The new part-time job: scientific study participant

Nowadays, eight-hour shifts and forfeited nights and weekends aren’t the only ways to keep from eating ramen three times a day and taking toilet paper from the coffee shop down the street — college students are taking a more scientific approach to making fast cash.

Scientific and medical trials, studies and procedures have become increasingly accessible ways for students in a decent state of wellbeing to earn extra, untaxed money.

From donating plasma to being the guinea pig for the newest concoction in face wash for acne-prone skin, students are setting aside their wariness in favor of extra padding in their bank accounts. One of the most prominently visited hotspots for paid studies in the Nashville community is Belmont’s neighbor school, Vanderbilt University.

“I got involved around freshman year because I was super tight on money and they were easy hour or two things to do for 10 or 20 bucks,” said David Logsdon, a junior at Belmont University.

Logsdon, like a growing number of other Belmont students, participates in paid lab studies at Vanderbilt University’s Department of Psychology through a research program called Sona-Systems, where graduate students and other principal researchers “study how the brain processes visual information,” principal investigator Geoffrey Woodman said.

These studies, which range from 30 minutes to three hours in length and, in some cases, continue in subsequent sessions over several days, pay around $10 an hour and consist of accomplishing simple tasks in what feels like — wait for it — a simple video game.

“The experiments that we run are very much like playing simple video games,” said Woodman. “We first have you hear a description of what the experiment will involve and then read a consent form. We encourage the participants to ask questions as often as possible. After being instructed about how to perform the task, we have you do some practice and ask any questions you might have.”

The video game-like experiments include tasks such as looking at computer monitors and responding quickly and as accurately as possible to what appears by pressing one of a couple of buttons — or, for many college students, getting paid well above minimum wage to do what they would normally be doing in their dorm rooms.

“It’s interesting when some of the studies feel like playing video games created for 6 year olds,” said Belmont junior Samantha Schaumberg, who enjoys these small studies because they “pay well and don’t have a high time commitment.”

“Some of the memory studies are interesting,” added Schaumberg. “They’ll show you a picture of Angelina Jolie’s face, then put it next to a picture of Tina Fey and a non-famous person and cover up the top part of their face and ask which one is Angelina Jolie, without names of course, but they do use a lot of famous faces.”

Some of these experiments even include exploring a virtual reality, if only for an hour or two.

“The coolest thing I got to do was put on a virtual helmet and try and remember where I walked so that way they could experiment on how we remember where we are going in a familiar and non-familiar space, like in your house or something,” said Logsdon.

While these short, low-pressure studies are an easy way for students to earn a quick $20 and have fun doing it, there are students who have sought to look beyond a simple memory experiment for studies and procedures of a higher intensity, which, naturally, lead to higher compensation.

“There was a study that involved increasing the levels of dopamine in my brain,” said Schaumberg of a $325 experiment, which continued over the course of several days in various sessions and involved an MRI and PET scan and the injection of different levels of dopamine. The purpose of the experiment was to research how this chemical influences self-regulation and impulsivity.

“I participated because they said everyone else who had did not show any side effects from this part of the experiment.”

Schaumberg is not the only student ready to donate her body to science for what would amount to an entire week’s paycheck at a minimum wage job. There are diehard students who go into this for the gold, literally and figuratively speaking.

Lauren James, a junior at Belmont, initially got involved with Vanderbilt’s open scientific and medical studies during the spring semester of her freshman year. Since that time, she has become a seasoned participant in studies for Vanderbilt’s Department of Psychology, Clinical Research Center and Kennedy Center. She’s even been contacted by the departments to participate in various procedures.

Although the studies she participates in are typically longer than one to three hours and certainly more high caliber than playing a simple video game, she gets paid anywhere from $150 to $1,000 per trial.

“I have done MRIs, PET scans, mental evaluations, back pain procedure, EEGs, etc.,” said James.

“They’re always so cool to do, especially ones like MRIs. They printed out the scans of my brain and I got to ask what everything meant,” she said. “Paid studies range in time frame. The really big paying ones are typically multiple sessions over a couple weeks time frame. I’ve done one that lasted two months and have done some that last as little as 15 minutes.”

Throughout several of the lengthier studies she’s participated in, James has been paid to do two of the things college kids do best — eat and sleep.

“There was one study I did that required me to eat a high sodium diet for a week,” said James. “They provided the food, which was great because I didn’t have to buy groceries that week. Salads, sandwiches, frozen dinner meals, fruits, veggies … it was yummy stuff. I wasn’t complaining at all. Basically, I got paid $150 to eat for a week.”

“I got to sleep during my MRI and PET Scans,” added James. “Nine hours. $325.”

In her favorite study to date, James was asked to do what every student inwardly longs for — sleep for a four-figure paycheck.

“My $1000 study involved six nights at Vanderbilt doing a sleep study,” said James. “I had all these crazy wires hooked up to me. I got paid to sleep. There was more to the study, but that was definitely my favorite one I’ve done.”

 Although the pay can be well worth the discomfort for some, scientific and medical studies and procedures, even the low caliber ones, are not for everyone. Even the virtual reality video game studies come with the risk of inducing motion sickness.

In a back pain study she participated in, James was injected with morphine, placebo and a standard back pain medication over the course of three sessions. She was paid $400, but experienced dizziness and sickness as side effects of the experiment.

Needles are also a common factor of higher-paying studies.

“Over the past couple of years, blood draws have become the norm with studies,” said James, who, in one study involving eating habits, had 17 vials of blood drawn on three separate occasions. “I used to hate needles, now I’m completely fine with them.”

Despite the exposure to temporarily uncomfortable circumstances, James has never felt unsafe and recommends participation to other students looking to earn a little extra money on the side.

“I have yet to feel like something I’m doing isn’t safe,” said James. “If it’s a medical procedure, I’m at Vanderbilt Medical Center, so I know I am getting the best care. I always know what is happening and know that if anything were to go wrong, they would provide the medical attention needed right away.”

“It’s really an easy way to earn some cash,” added James. “I like the fact that I can schedule my studies on my own time. They are very flexible to a college student’s scheduling, which is really helpful. I find it really weird when I hear people say, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing these paid studies …’ My answer? ‘Why not?’ I made $2000 in a year’s time doing paid studies. You don’t have to do studies that involve weird injections that might turn you blue. You have the power to decide what you do.”

If for nothing else, there’s always invitation for participation in the name of scientific discovery.

“You’re also helping with research,” said James. “It’s awesome to get money, but it’s an even better feeling knowing you are helping with the betterment of science. I first started out wanting to do it for the money so I could have cash to go to concerts, but now I’ve realized how much my participation helps these researchers. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

Logsdon and Schaumberg, on the other hand, do not recommend other students participate in these studies — only for the fact that this would leave less available slots for them.

“I’d rather there weren’t hundreds of people who know about these experiments,” said Schaumberg. “Because then the available slots would fill up before I can sign up myself.”

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