Research Subjects

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To my doe-eyed high school self, “research” was a term thrown around in ivy-covered college admissions tours, nightly news reports, and the wellness section of the Times. I imagined pipettes, fluorescently lit blobs of green appearing in petri dishes and evoking “Eureka!” moments, and the subsequent congratulatory handshakes and awe directed towards the green-blob-discoverer’s ingenuity. I found this picture romantic in its clean austerity.

The summer after my freshman year, I thought I had stumbled upon a Eureka moment a few days into my summer assistantship at the Center for Sleep and Cognition. My postdoc, Matt, and I had just wired a research subject to a new EEG cap. As we looked at the computer measuring the healthy undergraduate’s brain waves, Matt gasped and said he had never seen anything like this before. He stared at the screen with his mouth wide open, his right hand hovering above his salad. A part of me thought that the synchronous, gently modulating waves we looked at were telling us a long-sought secret to understanding the inner workings of the mind, and my stomach flipped a bit as I began to imagine news crews rushing to our lab to report the breakthrough. But Matt said that the cap was, in fact, recording nothing: the waves on the screen were actually electrical noise generated from our surroundings. It took a few hours to fix.

This became an unexpected theme in my research experience – equipment malfunction, broken wires, electrical impedance, occasional back aches from filling 64 electrical ledes with conductive gel, computers simply losing steam. I took a break from the lab to do history research in the American Medical Association’s archives, where the only technological problem I ever encountered was my credit card getting declined during a pastry break. I returned to sleep science – this time on the clinical side – after college and prepared myself to face faulty wires and the sort head-on. I got it – research was messy, and you just had to power through the little inconveniences to get reliable data.

The study I worked on investigated the effect of sleep apnea on overnight memory consolidation. The subjects who came in for sleep studies were paid relatively handsomely for sitting and chatting or watching TV while I put wires on their scalp, doing a little memory task, and sleeping overnight in the hospital.

I didn’t have a false Eureka alarm this time around, but the starkest difference that I noticed between my research experiences in the sleep lab was in the subjects. Before I joined the apnea study, the subjects I’d worked with were undergrads looking for cash over the summer so that they could go out for dinner on Newbury Street. My apnea subjects were a little bit different. Their median age was north of 60. They tended to be quiet at first, but because measuring the circumference of their head and sticking electrodes on their abdomens proved to be awkward in silence, I usually tried to strike up whatever conversation was possible.

One woman, Ella, wore her long silvery hair in two braids every day. I thought her big black eyes and breathy voice were reminiscent of a Harry Potter character. After we got past her monosyllabic answers to my standard, weather-related questions, I found out that she had braided her hair every day for multiple decades, and tended to a vegetable garden that had kept her occupied since her husband’s recent death. Peter was a research subject in his late 60s whose day-to-day life seemed to involve a wealth of TV shows and movies, and he emphatically told me that he preferred the Twilight series to Night at the Museum. He said that on rainy weekdays, he could go to the movie theater before 11 AM to get a senior matinee discount, and stay inside and bounce around from one movie showing to another. “I didn’t know you could do that, that’s pretty cool,” I said. “Well, I mean, everyone does it and nobody really says anything,” he explained.

Jackson was a somewhat elderly man whose involvement in the study had been disrupted due to a temporary plan to move to rural Mexico. This plan didn’t work out, so he continued to live on a Cambridge street named after a seminal 19th century natural historian. Without prompt, he recited to me theories he found compelling on the genetic divergence between various forms of amphibians. He had been such a regular at Harvard’s zoology library from the time he was young that he was allowed access, despite no formal affiliation with the university. He carefully monitored his diet and kept up to date with studies published on the consequences of excessive sugar consumption. His cat drank filtered water, and became confused when Jackson began to use a noisy CPAP machine to aid his breathing while he slept.

Sleep-disordered breathing patterns and age weren’t the only things that these subjects shared in common – from my point of view, they all seemed lonely. My PI, a neurologist, explained that this wasn’t uncommon in the clinic, either. Medical visits and research studies were automatic ways for people to interact with someone, to maybe share some of their insecurities, to be somewhere, doing something.

I told my sister about the movie theater man, and how his hobby made me a little bit sad. “Why?” she asked. “It makes him happy!”

Perhaps my sister was right – my social crowd, in our early to mid 20s, was constantly busy with activities and meet-ups, consumed by anxiety about what type of job we wanted, or where to socialize. In the context of Facebook invitations to parties and hip rock climbing walls and concerts, going to the movies alone on a Wednesday morning didn’t sound that exciting. But somehow my subjects seemed happy to be a part of my research study and tell me their stories, in a way that my friends and I weren’t always happy to be at a neighbor’s holiday party. Our jaded on-screen contemporaries written by Lena Dunham and the like felt more accurate than I’d ever wanted to admit: we didn’t really appreciate the interactions we always had, readily available.

The “clean austerity” I originally imagined in research is undoubtedly important, even if it’s less pretty than a picture of white lab coats and goggles and pipettes. Even though I was just 22 and felt automatic deference to my research subjects’ age, I had to command their compliance with protocol. A man who brought wine with him in juice bottles had to be excluded from the study, as familiar as his trick was. Ultimately, preserving the data’s integrity by exercising objective judgment was important if I ever wanted my proverbial green “Eureka” blob.

Nonetheless, even apart from technology mishaps or endless paperwork headaches, clinical research can have its own dimension of mess. The data is human, and the research assistant gets a little bit attached to the research subject from time to time. The research assistant remembers the man who buys his cat filtered water when she walks by the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The research assistant thinks of a subject’s backyard-to-table carrot soup when things begin to bloom after Boston’s hellish winter. The research assistant wonders whether it’s better to learn to compartmentalize people’s stories and problems by the time she becomes a doctor seeing patients. The research assistant think she might give the Twilight series another shot.