Putting The ‘Me’ In Experiment

What can scientists do to encourage people to take part in experiments? Here are five lessons learnt from Jordan’s first experience as a research guinea pig!


AsianScientist (Oct. 16, 2015) – Life lessons occur in the strangest of situations.

I recently learnt the secret to turning humans into guinea pigs for the benefit for science without the guinea pig wanting to run for the hills.

This occurred to me while my seven-year-old son Jordan was methodically turned from boy to robot, his entire upper body criss-crossed by wires, electrodes stuck to his head.

A study in sleep

A few weeks before, I had spotted an article in the local community newspaper asking for children to volunteer for a sleep study run by the University of Otago.

“We require children who are not suffering any health issues that affect sleep or would make wearing a watch-sized device around their waist and wrist difficult,” the report had said.

When I told Jordan about it, he mulled over it for a few minutes and said he wanted to participate.

I thought it was a great way for him to experience first-hand what scientists do. He thought it would be cool to be in an experiment.

He signed up, and a few weeks later, two researchers from the university turned up 45 minutes before bedtime to kit him out in the overnight sleep gear.

What transpired over the next 12 hours not only gave me fresh insight into how empirical research works, but strangely enough, taught me some important truths about winning over customers.

  1. Get to know your audience.

    How do you quickly develop rapport with a child to the point that he will let you stick electrodes to his hair with putty and surgical tape?

    Cliff’s notes answer: Harry Potter.

    The university researchers came armed with a lot of equipment and paraphernalia, one of which was a Harry Potter drawstring bag. This, they explained, was for us to place the wires and other bits the morning after.

    As soon as Jordan saw the bag, he relaxed and accepted that anyone who appreciated Harry and Dumbledore knew what they were doing.

    This nascent trust that developed between researcher and participant was put to a critical test the next day (see point 2).

  2. Don’t lose sight of the basics amidst the bling of new technology.

    For all the high-tech gadgetry that the experiment relied on, in the end, from a participant point-of-view, it boiled down to the basics.

    And by basics, I mean putty. The stuff you use to seal cracks in plaster. The same stuff (more or less) that was used to adhere the electrodes to Jordan’s head, with added surgical tape on top for good measure.

    At the time, it seemed like a good idea, to keep the electrodes in place so he would get a better night’s sleep.

    What we hadn’t counted on was how difficult it would be to remove the combination of putty and tape from Jordan’s thick head of hair! The alcohol swabs provided by the research team had no effect on the industrial-strength goop.

    Suffice to say it involved a lot of wincing, some tears and at one point, a bitter howl from a young boy, “I didn’t realize science could be evil!”

    In the end, it took about 40 cotton pads saturated with nail polish remover and a good half an hour to remove the goop.

    What eventually bought back goodwill was the fact that the putty encrusted electrodes were placed in the Harry Potter bag.

  3. Keep it real.

    Like all customers, when dealing with children, managing expectations is key.

    For example, instead of saying that a a visit to the dentist will be “a little tickly”, I just tell my kids that it can often be uncomfortable, and there will probably be some pain, but the discomfort usually lasts a short time and the results are so worth it.

    The sleep study’s pre-experiment information sheet said that “The sensors do not hurt, but might be slightly uncomfortable, although this is unlikely.”

    While it was true that the sensors did not hurt while you wore them, they did hurt when you tried to take them off. So it was either a case of prepare the participant for that scenario, or find a different putty/tape adhesive combo!

  4. Help the participant see the bigger picture.

    I’m happy to say that Jordan’s main takeaway from his experience was not the pain of the morning after, but ultimately, of having been part of a study that would help children who have sleeping issues.

    Specifically, the study aimed to find out if a newly-developed small wristwatch-sized device was an accurate method to measure children’s sleep and physical activity, compared to the existing contraption of tangled wires and electrodes. As Jordan said, “Hopefully the watch works just as well, so that sick children won’t have to put those electrodes in their hair!”

    He eventually took back his statement about science being ‘evil.’ Now that term is just reserved for Voldemort and putty. Two nouns I never would have picked to be in the same sentence, so there you go.

  5. Acknowledge the value of their contribution

    A few weeks after the experiment, on a sunny day when he was least expecting it, an enveloped arrived for Jordan containing a number of things: a snapshot of the key readings from his sleep study, a personalized certificate signed by the researchers replete with his robot-y photo, and a gift card from a great toy store.

    The experiment was book-ended by positive memories, and, putty-aside, I’m pretty sure was the beginning of many more adventures in science experimentation to come.

This article is from a monthly column called Mushroom Mum. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Source: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Dora Yip.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Dora Yip lives in Dunedin, New Zealand, and is mom to six-year-old Jordan and two-year-old Jonah.

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