melanin dispersed, and the smell of what could politely be called "ocean musk" finally airs out of my car upholstery.  Then, come April or so, I walk out of my office, blinking, and it's a 0 - 60 transition. 


In celebration of the upcoming start of the London Olympics, I am proposing three new events, at which I would excel (as long as the olympics were at the end of the field season):

1. 300m Mudflat Traverse: Sprint the length of your transect at top speed! Fight the mudsuck as your feet sink somewhere between 1-8" with every step, if you're lucky. This event includes 2-3 return trip/s, depending on how many things you forgot on shore.  Bonus points for outrunning the return tide.  

2. The 300m Rebar Portage: Carry 10 3' sections of 1/2" rebar with only your wimpy left hand down the same transect (does not have to be completed at a sprint, in fact, that could be dangerous). Alternate technique: carry 25 sections of 1/2" rebar with two hands, but relinquish the ability to disloge your boots from the mud, because your hands are full - it's your call.

3. The Crouch-and-Count Endurance Trials: This event is the more challenging cousin to the kneel-and-count, which is what the amateurs without leaks in the knees of their boots participate in. This is also my least favorite event. Count all the snails in a 1m space, and DON'T LOSE COUNT, or you'll have to start all over! Repeat this 40-50 times ... a day ... throughout the summer. A tremendous way to put your love of science and supposed fasciation with mollusks to the test. Scored based on accuracy, speed, and penalized for the number of times you change position.

My whole body hates the beginning of the field season, for which it has been so poorly primed. Hands suffer the most. I don't wear gloves because I can't feel what I'm doing. So the constant immersion in 50 degree saltwater (the Pacific doesn't really warm up, people, though on warm days the mud does mitigate the situation) softens my skin, and the oysters finish the job, slicing up my fingers, which, thanks to the winter hiatus, resemble 10 individual servings of Polly-O String Cheese in, color, toughness, and grip strength. For the first few weeks, my hands cramp constantly. The mud gets so far under my fingernails, it stays there until November - not for lack of scrubbing, though, mind you! 

My fingernails themselves take the most abuse. They are my most important tools in field work (3), but trying to use them while they are wet and soft shapes them into a complex and rugged topography. The surface is ground to a fine matte finish by the sediment. For this reason, I typically restrict the distribution of polish on my body to my toes. But this summer, I was a bridesmaid in my friend Karen's wedding. Sometimes I try to look like a grown up, and to match Karen's wedding (WITNESS her craftiness!), we all got our nails did like fancy ladies. Here is a chronicle of what happens to a manicure when you return to work on the mudflats. I apologize in advance for the poor quality images.

T = 0
Figure 1. Nails on before my first day of returning to work. Oooh, so fancy! 

Wedding was Saturday night. This (Figure 1) is Monday morning. The Disney Princess  band-aid (Jasmine?) on the left middle finger was actually preventative. I cut the skin on the inside of that joint, down to the tendons, incidentally, with brand new tin snips the week before, and wanted to protect the healing cut (2)

T = 1
Figure 2. Hands post-day one. Decidedly less fancy.
By the end of day one (Figure 2), on which I was actually working on carpentry, I have gained a net of one band aid (I evidently tore the skin on my right pinkie pretty badly by scraping it on a plastic valve and have no idea why that index finger was bleeding, but was able to remove the one from the left middle finger) and you'll notice the polish hasn't fared very well.  It starts receding from along the edges and the cuticles, just look at it go!

T = 2
Figure 3.  Wear and tear on fingernails after two days of being a marine biologist.  

On day 2, I was out in the mud, counting snails, and I had so many cuts, I thought it wise to wear a really thin glove on my right hand. The Michael Jackson technique worked, and the nails on my right hand fared pretty well, but we are seeing definite recession of the polish on the left (Figure 3).  This is also evidenced by the dirt under left but not right fingernails.  The only reason I am wearing fewer band-aids, however, is that the glove sucked one off.  

T = 3
Figure 4.  Cleaned hands after Day 3. Note also, healing gash on right pinkie.
I wasn't able to favor my right hand with a cushy glove on day, three, and it shows (Figure 4).  There goes the polish on those fingers as well.   

T = 4
Figure 5.  Cleaned hands after day 4.  My nails really look like crap.
Day 4 was more of the same (Figure 5).  At this point I thought about doing image analysis and mapping the loss of area of painted nail over time.  But I got lazy.  If my pictures were better, it wouldn't be too hard.  

Well at this point I felt badly every time I looked at my massacred manicure, so I took off the polish entirely.

T > 5
Figure 6. Still residual dirt under my nails, but devoid of polish.

Back to plain, old, Emily hands (Figure 6).  But slightly stronger and tougher.  

Ok, I'm sick of looking at pictures of my beat-up hands.  

References and miscellany:
(1) Didn't they just tell us that 3 hours of sitting a day is enough to shorten your life by 2 years!  HOLY SEDENTARY LIFESTYLE! Yes they did. Who can sit for less than 3 hours a day?!
(2) Ok, maybe my clumsiness also contributes to my spate of field injuries.  We are all our own worst enemies. 
(3) Maybe tied with teeth?


  1. 1) I love that you tagged this post with Disney Princess Band Aids.
    2) You you try to avoid or try to embrace using brand names like Kleenex and Band Aid, or are you neutral?
    3) This post made me laugh loudly, then I had to explain the awesomeness that about which I was laughing, then I watched the Polly-O commercial.
    4) Bellissimo!

    1. 1. Yes, I try to keep my audience broad, you never know who might want to be a marine biologist deep down, and I am here to warn them that it is not all fun and games. There are serious manicurical consequences to this lifestyle!

      2. If I thought that anyone actually read my blog, I guess I would be more thoughtful about brand names, but no one (excepting of, course, lovely present commenters) does, and so I'm not. I aim to provide the details necessary to get a really visceral sense of what it's like out there. If Disney Princess Band Aids does it, then so be it.

      3. Not in front of your students I hope...Oh I suppose, not. It's summer.

  2. Them's the prettiest polly-o's I ever saw.

    You need to wear some gloves, girlfriend. My right hand looks like it belongs on a withered old lady, and I've never even been to a mudflat. Now I wear gloves when I'm gettin' rugged outside.

  3. Oh Em G, I am so behind on my Rah Rah Radula reading. I really enjoyed this in-depth look at decaying nail polish. You actually make a lovely hand model, gashes and band-aids (or "plasters," for all your UK readers!) and all. I also appreciated the different backgrounds of each photo.

    Speaking of which, I once watched a special on hand models. They wear protective gloves ALL the time, and on BOTH hands. And there are apparently flattering hand angles that best showcase the merchandise.

    So what I'm pretty much trying to say is: if the merchandise these hands are showcasing is Science, then sign me up. I am sold.

  4. I got an excellent tip from Linda Schoeder, my compatriot in things radular a the Pacific Northwest Shell Club:

    "I have a tip for the perpetually dirt-encrusted fingernails, that is an old gardening trick. Stratch your fingernails across a bar of soap before you head out. The soap will get embedded firstand make clean-up afterwards easier"

    Linda points out that this might not be a permanent fix with hands working in water, but I also wonder if the soap trick would help AFTER the mudflat...

    Thanks Linda!