I Was a Collegiate Lab Rat

by Christopher Tucker

Some of you may have walked past those bulletin boards covered in red and white notices in search of participants to ingest this, or attach themselves to that. Perhaps you’ve gone so far as to take one of the tear-off tabs home with you. It always comes down to one question: “Can it really be that bad?”

Medical research for academic studies has so many variations and degrees of invasiveness. All of it comes down to one thing: a way to make money that requires no previous skills, education, or experience.

I’ve found myself scanning those flyers and considering the possibilities. Sometime before the winter of 2012, I decided science could have its way with me. I found out that it wasn’t free money, but it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever been through, either. Presented now are my experiences and reflections. Hopefully, this can help guide you in the future, when you’re standing in front of those bulletin boards wondering, “What if I did this?”

First, the study.

I participated in an experiment concerning a famous opiate antagonist. A necessary smokescreen made it unclear exactly what I would be swallowing, but there was never anything deceitful going on. Also, at no point was I scared about my health or well-being. Clearly, I was in capable hands.

Next, the money.

I ended up making around $12 an hour — decent money in a place with a low cost of living, by maybe not so much in a big city. Also, the grand total of what I brought in was about $217, and I made that over the course of five months. This was not something that was going to make much of a difference in my finances, but there are worse ways to make less money.

My testing took place in six sessions from January to May. On the first day, I walked to campus in below freezing weather. It was sunny, though, and the sky was spotless and blue. This was to be my screening session, so they could see if I were a match for the students’ machinations. As I sat in the waiting room, I filled out an empty calendar, writing in how much alcohol I’d imbibed each night for the last four weeks. Surprise, surprise: It made me think a little about my drinking habits.

Once that was done, and once I’d signed a big booklet of forms, I was taken into a room with a Dell computer. On this computer, I took the sort of test someone takes upon applying for a job at Target, or Best Buy, or any company big enough to afford those little computer terminals that sit in the store, waiting to conclude the hiring process. Through hypotheticals and moral dilemmas (if a friend of yours is shoplifting, do you report it?), these systems determine if you’re the sort of person Victoria’s Secret wants slinging lingerie. On the Dell desktop, I discussed violence and said whether or not I heard voices in my head, among other things. With these various sentiments, I disagreed, agreed, strongly disagreed, and strongly agreed.

After I completed the test, I hung out. If I’d wanted to, I could have watched a movie from the department’s library. As I waited, I realized there was no way I was going to get out at the time they previously promised. Eventually, a rather round young man came in and interviewed me, mostly to see if I had any substance abuse problems. While we conversed, he avoided looking me in the eyes. Either his gaze was elsewhere, or his eyes were straight up closed.

They approved of my results, and the next visit was in late February, on another insanely cold day. I waited inside one of the testing rooms (though not the room I’d be utilizing). This was to be my orientation. Here, I met the student who was going to administer the experiment. She was a tall girl who had the slightest touch of an Irish accent. Let’s call her Mary.

Once I gave my urine sample (the first of four cups of urine I would give), I waited to meet the head of the experiment. She was a short, springy haired woman probably about six years older than Mary. Let’s call her Jill. Her presentation was quick and efficient, her delivery was that of a person who has likely said the same words over and over. I learned that, among other restrictions, I was not allowed to have any heroin for a month after the experiment. Once Jill was finished, they stuck electrodes to my face, and I took a dry run of the tests I was expected to perform (again on a Dell desktop). Mary and I had a pleasant chat, or rather as pleasant a chat as you can have with a stranger preparing you for experimentation.

About three weeks later, the real testing began.

Here’s how it worked: I entered at 9 a.m., gave my urine and took a breathalyzer, and then filled out a form and took a computer survey indicating how I was feeling. After that, I was given a big red capsule, and waited around. Then, there were more forms and another survey, and some more waiting around. If I’d so chosen, I could have watched The Dark Knight, Taxi Driver, or All Dogs Go to Heaven. Instead, I read and waited for the pill to kick in. The first time I took the pill, I was so sure I had been given a stimulant. Later, I learned I had been placeboed (reading my notes from that session is quite embarrassing).

Next, I was asked to do some tasks. Mary pressed electrodes to my face, and we talked about horror movies. Once I was set, Mary retired to some sort of work area behind a curtain, where I imagine she was looking at a read-out of my face. On the Dell, I performed a handful of repetitive tasks. I watched small videos of students making faces in front of a wrinkled green screen. I looked at random images, and then I used a grid and sliding scale to indicate how positive/negative I felt about the image, as well as how “aroused” it made me. These images consisted of landscapes, terrible food photography, people with blond hair from the ’80s in seductive poses, fecal matter, corpses and interracial couples. After some more sitting around, I was released, and wandered into the sunlight, still feeling drugged out. (As a side note, when my final session was over, I went and watched Spring Breakers. The movie melted what was left of my mind.)

It wasn’t exactly fun, but it wasn’t entirely unpleasant. Only once did I have a really adverse reaction to the drug. Mostly, it was a great deal of hanging out, getting my blood pressure taken and filling out surveys. I had plenty of time to read.

More than anything, it was awkward. Turning over your urine, looking at weird things while someone watches your doped-up face on a computer screen? Awkward, and then some. After it was over, it seemed like Mary knew this secret part of me that no one else knew, that I myself was mostly unfamiliar with.

Overall, there seemed to be a cavalier attitude toward this particular study. It wasn’t surprising; I treated my schoolwork lightly, so it makes sense that these kids might, too. Often, the time I spent waiting around was due to the researchers being late. When I went to the final session to pick up my check, Jill was late, so Mary had to give me a condensed version of the exit interview so I could make it to my day job on time.

So, the big question: Was it worth it? Eh, maybe. I certainly don’t have any regrets. Perhaps the impatience I had with the student researchers was simply jealousy and bitterness that these kids were so much smarter than me, that they would probably rise to great heights and make huge amounts of money in the world of pharmacology. The money I received wasn’t all that hot, but I didn’t work very hard for it, either. I know there are other tests out there that would pay better, but as they say, “more money, more mysterious substances in your bloodstream.”

If you do rip off one of those tear-away tabs from a bulletin board, expect to be treated like a test subject, because, well, that’s what you’ll be. You are lab work for a grad student. I am currently in a position where I am not desperate for money, and I acknowledge how incredibly lucky that makes me. So when Mary asked me if I would be interested in future tests, I politely declined. At this stage of my life, $12 an hour isn’t enough for extreme social awkwardness and whacky stuff in my brain. But Lord knows, there was a time when it would have been.

Christopher Tucker lives and schemes in Chicago.

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