Risky Business

By Erin Peterson

Office politics, mind-numbing paper-pushing, the ever-increasing chances of a pink slip—hey, the nine-to-five grind has never been easy. For some alumni, however, a day on the job isn’t just mentally draining, it can be downright dangerous.

Sure, you may scald your tongue on some overheated coffee, but the Carls profiled on these pages face job hazards that include getting trapped in a fire and being attacked by a grizzly bear. Find out how they survive until quitting time—and what keeps them coming back.

Police Officer

Robert Pickett ’95 is a police officer in Portland, Oregon.

Police officer Robert Pickett ’95 has a gun, a taser, pepper spray, and a baton. But the thing that keeps him safest on the job isn’t a weapon at all: It’s his radio. “That’s what we use to summon help,” he says.

Danger might be an inherent part of a police officer’s job, but he—and other officers—would much rather avoid dangerous situations than use weapons to get out of them. “Everything we do is designed to manage risk, from the way we park our car at a traffic stop, to where we stand, to how we walk up to someone,” he says. “If I’m talking to someone I’m suspicious of, I’ll stand about six feet away and have my hands out where I can grab a weapon if I need one. I always want to be ready.”

Most of the time, such precautions aren’t necessary—but the practice pays off when difficult situations arise. When Pickett was following up on a call about a suspected burglar in an apartment complex parking lot, he took no chances: He and three other officers made a plan. “The four of us walked up behind him, took his arms, and controlled his hands. We put him in handcuffs and searched him immediately,” he says. “We saw that he had a revolver tucked in the front waistband of his pants. That’s a case where we managed the risk as we usually do and it turned out great.”

From the moment Pickett walks into the station to the moment he punches out, staying safe is never far from his mind. “When I’m at my locker, putting on my uniform and my tools, I always pause and think, okay, I’m at work now,” he says. “I steel myself just a little bit and  tell myself to be careful, thoughtful, and safe so I can go home at the end of the day.”

Engineer Diver

Engineer DiverPaul Riedner ’00, based in Fort Eustis, Virginia, works for the U.S. Army as an underwater engineer.

Searching for explosives and recovering bodies are emotionally and physically taxing duties under any circumstances. Paul Riedner ’00 adds another layer of difficulty to those tasks: He does them all underwater.

As an engineer diver for the U.S Army, he’s salvaged submarines, checked for underwater explosives, and done maintenance on lock and dam systems. He practices a certain amount of denial when he’s on the job. “So many things can go wrong—you can sever your air supply with your tool, you can hurt yourself, you can get decompression sickness,” he says. “If you actually thought about those things all the time, you’d be frozen in fear.”

Deep dives bring their own challenges: Working below 100 feet brings the risk of nitrogen narcosis. Riedner has experienced it only once, but he won’t soon forget it. “It was like I instantly drank three martinis. All I had to do was tie a knot, but I couldn’t do it,” he says. “When you’re working down that deep, you have to keep it very simple; just turn this valve and then come up. A new diver goes down to do the next thing.”

Once, while he was working on a submarine salvage, he got sandwiched between the bottom of the river and the submarine.“I was completely underneath it,” he says. “If something had gone wrong—if the balance of the submarine had shifted—I would have been squashed.”

Despite the dangers, Riedner trusts the other members of his team to help get him out of tight spots. “I have expertly qualified people working with me; that’s really important,” he says. “And working outside in the water—well, every day is awesome for me.”

Art Conservator

Art ConservatorSeattle-based Claire Gerhard ’82 has done art restoration for the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Seattle Art Museum, and many private clients.

For artists, taking calculated risks can lead to greatness. For art conservators, taking calculated risks is simply part of the job description.

Over the course of her career as a conservator, Claire Gerhard ’82 has nearly lost her balance while working atop several stories of scaffolding, inhaled enough acetone to make her sick, and exposed herself to a veritable chemistry lab of varnish removers and adhesives. That’s not to mention the arsenic and lead that she’s come in contact with from taxidermied animals and old paintings.

