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onCampus--Ohio State's faculty/staff news

Vol. 38, No. 18


1-23-2008
By: Adam King

Unusual jobs make for interesting days

When onCampus asked the Ohio State community who had the most unique job at the university, we couldn’t have imagined the variety of nominations we’d receive. More than 20 careers were submitted for consideration, and the onCampus staff narrowed them down to a favorite four. Read on and discover what some of your fellow Buckeyes are up to, down to and getting themselves into on a daily basis.

Explosions in the name of science

As the lights went dim and the music started building to a crescendo, the audience began cheering and screaming for the star of the show to come out.

Waiting backstage for his cue, Dave Lohnes, also known as the Whiz Bang Science Show guy, got goosebumps for the first time. That moment, he realized, was exactly what it felt like to be a rock star.

Lohnes, the Web developer for the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, is both entertainer and information deliverer in his action-packed science shows. For the past four years he has been entertaining kids and adults at the Wayne County fair and OARDC open houses to promote the center and make learning about science fun.

“It has really taken over as my identity,” said Lohnes, who was first hired by OARDC as a soybean geneticist. “I was in the bank and talking to a teller and she says, ‘You look really familiar. Do you go to St. Mary’s Church? Wait, you’re the Whiz Bang guy,’ and I’m like, yeah. A lot of kids know me that way too.”

Lohnes does 16 shows a year, mostly on weekends, and puts about 100 hours of his time into preparation and performing. His co-workers help him out, and his supervisor, Jim Holman, always gives him new ideas and attends a show or two every year.

The Whiz Bang Science Show began as a simple demonstration and magic show during OARDC’s Buy Ohio open house. Lohnes did DNA extractions using an onion, turned soybeans into chickens and made a card picked by an audience member appear in a box of tofu.

Since then, his production values have gone up. One of his more memorable demonstrations includes throwing a canister of liquid nitrogen into a bucket of warm water and detergent to create a tower of foam. The foam bubbles each have fog clouds in them, and he invites kids to pop them.

He explodes 2-liter soda bottles to demonstrate how liquid transforms to a gas, which always gets the crowd excited, and shoots toilet paper into the audience with a leaf blower to exemplify Bernoulli’s Principle.

“Nobody ever said, hey, let’s do this,” said Lohnes, who recently started taking his act into elementary schools. “But it’s become part of my job now. When kids tell me, ‘I’m going to pay attention in class because I never realized science could be so cool,’ it’s rewarding for me to get those comments, and the benefit for me is I get to have a ball.”

A hug for pet owners

As far as Joelle Nielsen knows, she’s the only veterinary social worker in Ohio. And that’s a shame, she says, because of how well her services are received at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

When distraught owners bring in sick or injured pets or are confronted with having to euthanize their beloved animals, Nielsen is there to listen, comfort them and give them whatever emotional support they need. Sometimes that can mean the difference between life and death, she said.

Some owners are so attached to their pets that they consider suicide when a pet has to be put down, said Nielsen, who just started in September and hasn’t been confronted with that yet. But she knows it’s only a matter of time, especially since the hospital, because of its high reputation, draws patients from all over Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Indiana and Kentucky.

“I’m really there to help the families,” Nielsen said. “And I have so many people who meet me say, ‘I wish I knew you when my dog died.’”

Nielsen previously worked as a victims’ advocate in the county prosecutor’s office and then as a social worker for raped and abused children at Columbus Children’s Hospital. She found out about the vet hospital’s Honoring the Bond program as a client when her cat, Kino, had to be put down.

Her predecessor, Jennifer Brandt, helped her through her troubled time, and Nielsen decided that’s what she wanted to do if the position ever opened up. Often her job involves just sitting and chatting with the owners. But she also acts as the liaison between the medical staff and the clients, is with the families during euthanasia and performs crisis intervention when owners need help expressing their emotions.

“I get at least one thank you a day, whether from a client or staff person,” said Nielsen, who also oversees the nationally known Companion Animal Listening Line, where owners can get non-medical support and grief education from vet school students who volunteer their time. “They say, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without you.’ It’s really nice to feel appreciated.”

Society doesn’t recognize the bond between people and pets as being as strong or as valid as those between parents and children. But they can be, says Nielsen, who has the cremated remains of Kino in a box on a shelf in her office.

“Some people might think it weird I keep my cat’s remains,” Nielsen said. “But if it was my mother, nobody would say, ‘It’s just your mother. You can get another one.’”

Have door swipe, will travel

On any given day, Buck ID Systems Specialist Todd Ulrich has no idea where he’ll be next. He could be in the ceiling at the Neil Building Marketplace, installing 30 door security systems at the Fawcett Center or fixing a dorm’s electronic entry swipe on the weekend. He’s on call 24/7 and will just as readily make a trip out to the regional campuses to serve their Buck ID needs.

That alone makes the former Navy electrician’s job one of the more unique on campus. “I’ve only been here 10 months, but I feel like I’ve seen the campus inside and out,” Ulrich said.

Ulrich will likely be one of the first staff to see the Ohio Union in 2010 because it will be the campus’ top building in terms of Buck ID use.

“We have more than 400 doors on campus we service, but the Union is going to add 160 doors alone,” Ulrich said.

Ulrich services all Buck ID’s systems, which include merchant card hardware, vending and copy machines, laundry units and deposit systems. He says working at OSU is a lot like working on an aircraft carrier in terms of trying to keep everything running smooth and keep everybody happy.

And one can’t beat the daily variety of tasks, which also includes figuring out how to integrate existing hardware into new uses, such as allowing door security to work in tandem with an elevator or the potential to allow Buck IDs to be used for the parking garages (that’s in the idea stage only).

“Every day is unexpected,” Ulrich said. “I show up and I never know what I’m going to be up against. Sometimes I just have to figure it out on the fly.”

Going to work wet

Matt Thomas wears many hats for Ohio State: Boat captain and operator of the remote operated vehicle (underwater camera sub) at Stone Lab on Lake Erie are two of the more unusual. But his most unique task is being the university’s official diving safety officer.

When OSU and visiting academics want to do underwater research in the lake, they have to go through Thomas, who works for the university’s Office of Research Compliance.

“My title sounds official, but I’m basically a point person to oversee regulation and training for researchers who use diving,” said Thomas, who became the DSO in 2000. “I help them refine their technique and methodology and oversee them to make sure they stay healthy.”

With between 200 and 300 dives every year, Thomas stays busy. His job is not to train people how to dive, however. Researchers have to meet a minimum requirement and already be certified.

“I work with all types — some who have been diving in Australia for 20 years and some who have been diving for two years,” Thomas said. “You have to have a talent for reading people and their comfort level in the water.”

Thomas, who learned how to dive in the Bahamas and Florida, was introduced to the job when he was working on a project at Stone Lab for Wright State University. He enjoyed the outdoor research and appreciated how critical a tool diving was for science.

“Nothing can replace a diver in the water,” he said. “If you want to study the lake, you have to be in the lake. You see, feel and hear things and you think about your environment while you’re under there.”

His favorite part of the job: seeing the geologic formations and the millions of fish, including the non-native Round Goby, hundreds of which swarm about his mask when he sits on the lake bottom.

“I couldn’t think of a better job, to be honest with you,” Thomas said.


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