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”.