When fine art is ravaged by disaster—mold from flooding, dust from the World Trade Center attack—she’s got the chemicals and tools to help make the work look as good as new. But it’s not always easy. While she was working on a Works Progress Administration mural on scaffolding near the ceiling of a theater in New York, she sometimes had to take a deep breath to steady herself. “There were times when I’d lose my balance briefly,” she says. Falling off the scaffold wasn’t the only risky part of that job, though. Sometimes, simply flattening surfaces and melting adhesives with a tacking iron posed challenges: “When you’ve got electricity and little vials of water—well, there’s not a lot of leeway for mistakes.”   

Gerhard, who often wears a respirator and gloves, says even the best protective equipment couldn’t convince her to do some restoration work. “I have a colleague in Seattle who completed a treatment of a beautiful theater curtain that was made of asbestos,” she says. “I don’t think I would have done that job.”

The risks, of course, have rewards. “The pleasure of working with art—making it come alive again—makes it worth it,” she says.


Daniel Casper ’89 is a firefighter in Minneapolis.

Some of the most dangerous parts of firefighter Daniel Casper’s job happen before he even sees a flame.

Just getting to the fire can be downright treacherous. “We used to fly down city streets at 50 miles an hour, but those days are long gone,” says Casper ’89, who drives the fire truck. “People get killed by big trucks when you do that. There’s an unwritten rule that you don’t go more than 10 miles over the speed limit. But if it’s a confirmed fire, a heart attack, or a baby not breathing, you might stretch it a little bit.”

Once he is on the scene, navigating his way around a fire—especially if he’s not carrying a hose that can guide him back—is critically important. “The scariest thing I’ve ever experienced is losing my orientation inside a fire,” Casper says. “It’s pitch black, you’re wearing a hundred pounds of gear, and you can get stuck. You don’t feel heroic, you just feel like you’re stumbling around.”

Though a certain amount of danger has become almost commonplace for Casper, there are still situations that have had a deep effect on him—like the 35W bridge collapse in August 2007. While his crew arrived on the scene too late to rescue anyone from the wreckage, he supported the recovery efforts. “The people who were first on the scene took a lot of chances,” he says. “They worked diligently at triaging and extricating people. But they also knew they couldn’t trust the structure above them. It was very tenuous.”

For many potential firefighters, he says, the biggest risks are mental lapses, not physical dangers. “Some people just freeze in certain circumstances,” he says. “An icy rooftop, a really hot fire. In training, one of the first things you do is climb up one side of a 40-foot extension ladder that’s held straight in the air with guide wires, then climb down the other side. You have to overcome your fears.”

Expeditionary Artist

Maria Coryell-Martin ’04 travels from her Seattle studio to paint polar locations around the world.

Maria Coryell-Martin ’04 has had plenty of breathtaking experiences as she’s captured the world around her on paper and canvas. The expeditionary artist, who often travels to exotic places to pursue her passion, has had penguins cuddle up to her and fall asleep on her boots. She’s seen skies of unforgettable ochre and crimson. Oh, and she’s nearly slipped down a glacier’s crevasse.

“That was spooky,” she recalls of her trip to the Castle Glacier in British Columbia’s Cariboo Mountains, where she punched through the snowy cover all the way up to her thigh. “When you look down and all you see is a gaping black hole, you start to weigh the risks. It’s sobering.”

Coryell-Martin has been documenting far-flung locales by sketchbook since she was 12 and living in Japan; after she graduated from Carleton, she spent a year sketching landscapes in Mali, Greenland, and Tibet as part of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a one-year grant for independent study and travel outside the United States. These days, she’s doing portraits of glaciated regions including Greenland, Antarctica, and North America as part of the International Polar Year, an effort of more than 60 countries to promote research on and education about polar regions.

Slipping into a glacial abyss is just one of the hazards of the job. Frigid temperatures make it tough to hang on to a brush or a pen; her fingers go numb and hypothermia is a real risk. If she’s not careful, her watercolors turn into ice blocks. “Sometimes I have to add alcohol to my paint to lower the freezing temperature,” she says.

