Selling science: an overview of experimental studies at Dartmouth

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We examine what it means to be a student participating in experimental studies at Dartmouth.

by Eliza Dunn | 02/02/22 02:15

Coming out of Sanborn last week, I found a poster stuck on the door. In big orange letters, it advertised a “research opportunity,” surrounded by cartoon images of test tubes and brains. I stopped to read, intrigued: “Register now to participate in a study on empathy and compassion towards animals!” The logistical information was presented clearly: Where? Moore Room. When? Two MRI sessions in the morning. Compensation? Up to $200 and – highlighted in bright yellow – an image of your own brain.

The registration form was conveniently linked to a QR code at the bottom of the poster. I scrolled down the form, which provided more general information about the study. I clicked through the first few pages of the registration form, going through the sections on data collection, payment, filtering, privacy, and consent. After this detailed information, however, the registration seemed quite easy: just press the “I accept” button on the screen. Although I ultimately decided not to volunteer as a participant, a few days later I had the opportunity to discuss the study with its principal investigator, professor of neuroscience, and director of the neuroscience lab. cognitive and affective, Dr. Tor Wager.

“We studied emotion and affect, which is basically how you create feelings,” Wager said.

In this particular study, he describes, “people watch movies where there are legal, currently practiced animal production processes… [where] animals really suffer.

Using MRI, Dr. Wager and his team are evaluating how watching these videos affects participants’ brains and immune systems. To do this, they need volunteers.

“We recruit broadly from the community, not just students,” Dr. Wager said. “We put up flyers and advertising… [and] people are very interested in signing up.

In Dr. Wager’s study, participants donate blood samples and undergo two MRI scans, which they are allowed to keep afterwards. According to Dr. Wager, brain imaging studies are common in the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences thanks to the MRI scanner located at Moore Hall.

Another experimental study currently underway at Dartmouth is looking to improve oral alternatives to the polio vaccine. Sirey Zhang ’20, a current student at Geisel involved in the study, explained that while most people in the United States receive the injected polio vaccine, there are oral alternatives that actually confer greater immunity. The catch, however, is that they are less protective against viral mutations. Zhang’s team, along with teams from schools like the University of Vermont and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are working to develop a new oral vaccine that prevents these breakthrough cases.

Although poliomyelitis has been eradicated in the United States, it still exists in many countries around the world.

“There is something huge to be said about humanity coming together, working hard to eradicate this disease that has done so much harm,” Zhang said.

Much of this effort comes from study participants, many of whom are Dartmouth students. In order to recruit volunteers, Zhang’s team posted advertisements on Facebook and hung posters in places such as Dick’s House and the Hop. They also used Listserv, sending an email I remembered getting at the start of term. Zhang’s team has recruited over twenty patients so far.

In terms of demographics, attendees are split “half and half” between Dartmouth undergraduates and members of the Upper Valley community. Each patient receives one dose of the oral vaccine, after which stool samples are taken weekly or every two weeks for at least fifty-seven days, along with other monitoring processes. Participants receive $1,100 or $1,200 – depending on which group they are placed in – as compensation.

Studies like Zhang’s are closely tied to both Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital and the College.

“Dartmouth-Hitchcock is a teaching hospital,” Zhang said. “It’s close to the college, it’s a lot of research activities, [and] there are a lot of trials and studies that involve… recruiting students.

These students may participate out of interest in the study, to earn money on the side, or to earn “T points” for psychology or neurology courses. As explained by Yangyang Li ’22, these T points, accumulated by participating in studies, can increase the student’s grade by a certain amount. Li herself has participated in various studies since the fall of freshman year. One study involved receiving burns and assessing her pain response, while another, to which she is still technically contributing, uses an app to collect data on her daily habits.

“I’m pretty sure he tracks a lot of information,” Li remarked. “Like how much I walk, where I go, where I stand… stuff like that.”

“But as far as what the study does,” Li added. “Actually, I have no idea.”

She doesn’t even know if the researchers will eventually reveal the purpose of the study to her – though she hopes they will, out of self-interest. Li described that her participation in the study was primarily motivated by the incentive to receive class credit.

“I’m not really like ‘oh wow, I’m so proud of myself.’ At the time, it was just something I did to improve my grade… [and] earn some extra cash on the side.

However, Li added that as an economics and math student, she “really [understands] the importance of data. Her contribution to the study is not lost on her: “because it takes ten seconds out of my day, I’m like ‘why not help?'”

Dr. Wager echoed the importance of student participation in research, even if it is motivated by compensation or the accumulation of T points.

“I think participating in research is a partnership,” he said. “[Volunteering for studies] is invaluable to science, to our research community, and to making Dartmouth the great intellectual institution that it is. And students are part of it. »

These partnerships – between student and researcher, study participant and scientific knowledge – drive the collective advancement of knowledge at Dartmouth. In a school where researchers and students coexist and interact on a daily basis, both groups are able to actively contribute to a growing body of knowledge and a strengthened academic community. These studies, from Sirey Zhang’s polio vaccine to Dr. Wager’s investigation of animal empathy, offer nearly every Dartmouth student the opportunity to participate in groundbreaking research – and perhaps earn a little extra money.

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