Testing times – how to be a living experiment

What happened to your arms?!” my friend exclaims. Surprised, I glance down to find my forearms covered in neat black boxes drawn in felt-tip pen. “Oh!” I say suddenly remembering. “Well the Dermatology department were looking for volunteers …”

The sheer breadth and volume of research being done at the University of Sheffield is astounding. So it isn’t too surprising that you can easily find yourself contributing to it all as a test subject. But I’m not referring to those surveys which land in our email inbox every week (“Take this survey for my Masters Dissertation and you could win a £25 Amazon voucher!”). I’m talking about turning up in person to be experimented on. Sound daunting? Let me assure you that it is often very fun, and it can pay well too!

In the study involving boxes on my arms for instance, I was essentially paid £30 to have my arms washed with different substances to see how this affected ‘trans-epidermal water loss’. The researchers are hoping this could help develop treatments for premature babies with dry skin. For another medical study, I took a month’s course of probiotics to see how this affected my pain threshold (measured by holding my hand in a bucket of ice cold water as long as possible!). Admittedly, that was a little uncomfortable at the time but the £50 reward voucher soon took my mind off things!

Meanwhile, I’ve also had great fun in the Psychology Department – you never know quite what you will be asked to do. I’ve given my opinion on imaginary windfarms, navigated a firefighter through a burning house, test-driven a budgeting game and watched a role play where three students hid a ball from each other (at least fifty times). Usually there’s a twist to these studies that is only revealed at the end – after all, if you knew the full story it could bias the results. The budgeting game for example was rigged so that I would always end up in debt; the researchers wanted to know if this would make me take more risks with my money. Generally, these studies take between 30 minutes – 1 hour, making them an ideal study break to schedule in among lectures and tutorials. And once you’ve done one or two, you’ll often find yourself being invited back for follow-up studies or other projects in the same department, until it almost becomes a part-time job!

The only downside is that these projects generally won’t be publishing any data for another few years, so you won’t find out the significance of the results for a while. However, sometimes you can sign up to receive any research updates as they become available. Meanwhile, it is rather thrilling to think that you can contribute to research that extends public knowledge and could be used to improve our quality of life. And even if the long-term benefit is far off, you can have the immediate pleasure of spending your “earnings” right away.

To find a study recruiting volunteers, check your email inbox, look at departmental noticeboards (especially in the Medical School, Psychology Department and the Department of Computer Science) and take a look at the volunteering opportunities webpage which is updated regularly.

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