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Extreme Jobs: In Hot Water

Microbiologist Brian Hedlund knows from experience just how dangerous a hot spring can be.

People  |  Nov 8, 2012  |  By Cate Weeks

Brian Hedlund, life sciences professor. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

This summer Brian Hedlund became his own poster child. The microbiologist frequently leads international research teams to geothermal sites across the globe. He studies the fundamentals of life that thrive at high temperatures. Such organisms and their enzymes show great potential for use in biofuel development.

Every trip starts with a detailed lecture on safety to newbie researchers and grad students on the trip. No running. No horsing around. Get your sample and immediately step away from the water's edge. Never turn your back on a hot spring. He likens the hot spring to a wild animal; you can't tell when it might unleash violence. "When you say hot spring, people think of old folks soaking their bones, but these are really dangerous areas," Hedlund says.

In June, he had the kind of momentary lapse that can happen after a long day in the field. He was following a small float to determine the water flow rate of a hot spring-fed creek near Cedarville, Calif., just over the border from Nevada. "I stepped on what I thought was a rock. In retrospect, it was really stupid. It was a lump of clay with a mineral crust that made it look solid. It gave way and my right foot went in."

He jumped back and ripped off his shoe and sock along with layers of skin. Then came a 10-minute walk across the dusty playa in bare feet back to his car and on to the hospital. "On all our trips, we've never had an incident like this before. It's embarrassing, but now I have photos and a story to help keep my students safe."