The End of an Era

When I started grad school, I made about $650 a month.  That wasn’t that long ago, so you can imagine how much I had to scrimp to make it by on that little money.  I couldn’t use my air conditioner (my apartment was 95 degrees in the summer) or my heater (50 degrees in the winter) and I had to really watch how much I spent on food.  It was the first time I had ever really felt poor.  So, when an opportunity to take a second job working with aquatic insects came up, I took it and doubled my salary.

Rio de Flag

Rio de Flag, downstream of the wastewater treatment plant in Flagstaff, AZ. This is one of the "good" effluent streams. Photo by one of my coworkers.

I really loved my job.  I was originally hired on to do the insect identifications for a project looking at effluent dominated streams in Arizona.  I collected aquatic insects from some of the most disgusting streams you’ll ever encounter, helped with water quality sampling, and drove many different rentals crammed full of gear. Then there was the time I practically begged my boss not to take all of out to eat in a fancy restaurant AFTER we’d been sloshing around in a stream made up of poorly treated wastewater while it was 110 degrees the whole day.  I was overruled and all of my fellow employees and I had to sit through an awkward lunch while people in the restaurant gave us dirty looks.  Little did I know, we would do this sort of thing a lot.

sampling Lake Pleasant

Sampling zooplankton in Lake Pleasant, AZ. (One of the worst days of my life was spent on Lake Pleasant.) Photo by one of my coworkers.

That project was intended to shape the state’s environmental regulations regarding effluent released into streams and it was something I felt good about.   Over the next few years, I was involved in a variety of projects concerning water use and quality.  I got to spend a lot of time on a big Boston Whaler speedboat collecting water for analysis in the Phoenix area reservoirs.  We analyzed the water and the insect populations in the rivers flowing into and out of the reservoirs.  We analyzed algae from the Central Arizona Project canal.  We looked at toxins produced by algae that were thought to be causing massive fish kills in some of the Phoenix reservoirs.  We looked at the impacts of the large Aspen Fire on the invertebrate populations of Sabino Creek and Bear Creek so that the Forest Service could decide when it was safe to put the endangered fish they had rescued back into the stream.

sampling at Rincon Creek

Me sampling one of our sites in Rincon Creek. Photo by one of my coworkers.

Eventually, my boss handed me a project in Saguaro National Park that used insects as indicators of water availability in a stream that the Park Service was making a water rights claim for.  It was a big project, one that any sane person would turn into a Master’s degree rather than the biggest side project of all time, but I loved it!  I helped plan the project, wrote the budget, did the majority of the sampling myself, processed all of the insect samples, analyzed the data, and wrote the report, so I was a major player in the work every step of the way.  This water rights claim was the first time anyone in Arizona had made a claim for water for use by wildlife based largely on insects.  I’m proud to be involved in that project and I hope that, when it is all said and done at some unknown point in the future, the Park Service gets their water so they can protect the insects in their stream.

With the downturn in the economy, we’ve started focusing on water quality monitoring and lake management because the funding for the more interesting projects dried up.  In the last 2 years, my main role in this job has become data entry guru, occasional caretaker of the fish being used in my friend’s Master’s research, and lake water sampler.  We sometimes have an insect sample sent to us that I process and sometimes we do little mini-projects that are fun, but mostly we sample lake water.



I have to admit, I hate sampling the lake that we work on.  I’m out on this metal boat about once a week sticking probes into the water and filling bottles with water from the lake.  We also put a salt in the lake to control algae.  The salt is packed into dense, heavy bags, and it dries out any bit of skin it touches.  During the summer, we end up being out on the lake during the hottest part of the day.  Sometimes it’s 110 degrees – and we’re sitting in a metal boat flinging skin drying salt into the lake.  Sometimes we dodge storms.  Sampling the lake was fun for about 3 months, but it lost it’s excitement after the first few 100+ degree days.  Besides, nearly every day on the lake is the same.  It’s become monotonous.


One of the pelicans. The other was a brown pelican.

The things that change up a day on the lake aren’t usually good things.  Sure, we did have a couple of pelicans on the lake for a while and they were fabulous to watch.  We saw the dragonfly swarm that prompted my interest in the behavior there.  We’ve talked to some adorable children and met some very nice people.  However, the lake is located in a bad part of town.  Someone once cut the lock on our shed, stole my handtruck, and dumped a few bags of salt into the lake.  The caretaker came to give us a new lock and regaled us with stories of drugs she had found in the park, vandalism she’d encountered (she had been painting over swastikas someone had spray painted in the men’s bathroom when she got the call to come help us), and the unpleasant people she had to deal with in the park.  My coworkers and I see a lot these things ourselves.  One time we had to drag some gigantic trash cans out of the lake for the city because someone thought it would be fun to dump them in the lake.  One time a guy who was stoned out of his mind tried to get into our truck.  We are yelled at by fisherman often and have been downright verbally abused by a few lake patrons.  We get blamed if the fish aren’t biting (not our fault!), if the lake is muddy after a monsoon storm (we can’t control that), if the stock truck didn’t arrive (we don’t have any say in that), if the pelican is eating all of the fish (like anyone tells a pelican where it can and cannot feed).  One day, an older drunk guy jogging in the middle of the day in the summer fell off the dam and started gushing blood, but wouldn’t let us call an ambulance.  Another day, we had to kill a green heron because it had been irreparably mangled by a vicious dog.  And one time, they found a dead body in the lake a few hours after we’d sampled.  All in all, the lake experience has not been that enjoyable.

After working this job for several years, I was informed a couple of weeks ago that there was no longer enough money to pay me and I was laid off.  Knowing the financial status of the lab, I knew it was coming.  I can’t say that I’m sorry to lose the job though.  I do hate sampling the lake.  I was ready move on and find something more intellectually stimulating, finally finish my Ph.D. and get a real job.  I was going to have to quit in another month anyway.  That said, I am thankful that I had this job.  It kept me rooted in reality and reminded me of the bigger picture in a way that my water bug research does not.  This job introduced me to new skills and concepts that I never would have learned otherwise.  I got to write grants, develop several projects, do several projects, analyze data, write reports – things I really don’t get to do with my Ph.D. because it is only one project and I don’t have any funding for it.  I will eventually be an author on several publications for projects I participated in and the job added several notches to the bedpost that is my CV.  As a whole, the experience has been valuable and I will incorporate things I learned from this second job into my work in the future.

So, sayonara second job!  You’ve been good to me for a long time, but it’s time you and I part ways.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010


3 thoughts on “The End of an Era

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your reflections and observations here! Some of my worst job experiences led me in unexpected directions…stepping stones to what I was all about. Your attitude is marvelous! I look forward to reading more as time goes along and wish you the very best. – We’ve seen dragonfly stragglers since our swarm in September. I STILL haven’t been able to slow any of them down enough to actually see what kind they are. They’re on a mission and aren’t stopping for me or anything else. Love your site. Thanks for sharing. (Am forwarding your e-mail to friends who enjoy this sort of thing)

  2. I found your story to be most interesting. I trust what comes after this job will be more challenging and more rewarding for you. I will look forward to a follow-up down the road.

Have something to say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s