P&S Journal: Spring 1997, Vol.17, No.2
Students Under the Microscope
By Sally McLain
Deborah Gurner'96 keeps her eyes peeled for notices requesting volunteer human subjects for research. "When I think about it, we who volunteer are a certain breed," says the resident in internal medicine at CPMC. "It's not so much a need for money; it's a fun, interesting thing to do. I feel I'm making a contribution to society and it's always educational."
Dr. Gurner first volunteered for a research project as an undergraduate at Harvard. "I participated in a month-long study on fertility. It was fascinating, not demanding, paid close to $300, and was a very important study," she says. "It's really uplifting to know you yourself are the name and face behind the statistic and number." As a student, Dr. Gurner participated in at least 15 studies.
Brett Wasserlauf, a fourth-year student, has participated in about five research studies. "I was mostly interested in the money," he says, "which I used to help compensate for the high cost of living in New York."
Researchers using human subjects in studies need control groups--often a group of healthy, young individuals. Medical students tend to fit that bill. "For most of our diet studies we need healthy people," says Wahida Karmally, director of nutrition in the Irving Center for Clinical Research. "Recruiting subjects for research would be a lot harder without the students."
To outsiders, volunteering for a study may sound a little precarious. "My family was concerned about my participation," says Mr. Wasserlauf. "To them--not being tied to the medical field--they hear the words research subject and that triggers a negative response." Yet strict guidelines protect the rights and safety of research participants.
Dr. Donald S. Kornfeld, professor of psychiatry and chairman of the CPMC Institutional Review Board, says informed consent is a required step within a research protocol. "The federal government requires that all human research be reviewed by an institutional review board which consists of faculty and laymen. A great deal of attention is paid to the process by which subjects are recruited and the process of providing informed consent. All subjects must be made fully aware of all the risks and benefits."
Matt Cunningham, a sixth-year M.D./Ph.D. student, volunteered for a multicenter diet study. "To be perfectly honest, the major motivational factor was free food," he says. "But as the study progressed, I found it interesting how my body reacted to each diet." That study required participants to eat only meals prepared by diet technicians.
Mr. Wasserlauf says his most memorable research experience was as a control in a study on anxiety and panic attack disorders. "My head was put in a closed plastic space where they could control the oxygen and carbon dioxide level to a point where the body would compensate by hyperventilating," he says. "Then they'd ask questions about how I was doing."
Students enjoy nutrition studies because they don't have to cook, clean up, shop, or plan meals, says Ms. Karmally. "It's good food and it saves them money. In addition, it frees up time for studying."
Aside from learning about their own reactions to certain situations, contributing to important research, and gaining an understanding of the research process, students also sometimes learn the unexpected. "I learned," says Mr. Cunningham, "that I hate hazelnuts."