How much pain will buy you a meal?

Jan 23 2009 Published by under Academia, Synaptic Misfires

My illustrious coblogger points out that by taking part in research studies, a graduate student can actually afford to do things like, well, eat. Normally relegated to scraping the crumbs off the post-seminar cookie tray, or sneaking into a urology luncheon and being forced to sit through an hour talk on ureter infections only to have the opportunity to pick through the dregs of the boxed sandwich choices (ultimately finding the pimiento cheese spread/sprout pita to be the sole viable option), graduate students eke out a meager existence where we're pitted against each other to fight for the best cuts of meat, build a bagel sandwich and retreat to the darkest corner of the room to nibble at our precious creation during tutorial. If you're lucky, few people will show up and you can take home the last poppy seed bagel, warm ham, and a mayonnaise packet for your dinner.
It doesn't have to be that way.

The key to more than mere culinary survival in graduate school is to volunteer for research studies. I took part in more projects than I could count. Some don't pay squat. I once spent 2 hours a day for ten days sitting in front of an infrared tracking system that monitored shifts in my visual search patterns and movements of my finger as I followed a dot around a screen. I made about 100 bucks for that. At the time, I thought it a princely sum. Then I discovered where the real money was: in pain.
That's right. Pain. If you want to make money being a lab rat, seek out the pain studies. Furthermore, seek out pain studies that involve imaging the brain with a radioactive tracer. You're looking at a minimum of 250 bucks for an hour or two of your time. One study I did paid about 300 to test a spinal analgesic and subsequently burn my leg with a heat probe. Ok so there's that risk of being paralyzed from the waist down. But I ate like a king that month! I even went out a few times! I did a similar follow-up study that involved methadone. That didn't pay quite as well, but damned if it wasn't the most relaxing day of my life (probably because I did not get the placebo). Who cares about having a leg burnt every 30 minutes or so over the course of a few hours when you're on methadone? Not I!
Probably the worst study I did was a PET study involving a radioligand to trace out where a novel anesthetic compound was binding in the nervous system. I'm not claustrophobic, but PET scans can take a couple hours. I had my face more or less strapped in place and immobilized by a plastic hockey mask of sorts and was already feeling ill from having the A-line inserted (it took them a LOT of digging, and I hate needles). Then I had to wait in the scanner with my head strapped down. And wait. And wait.
Many PET ligands require on-site synthesis of the chemical in question. This usually involves using a cyclotron to create the radiotracer, and then some subsequent chemical reactions to link the tracer to the molecule of interest, followed by purification of the compound. Often the synthesis will fail. In my case it failed. Twice. Did I mention that one of the side effects of the other drug they put me on was tongue swelling?
Imagine being locked in place by a Jason Voorhees hockey mask, trapped in a giant donut and unable to move, and then having your tongue swell up so you couldn't breathe. All while feeling that sickening feeling of having a tube in your artery.
So after 4 hours in the cramped donut scanner and no end in sight, I started to flip out. I had to terminate the study, which was sad since I didn't get to help out my fellow researchers. But I did receive partial compensation, so I guess all wasn't lost. That was, however, my last study.

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