Home Science CommunicationOutreach & engagement Being a research volunteer for a study

Being a research volunteer for a study

by Eva Amsen

I’ve experienced the other side of research recently. A number of weeks ago I spent an afternoon working with Cambridge students in their department. I wasn’t doing the research, I was the research. I was a research volunteer for a perception study.

I’d been a test subject before, when during my undergrad in Amsterdam I did a number of psychology experiments in exchange for bookstore vouchers. But those were all small studies, and I often didn’t feel that I knew what they were actually testing, leading me to suspect that the whole procedure was some kind of Stanley Milgram-inspired experiment. For example, on one of these occasions, I was given a fifteen minute break in which the student doing the experiment took me to the Human Movement Science department in the same building, where they were also doing experiments on human volunteers. I was asked if I wanted to do a quick 5 minute wall-climbing task within my 15 break in the other study, but it didn’t look fun enough so I declined. But what if that was the test! What if the whole “which picture is different” task I was doing ad naseum was just a ruse to discover whether people would be willing to take two steps on a climbing wall with very short notice? That was ten years ago now, and I haven’t yet seen any studies on “Spontaneous Wall Climbing” come out of Amsterdam, but you never know – these things may take years!

When I found an ad on Facebook for a study in Cambridge looking for volunteers, I was again expecting it to be a similarly mysterious black box, where they just asked volunteers to do some random tasks without saying what it was for. I understand why that is, of course: you don’t want to influence your test subjects if they know what you’re looking at. But this study was different: they were doing a genetic study of perception, and they were very open about what they were studying. (Perhaps because you can’t suddenly change your genes anyway, even if they tell you what they’re looking at.) What’s more, I even qualified! I took the online questionnaire, which did have some odd questions in it, but they were also explained when I came to the lab a few weeks later.

The test day involved a rotation through several dark computer labs, each with a computerized perception test. One of them I found very difficult, almost impossible even, as I couldn’t see what I was “supposed” to see – not even in the “easy” example I got before the test started. I felt like I was failing the test, but then remembered that there is no “fail” – I just have a phenotype! Other tests were easy for me, but probably difficult for others.

The research group updates all participants of the study’s progress, with occasional e-mails about how it’s going and which conference they will present the data. In the latest update they wrote:
“We have now tested more than 800 people and so we are nearing our planned target of 1000. We hope to complete the testing phase of the study by July 31. We are not allowing ourselves to analyse data as we go along (since there’s always the danger that we might be influenced in the way we carry out the testing) but we hope to be in a position to report preliminary results from the visual testing at the European Conference on Visual Perception, at the end of August.”

They still need a few more people in the next few weeks, so if you’re in Cambridge and have some time to spare, go check out the Pergenic site. You need to be of European descent (since that is the genetic background they’re looking at) and within a certain age group to qualify.

Research on human volunteers is quite different from what I’ve done on the other side of the bench. People are reduced to data points, and I’ve been sent a government paper in the past in which I was reduced to one data point in an analysis of Dutch students who continued their studies abroad. But I did like that they sent me that paper, and I also like that Pergenic is updating their participants. It really puts the “human” in “human volunteer”.

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Nicolas Fanget June 29, 2010 - 10:32 AM

Nice, I also got tested for visual performance, but that was at the army screening for national service! My results were so odd I ended up with three seemingly high-ranking army doctors (white coats over uniforms) taking me through the test three times! National service got scrapped before I got called in though so that was the end of my involvement with the French army.

If you’re into being experimented on, try the Trek study. They’re testing an anti-diarrhoea patch vaccine, and sending you to South/Central America for free in the bargain! Needless to say, I have signed in, travel due in September if all goes well…

Eva Amsen June 29, 2010 - 11:02 AM

I only like tests that don’t involve needles or drug trials. I’m the scared kind of guinea pig

Nicolas Fanget June 29, 2010 - 11:21 AM

Well strictly speaking a vaccine prevents illness whereas a drug treats it, so you’re in the clear… And man, South America!

Only thing that puts me off a bit is that should I get ill, I’ll have to collect samples with a kit I’m supposed to carry with me everywhere…

Eva Amsen June 29, 2010 - 1:23 PM

But it’s a _test_ – what if the vaccine _doesn’t work_!
I prefer non-invasive testing done on me. But it’s good that there are people like you, too!
Incidentally, I completely forgot to mention in the context of the topic of perception tests that I have difficulty associating the words “left” and “right” with their respective directions. It wasn’t a problem on the test I did, but it is a perception phenotype I already knew I had. It’s relatively common, but I didn’t know it was a thing until I read a description of it somewhere. _Apparently_ most people find “left” and “right” as obvious as “up” and “down”. (If you say “point up!” nobody accidentally points down.) If you tell me to “point left!” I have to think “left is the hand I don’t write with, so that’s on this side.” I will also happily take a highway exit marked “east” when I need to be in the west part of town, and only realize once I’m on the new road that I’m driving in the wrong direction now…

Nicolas Fanget June 29, 2010 - 1:44 PM

That test in particular isn’t too invasive (apart from the eventual poo samples), it’s a patch vaccine. I’m actually quite curious to see how it works, I’ll make sure to ask questions at the medical and report anything of interest here (if there is no NDA etc). And maybe it does work, but I’m given the placebo!

Either way I’ll take the usual precautions once I’m there, i.e. drink only homoeopathic "remedies", succussion must be good against bacteria/norovirus!

Cath Ennis June 29, 2010 - 6:20 PM

I’d be too scared to try anything too invasive – but I always seem to get sick when I travel, so I’d probably try the vaccine patch!
The visual study sounds interesting. I think my sister must have the same thing you do, Eva – she knows left from right (most of the time), but is hopeless with East and West. To the extent that she tells people she’s from the “North-Right of England”.

vishal kalel June 29, 2010 - 11:15 PM

This week’s Nature Podcast discusses about Blind Sight and the recent paper on it in Nature.
The phenomenon is very interesting. The patients with damage in visual cortex, can lead to a state where the person can see the object but are not aware of it..!
I too like to read Books.. but cannot afford to buy them. And above all Sadly whenever I find an ad for volunteership for such tests here, the last line is “Good knowledge of German required!” sheiße…
recently I blogged about Brains behind nobels. In that I talked about Dr.Roger Sperry, who by using simple Split-Brain experiments, proved that Brain is not symmetric in function. One can play this somewhat funny game on Nobel Website itself (Split-Brain Experiment). The most interesting part is that some patients can see an object but cannot interpret it, while some can interpret it by touching, but not even looking at it!
Science is FUN..!

Eva Amsen June 30, 2010 - 11:05 AM

Cath, it’s called left-right confusion for left and right, but is probably the same thing for east and west. I found this short blog post about it:
What he/she (can’t tell from the name!) describes in the first paragraph happens to me a lot. I will say “left” but actually mean “right”, and it will take a while to realize that I used the wrong word for the direction I was thinking of.

Shelley Edmunds July 25, 2010 - 1:42 AM

Remember when I came to visit you in Toronto and spent an hour walking in the wrong direction wondering why nothing on my map lined up? I actually did pretty much the same thing in Tokyo (fortunately they have maps on nearly every street corner). So yeah, I definitely have left-right confusion although I tend to call it ‘poor sense of direction’ since it seems to be pretty general. I’ve been known to say east and point north when trying to describe something to the west, the words and movements really just don’t line up in my brain with an actual place.
I actually love google streetview because of this. I’ve learnt to navigate by landmarks since I can never remember which way to turn even when I’ve done it a million times before so being able to see what things look like before I get there is awesome.

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