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101 Feature

Part-Time Pincushions

Local students earn cash by donating their bodies—and minds and time—to science

Photo: Deanna Staffo, License: N/A

Deanna Staffo


During my freshman year at Johns Hopkins University, I went through a pincushion phase. I let myself be poked, rubbed, blindfolded, scanned, recorded, and stuck with needles by people I didn’t know. No, it wasn’t a soul-searching attempt gone masochistic. It was simply an attempt to get rich (or less poor) quick.

Like many college students, my bank account was nearing the single digits, and my curiosity was piqued by the highlighter-pink fliers posted around campus, screaming figures like $1,000 for those willing to participate in one of the roughly 3,600 medical and psychological studies conducted at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in 2009 alone. It was almost impossible to resist tearing off one of the tabs and, eventually, calling a number to volunteer.

In the first experiment I participated in as a human test subject, I had my finger tapped repeatedly by a machine; after evaluating the strength of each tap, I got paid $20 for two hours. OK, not so bad compared to dealing with angry customers and screaming babies of a retail or food-service job.

Eventually, after doing psychological experiments for a few months, I got braver, and went in for an electroencephalography (EEG) at the Kennedy Krieger Institute for the big bucks. A cold, clear lotion was rubbed into my hair and electrodes were attached to my scalp. I sat there looking like Medusa for two hours, staring at streams of colored letters on a computer screen, until they removed the wires, offered me the sink to wash up, and sent me on my way. I rode home on the bus with chunks of goo clinging to my hair and a pay voucher for $160 in my pocket.

Baltimore students are surrounded by hubs of scientific research, from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, the University of Maryland Medical School downtown, and a network of labs on various campuses. Besides being bombarded with flyers, researchers place ads for study participants (including, it must be noted, the publication you’re reading). Students can also use web clearinghouses (like clinicaltrials.gov) and government-sponsored sites, such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s web site, to find active research studies in Baltimore. With such resources, electrodes to the brain and a quick buck are just a hop, skip, and shuttle ride away.

A two-hour long MRI can go for $75, a psych test for $10 a pop, and the longer inpatient studies can bring in anything from several hundred dollars to up to $2,000, depending on the number of visits and drugs administered. It’s a perfect fit, really: Who is more in need of cash and has more free time than college students?

Samara Rutenberg, a Hopkins senior, says she “basically covered all [her] funds for last summer” by doing psychological experiments and MRIs.

Rutenberg got into the gig freshman year and says she averages about five experiments a semester. Not knowing anyone who had done it before, she just “kinda went for it” and found that she wasn’t the only one doing it.

“One time I was in [Ames Hall] doing an hour-long experiment,” Rutenberg recalls. “You did a search task, and they tracked your eye movements, so if you did something wrong, the machine would beep at you. At one point, I could hear all the beeps through the walls, because everyone was screwing up at the same time.”

Some experiments can carry risks more substantial than sore eyes from staring at a computer screen. Unpleasant side effects can occur, and in rare cases study participants have died. Such extreme outcomes, however, primarily occur with volunteers who were already ill and whose trial therapies involved previously untested medications.

For Ben Silverstein, who graduated from Hopkins in May, side effects were never an issue. He did everything from taking commonly used drugs, such as Valium, alcohol, and Vicodin, to an outpatient sleep study to simple psychological tests, but says that he stayed away from studies that sounded too risky.

“Everything I did was tried and tested medications,” he says. “Sometimes there would be a strange experience where I didn’t know what the drug [was], and all of the sudden I’d start feeling its effects. That can be odd, but it was never especially uncomfortable.”

Dr. Mark Liu, who conducts trials of new treatments for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the Asthma and Allergy Center at Bayview, explains in an e-mail that human guinea pigs are irreplaceable. “There is no way to reliably test for side effects and efficacy of new treatments without exposing people to the treatments,” he writes. “Even though some effects may be predicted on the basis of pre-clinical testing, there is simply no substitute for human trials and exposures. The field could not advance without people willing to take the risk and inconvenience of participating.” (Disclosure: Liu advertises in City Paper for healthy volunteers for his studies.)

In rare cases, the study appeals as much as the money. A recent Hopkins graduate who will be referred to here as Ted and now goes to medical school in another state, was turned down for several studies before being accepted into a study of the effects of marijuana on insomnia. The 25 participants went through a seven-day lockdown at Bayview, where they spent their days smoking weed and reading books, playing basketball and pool, talking, and watching TV. The only things they couldn’t do were go on the internet and nap.

The volunteers were given 15 pre-rolled joints the first three days, tested for coordination and motor skills on computer exams, and given either a placebo or a sleeping pill at night to see how they slept. For the first three days, the participants followed an all-you-can-smoke policy from 1 to 9 p.m.

“Being stoners, we vowed to finish them all each day,” he says. “On the first day, the computer testing was longer since there was [a] training period and such, so we weren’t able to start smoking until around 3. For those six hours, we power smoked so that sometimes we were smoking up to four joints in a sitting, just to make the quota of 15.”

But it wasn’t exactly the stoner paradise Ted expected, as test subjects are always closely monitored. “We pretty much didn’t have any contact with the outside world,” he says. “There was always someone walking us to the main hospital. We got urine tested to make sure we didn’t have any other [substances] in us. They would have nurses walking around to make sure we didn’t fall asleep to maintain their testing.” At the end of the week, Ted had smoked about 40 grams of weed and was about $700 richer.

Most studies aren’t that intensive, or that stoner-friendly, but they often prove to be an uncomplicated, low-commitment way to score a relatively large payback (and some good stories) for little effort. And the poking and prodding, the sitting and waiting, the tediousness and weirdness, are for the good of science, after all.

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