For those of you who want(ed) to be a marine biologist when you grow up, I thought I’d share a bit of the project I’m currently working on.  It should make you feel better about your life choices, since you are likely not a marine biologist.  If you are a marine biologist, it should make you feel better about whatever boring project you’re working on.

We are building a giant database for all Gulf sturgeon, and to do this we have to incorporate historic data from several different agencies.  Fortunately, most people have digital copies of their data (e.g. an Excel spreadsheet), but UNfortunately there are two years of data that were never entered (more on that later).  Which brings me to what I’m doing now: entering data from paper datasheets into an Excel spreadsheet so that it can be incorporated into the bigger Oracle database. Now, I’m no stranger to data entry and for the most part I can be pretty zen about the whole thing. Turn on some tunes and pretty much let my fingers do the thinking. Until this came along.

What fresh hell is this?

For the non-scientists, you should know that the language of science is numbers, and those numbers are ALWAYS metric. Inches are stupid and imprecise.  If you look at the picture, you’ll notice that the lengths of these fish are in feet and inches, and not just regular feet and inches, but there are entries such as 4′ 8 3/8″.  Three eights of a motherfucking inch!!  Unfortunately, I’m an idiot and have spent the last month using an online conversion site to get each individual length in cm (hence the blue penned in numbers).  This picture represents the exact moment I realized I could just type in the feet and inches and have Excel convert them for me.  Which is much faster, but still so annoying I want to claw my eyes out, because I have to enter things like =(3/8+8). ‘Cause I’m sorry, but I do not know what 3/8 is, other than just shy of 0.50.  You might not notice that the weight is in pounds, unless you were to know that the “#” above Weight means lbs to whoever was taking data.  Sometimes they were nice enough to denote the units, sometimes I have to guess. Sometimes the same column has both lbs and kg, which is my favorite because then my autofill stops working.

I don’t even want to talk about the fact that we live in a world where datasheets representing hundreds of hours of work, tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and hundreds of fish (which are listed under the Endangered Species Act) can sit in a filing cabinet for four years.  It fulfills the oldtimer government employee stereotype and confirms that some scientists just don’t give a shit. Which shouldn’t really be surprising. I mean, it is just a job afterall. I’d like to think that people have enough pride in their work to at least TRY, but I’m often disappointed.  I can say, however, that for every one dead weight government scientist, there are at least two that more than make up for them.  By and large, we are hard working people who are honestly trying to make a difference, in spite of the fact that there are few personal and professional rewards for our diligence.  Bonuses tend to range in the hundreds of dollars, promotions are limited depending on your pay grade, and the inability of Congress to pass a budget hinders new projects and hiring of key personnel.  In spite of all of that, we largely remain excited about our research and continue to kick ass (on the research front, anyhow.  We’re all jaded curmudgeons about the bureaucracy part of the job).

So. I’m trudging through knowing that the finished database will be pretty awesome and all of those fish can now be tracked through time using their tag numbers.  My efforts will (hopefully) help some poor grad student figure out the natural mortality of the species, which will in turn lead to a better management plan and therefore a more certain recovery.  At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.


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