Johnson City, Tenn.
If you want to make Jim I. Mead happy, give him a pile of dung.
The paleontologist and geosciences chairman here at East Tennessee State University owns what he says is probably the world's most diverse collection of animal droppings. He has some 13,000 amphibian, mammal, and reptile skeletons in his closet, but it is his 900-piece archive of scat from extinct and modern animals that has propelled Mr. Mead's reputation beyond academe. Or down the toilet, depending on how you look at it.
Popular Science singled him out this month as holding one of the 10 worst jobs in science, and Mr. Mead, whose expertise is in lizard skeletons, gamely played along. While he has no doubt about the scientific value of his work, he is acutely aware of the humor in, say, prompting a deer to give what your doctor euphemistically refers to as a stool sample. Usually when you scare them and get them running, Mr. Mead says, they'll defecate.
A moist sample like that is placed in a convection oven "to dry out the puddin'," as Mr. Mead puts it. Fossilized dung, or coprolite, has been dehydrated naturally in a dry cave or it would have disappeared long ago.
Strides in DNA extraction have raised the scientific value of organic collections like Mr. Mead's. When he shows a visitor a baseball-size lump produced 12,000 years ago by a now-extinct Shasta ground sloth, a sense of awe hangs in the air, along with the earthy aroma of the Pleistocene.
Like a well-aged wine, ice-age excrement gives off a smooth scent that is not unpleasant to the nose.
Lucky for Mr. Mead. When he kisses his partner after a long day spent digging dung from a cave, he says she smells his mustache and knows exactly where he's been. "Oh, working in pack-rat middens today," she might say.
But no one collects dung because it smells nice. Mr. Mead can provide samples to scientists who extract DNA to learn about fauna of the past. The ancient sloth sample, for one, still holds evidence that connects the six-foot-long creature to its nearest living relatives, the tree sloths of Central America, and a more distant cousin, the armadillo. Mr. Mead estimates that he has about 100 ice-age turds (his word) with potentially extractable DNA, including one that might be as much as 30,000 years old. But if you ask him to name a favorite specimen, he cannot. It is the total diversity of the archive that gives it value, he says.
The son of a zoologist at the University of Arizona, Mr. Mead was just 17 when his father encouraged him to join a group of scientists on a Grand Canyon rafting trip commemorating the centennial of John Wesley Powell's 1869 Colorado River expedition. Paul S. Martin, a geosciences professor at Arizona who was among the first to recognize the need to collect dung, led the trip. At the professor's urging, the young Mr. Mead and a friend arose early one day and explored a cave along the river, where they found what turned out to be an 11,000-year-old pack-rat midden, a hard-packed cake of excrement containing needles from ancient juniper trees. It was at the time the oldest midden ever found in the Grand Canyon, a spectacular thrill for a teenager interested in science.
"That's why I got into skeletons and dung," says Mr. Mead. "I was hooked."
He enrolled at Arizona to study under Mr. Martin, earning a doctorate in paleontology and working with a close-knit team of graduate students. "Everyone had their little niche," says Mr. Mead. "I was the dung man." He went on to a 23-year career at Northern Arizona University, where he was a professor in geology and Quaternary science.
He also curated two collections at Northern Arizona's museum: a 17,000-piece archive of dung and skeleton specimens from 22 National Park units on the Colorado Plateau, and a smaller Quaternary-science archive of specimens that belonged to the museum, other collectors, and himself. The desert Southwest was conducive to his work, dotted as it is with dry, dusty caves bearing colorful names like Paul Bunyan's Potty and Bechan Cave (which translates from Navajo as "Big Poop Cave").
"Anything that went in there and died or was dropped was preserved," he says. "It's just desiccated, mummified."
For the better part of four decades, Mr. Mead has crawled through caves, traveled to zoos around the world, and hiked the hinterlands of the United States, Mexico, Australia, and Siberia in his search for contemporary and ancient skeletons and scat. Amid the scenery of Arches, Canyonlands, and Glen Canyon parks, he has collected specimens for the National Park Service. Until the early 1990s, when the Park Service began limiting flights into the Grand Canyon, he could often hike in, collect some ancient dung, then rendezvous with a helicopter and fly out in style.
Worst job in science? Oh, please. "We've got the best job there is," Mr. Mead says with a grin. (His partner, Sandy Swift, whom he met 11 years ago hunting bones in a cave in Colorado, today volunteers as Mr. Mead's collection manager and digital illustrator at East Tennessee State.)
International rules governing the transport of organic material have complicated the process of collecting, so Mr. Mead was grateful when his mentor, Mr. Martin, retired and passed along his own collection, which he had acquired largely in the 1960s and 70s.
Many years ago Mr. Martin flew into Miami International Airport after a particularly productive trip to Africa. Customs agents asked him to open his suitcase, which was filled with rhinoceros feces. "Nowadays you'd die a horrible customs death," Mr. Mead says. "But back then it was kind of like, 'Just go away.'"
Two years ago, he and Ms. Swift moved to Tennessee so that he could inaugurate a geosciences department as part of East Tennessee State's Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology. Blaine W. Schubert, a former student of Mr. Mead's, directs the center, which serves as the research umbrella for the nearby Gray Fossil Site, a Miocene sinkhole that state-highway contractors unearthed 10 years ago. A new museum and laboratory there provide a focal point for the university's paleontology ambitions.
Back at the campus, Mr. Mead speaks enthusiastically about the administration's willingness to invest in a new program during a time of budget constraints. Contractors are renovating a four-story dormitory that, starting next year, will serve as a central home for the geosciences department, the paleontology center, the offices of the university's vice president for research, and Mr. Mead's vast specimen collection.
Mr. Mead says he is striving to promote a collaborative atmosphere, though disputes are bound to occur. When they do, he'll try to defuse the tension with his sense of humor, as he did once when a colleague back in Arizona told him, "You don't know shit."
"Well actually, I do," Mr. Mead replied. "That's one thing I do know."