Allergies in the Time of Research
For his master’s thesis research, Andrew Martin, an evolutionary biologist, studied the periodical cicada, an insect that lives underground and emerges once every 13 or 17 years. Traveling the United States from Georgia to Illinois to New York, Dr. Martin, now a professor at the University of Colorado, spent a summer up close with the cicadas. At each site, he would handle anywhere from 30 to 50 of them.
The cicadas’ bodies were greasy to the touch, he recalled, and their abdomens were often coated with a whitish-green powder. It is a fungus that sterilizes and ultimately kills the insects.
A month into the research, the cicadas weren’t the only ones the green powder had afflicted. Whenever Dr. Martin touched it, his eyes itched and watered — symptoms that grew worse every time.
“When there were lots of the fungi, my eyes wanted to pop out of my head,” Dr. Martin recalled. “I wanted to scratch my eyes out.”
Dr. Martin had developed an allergy to his research subject, a fact that made finishing the project a grueling task. “I was always on something,” he said, referring to allergy medication, “but it was still bad.”
Becoming allergic to your research may sound like a classic avoidance strategy — like coming down with the flu (cough, cough) right before that big exam, or having to work (what a drag) on the weekend the in-laws come to visit. But it turns out to be a little-discussed but fairly common occupational hazard of science.
An estimated 15 to 20 percent of researchers who work with mice and rats, for instance, may eventually become allergic to the animals, said Dr. Karin A. Pacheco, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at National Jewish Health in Denver. The real number could be even higher, because some people who become allergic may never report it, valuing their job above their health or comfort, Dr. Pacheco said.
Allergies are caused when our immune systems become overly sensitive to otherwise inoffensive substances. “The very first time you’re stung by a bee, you won’t be allergic,” said Dr. Pacheco. “You have to be exposed to the antigen and then develop an immune response to it.” Because scientific research often involves frequent and lengthy contact with a substance or creature, it’s something of a perfect vehicle for allergies.
Charlotte R. Hewins, a research specialist at the Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio, used to spend six months a year working with witch hazel plants, pollinating the flowers by hand.
Witch hazel, used as a garden shrub and medicinally as an astringent, grows tiny hairs on its leaves and twigs. When Dr. Hewins handled the plants, those hairs would come loose and float through the air.
Before long, she remembers, “I’d be getting rashes and hives on my hands and forearms. My eyes would be itchy and watery, and I’d be sneezing.”
For Burk Dehority , a microbiologist and professor emeritus at The Ohio State University, the offending substance was formaldehyde. Dr. Dehority was studying protozoa that live in the stomachs of cattle.
“After using formaldehyde in liberal quantities for a number of years and getting splashed with it, I started to develop small blisters all over my hands,” Dr. Dehority said. He tried using rubber gloves, but that proved an incomplete solution. The chemical’s fumes were partially responsible for the allergy. So Dr. Dehority installed a fume hood — a similar device to the fan system that sits above a stove.
That seemed to make the work bearable, though the allergy persisted through 40 years of research. “I made a career out of studying protozoa,” he said. “It never occurred to me to switch.”
For Dr. Martin, too, abandoning the cicada project seems never to have entered his mind. “I was getting such cool data,” said Dr. Martin, who eventually earned his first publication in the journal Nature from the cicadas. “You become myopic about what you need to do.”
In fact, even a pre-existing allergy may not be enough to deter an obsessed scientist from a particular line of inquiry. Monica Raveret Richter, a behavioral ecologist at Skidmore College, developed a severe allergy to bees, wasps and mosquitoes as a child. Yet she has since spent much of her career studying the foraging behavior of wasps — aided by EpiPens and a supply of antihistamines. “If I get a lot of stings, I have issues,” she admitted. Still, she said, “I’ve learned to work around it.”