University of Iowa biochemist John Donelson's brush with disaster during a 1987 expedition to West Africa is a prime example of the kind of nightmare that can occur when a scientist embarks on a research project in a Third World country. For weeks Donelson had been touring remote areas in Mali and Cameroon, collecting parasite specimens from natives infected with onchocerciasis, a disease prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. Midway through the Cameroon leg of his trip, Donelson ran low on the liquid nitrogen he used to quick-freeze the organisms. Unless he could replenish his supply, his specimens would thaw, and all of the time, effort, and money invested in his enterprise would be lost.

Hasty inquiries uncovered only a single source of liquid nitrogen in the entire country, but the facility was no longer functioning. Just when things looked utterly hopeless, one of the Cameroonian scientists who had accompanied Donelson into...

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