Research Participants: Do It for Science

During my first visit to UC Irvine, I remember various tour guides telling me that I would see and do things here that I never have before and that college would shed light on things I didn’t understand. I figured they just meant I’d see the occasional naked hallmate and maybe get involved in a club.

What  they were really referencing were the opportunities to grow as a student as well as help others to grow. I experienced something I had yet to encounter in my days here at UCI. I ventured into the school of medicine, past the ivory statues behind the science library and into a trailer in the medical school. What brought me here? My curiosity.

It had peaked when I went into Social Science Lab, hoping to finish up the last of my extra credits for a psychology class. All I remember was seeing a flyer and taking it, which was incredibly out of character for me, the professional flyer dodger on Ring Road. It wasn’t until later that this spontaneity continued, and I actually emailed the woman on the flier and told her that I was interested in participating in her learning and memory study.

What was I doing? I had all my credits for my class. There was no benefit of me signing up for another experiment. But I went through with it. That spontaneity had brought me to the part of campus that I had never been to: past Burke Hall and the Med Cafe, into a part near the edge of campus that was still exceptionally beautiful.

I felt so odd walking to the address the experimenter had given me. Here were all these medical students and then there I was, a first-year, horribly lost, and frantically rummaging through my brain trying to remember just what I had signed up for. All that I remembered was reading an email briefing me on what I would be doing. I walked up to a trailer near the address and knocked. A slender, friendly woman greeted me. She must have assumed I was the one from the email by reading the concerned and lost look on my face. She took me inside and briefed me on exactly what would happen. I would be getting an MRI done.  She could see I wasn’t exactly following, so she went into detail and told me it was all very safe. I was meant to stay still and just press a button for two hours while I laid comfortably in the machine. My only task was to press the button whenever I saw something I liked. I was also to press different directions to establish left and right. Seemed easy enough. She explained that the machine would be taking pictures of my brain and the different parts that I used when I differentiated between things I liked and recalling directions.

The woman led me over to the trailer that contained the MRI machine. With the help of another researcher, they  settled me in the machine. The space was very snug, but I found that almost comforting. The screen above me that I saw through a mirror was filled with images of the Milky Way. The process began with structural scans of my brain. Mid-thought, the other researcher’s voice gave me a start as it came from a speaker in the machine. He was ready for me to begin.

Different people’s faces flashed before my eyes and I had to decide whether or not I liked it. I didn’t like for instance, when the person was staring directly at me but I did when they were smiling. Other objects appeared like scalpels and broccoli. After each picture, I would have to choose left or right several different times. Toward the end of each segment, that simple task grew more and more difficult for me to grasp. Even further toward the end of the two hour session, I started to fall asleep in the machine. Afterward, they both thanked me for my help and even compensated me for my time, which was unexpected but greatly appreciated. I felt awesome after I had left, not because I made a few dollars, but because I was helping those two people continue their research.

Even if you don’t need to be a participant in an experiment for a class or anything like that, I highly encourage you to seek out new opportunities and help other students out. These researchers are usually very hungry for subjects and I know it would mean the world to them. Also, it gives you a neat story and expands your horizons to things that you may have never really experienced before. Now I sound like a tour guide to incoming freshmen, but however cheesy it may be, the point is accurate. Get out of your comfort zone. Try something for not only your benefit, but really for potentially expanding medical research that might cure an illness one day, and that is definitely rewarding.