Many scientists confess to having been daunted by science at some point in school before realizing that science could be a career. For marine scientist Ellen Prager (left), the moment came 25 years ago when she took a summer job helping researchers who spent a lot of time swimming behind parrotfish with bags in hand to collect poop as it plopped out of their bottoms. "If that was science, I thought to myself, I could do it too," Prager told the audience.
Prager now helps run the world's only undersea research lab, 63 feet below the surface off Key Largo, where she and her colleagues sometimes spend a few days at a stretch doing experiments. "How do you go to the bathroom there?" a young kid asked Prager during the question-and-answer session.
Although the lab has a tiny bathroom, it gets clogged up pretty quickly, Prager explained. Lab members are sometimes encouraged to float out of the station and "get one with the sea." This isn't always safe, apparently, because "human waste is yummy food for fish." Prager didn't leave the consequences to anybody's imagination: "There has been blood drawn," she said.
It wasn't the last time I was to hear about poop that evening. At a panel discussion on the future of cities, Columbia University microbiologist Dickson Despommier proposed putting the stuff to use in indoor agriculture. It would fit well into the vision of vertical farms, which would recycle wastewater, carbon dioxide and other pollutants inside buildings to create a self-sustaining living space. In this scheme, poop would not be something to turn up your nose at; in the words of Despommier, "we should not be wasting this waste."-Yudhijit Bhattacharjee