While bundling up and paying close attention to her surroundings can help her stay safe, just getting to the site can be a risky proposition. “Sometimes I ride in helicopters,” she says. “There’s basically one essential bolt that holds on the rotor, so I have second thoughts about riding in them. But there are always reasons to say no to something if it’s a little extreme. I try to find the reasons to say yes.”

Web Extra: View Coryell-Martin's paintings.

Medical Epidemiologist

Anne Moore ’70 is a medical epidemiologist in the parasitic diseases division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Anne Moore ’70 went to Sudan to help fight a sleeping sickness epidemic—but when she arrived, she also entered a war zone. When a Sudanese general waved his AK-47 at her chest, shouting at her and her colleagues, she knew she was getting more than she had bargained for.

Moore headed to Sudan in 1997 to serve as a technical adviser of a sleeping sickness control program with the help of colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and several nongovernmental organizations. Sleeping sickness—a disease that is always fatal unless it’s treated—had infected up to 20 percent of some Sudanese villages. “I suspect that if the program [which provided screening tests and treatment for those infected] wasn’t there, about 30,000 people would have died in Tambura County,” she says.

While managing a program like this was challenging enough, Moore and her colleagues had an additional complication: a civil war between the government of Sudan and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army. It was common, she says, to see soldiers with AK-47s and grenade launchers.

The scariest moment, though, came when Moore and her colleagues got caught between two factions of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army, fighting over the body of a man who had been killed while planning a mutiny. “A Sudanese doctor [at the hospital] thought he was supposed to perform an autopsy, but since he didn’t know how to do one, he asked us for help,” she says. “A general came in, furious, because he said it was a military affair and we needed to get out. He’s three feet away from me, pointing his AK-47 right at my chest. And we’re saying, ‘We don’t want the body! Take the body!’ ”

Moore returned to the United States in 2001, but she says she’d go back to Sudan in a heartbeat if she thought her work would make a difference. “It was incredibly gratifying to be able to intervene in this situation, where we could save tens of thousands
of lives,” she says. “I feel like I’ve justified my existence.” 

Bear Expert

Winter 09: BearLance Craighead ’69 is executive director of the Craighead Environmental Research Institute in Bozeman, Montana.

Lance Craighead ’69 had just crested a hill in Yellowstone Park when he saw a scene that made his stomach leap into his throat: an enormous grizzly bear with three yearlings. He backed away and rejoined his colleagues at the bottom of the hill, but soon the four bears came around the edge of the hill. “The bear stood up, the yearlings stood up, and they woofed at us,” he recalls. “Then they turned and ran away.”

It was one of the most nerve-jangling moments in Craighead’s four decades of studying carnivores. He’s pried open a grizzly’s mouth—while the bear was sedated—and navigated past inch-long choppers to wrench out premolars, which scientists use to determine a bear’s age. He’s traveled to desolate locations in tiny planes with failing engines. And he’s watched a grizzly sink its teeth into a colleague’s knee.

But even when Craighead is being charged—a bluff in which the bear stops 20 feet short, then runs off—he maintains a self-possession that’s common to conservationists. “Mardy Murie, an Alaskan conservationist, was in a tiny plane when the engine quit,” he says. “The pilot told them to cover their heads, but she said, ‘Young man, I’m 80 years old, and if I’m going to die, I want to see [it] happen.’ Fortunately, they landed safely.”

For Craighead, the inherent danger in some aspects of his job is a small price to pay to understand—and help maintain—a healthy ecosystem. “Carnivores are sensitive to human disturbance, and they’re at the top of the food chain,” he says. “If you’re able to maintain a population of grizzly bears, it’s a good measure of how the whole ecosystem is functioning. As long as there are big, wild places populated with wild animals, our environment is still working more or less the way it’s supposed to work.”

Web Extra: Learn more about the Craighead Environmental Research Institute.

Add a comment

The following fields are not to be filled out. Skip to Submit Button.
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)