First Steps of Being a Lab Rat

At Berkeley, there’s a lot of research. If you’re a film major, you will have a little problem – your research will be relatively limited, namely to film history. And let’s be honest, film history is only relevant for filmmakers – not for the rest of the world. No common man cares if the Lumiere Brothers met Edison in person and if they exchanged any wisdom.
A non-filmmaker does care about cancer though. Or an education reform. Or a male pill. Or anxiety. Or brain activity.

My issue is that I tried applying to a few research labs as a non-major, and nobody even responded (clearly, I didn’t play the numbers game enough). But instead of wasting time applying to a ton of labs that will most likely reject me because I never took a psychology class in college (but did write a psychology thesis paper in Gymnasium), or because the only biology class I took in college was elementary Microbiology.
So, the solution to my dilemma is simple: If I can’t get on the research end for this semester, I can just become a lab rat – and understand the workings of scientific research first-hand, as a test subject.

There are three websites that list experiments for human subjects at Berkeley – through which you can find research projects you can participate in as a subject:

  • RSVP – Research Subject Volunteer Pool. Psychology Dept; The most extensive of the resources, with decent pay and  lots of variety. Simple email or phone contacts, no registration required. Most research appointments are free to choose between experimenter and subject.
  • RPP Experimentrix – Research Participation Program. Psychology Dept; a sign-up resource mostly used by psychology majors who participate in research in exchange for course credit or class requirement instead of monetary incentives.
  • xLab SONA – experimental Social Science Lab. Haas School of Business; a sing-up resource with most activity in fall, and an email notification program informing short-notice about specific research times that have to be met.

Lab Rat #1: Human Sperm and the Male Pill

As we all know, babies are made by a human sperm cell pushing through the wall of an egg cell and forming a zygote. If you did not know this and you’re over 10 years old, read here: Human Reproduction, and then here: Contraception
If you’re under 10 years old, and you read these kinds of articles – then I’m sure you already figured out the contraception part of the equation on your own.

Now, as we also all know, contraception is an incredibly important aspect of society; you can’t just have children left and right; instead, you learn to control your own nature and give yourself the ability to put a child into the world when you can care for it. What is problematic though, the second most useful contraceptive after the Condom is the female Pill, which changes women’s hormone levels and has all sorts of side effects.

This is what happens with the sperm cells after they are processed - they are caught by a pipette. Just like fishing in a pond, but with a scale of something along the lines of 1000:1.

This is what happens with the sperm cells after they are processed – they are caught by a pipette. Just like fishing in a pond, but with a scale of something along the lines of 1000:1.

In my second week at Berkeley, I ran into a student at the Life Sciences Addition; I asked him if there was something interesting going on inside the building (a question I always ask in unexplored Berkeley facilities), and he told me that he’s working on a research project about human sperm, and how understanding its inner workings might lay the groundwork for a male Pill. The male pill? It’s the holy grail of the sexual revolution.
Then, two weeks later, I zoom through the halls of the Life Sciences building and see a note on the wall, where researchers are looking for participants in a sperm study. And how coincidence wants it, that’s the research project this student has been talking about. So, I meet with the scientist – a really nice woman named Polina. She is the PI – the Pricipal Investigator of this research project. I tell her I am excited about what the project is like, she asks me how interested I am, I answer very…
And I get a 1 hour walkthrough of all the discoveries they made, a personal visit to their microscope and high-speed camera (similar to the Phantom, shooting 1000fps, but through an electronic microscope). I am blown away by their concept.

Basically, sperm senses the location of the egg by swimming up a concentration gradient of Progesterone. It senses this gradient through pores in the flagellum, which pass surrounding substances through the sperm. These pores are composed of some protein molecules and a few other elements. The hypothesis of the research: If you can find a building block that fits this protein pore perfectly and act as a plug, you can effectively send millions and millions of these molecular plugs into a location where sperm is present (male or female reproductive system) and plug up all the sperm. With the progesterone being blocked now, there’s no way for the sperm to find the egg – you “blindfold” it. In case a sperm does find the egg by blind chance, it cannot penetrate it – only the excitement caused by high levels of progesterone allow a sperm cell to produce enough power in its flagellum to work its way through the protective layers of the ovum.

Now, what is to be found is this protein plug, and that is being done by exposing sperm cells to an immense amount of molecular constructs. Once they discover the right plug, this would be a non-hormonal, non-rubber male contraceptive and – if it shows to be effective – replace “the pill“. Absolutely fascinating implications.

Lab Rat #2: Anxiety and Anticipation

Through another physical posting on one of the boards in Berkeley’s Tolman Hall – the location of the psychology program – I find out about a study conducted about human emotion in combination with electric shocks. I first take a survey about my emotional status and my internal perception of my emotions that day and in general – assessing my general level of anxiety. I am asked to look at a screen for about 25 minutes and rate certain images between 1 and 5, depending on how much I like them. The images are abstract combinations of colors and patterns.

Electrodes - the lab is full of these.

Electrodes – the lab is full of these.

Then, one week later, I come to the actual experiment: Two nice researchers give me another questionnaire to fill out, identical to the first – tracking any change in emotional state. They then put two lie-detector-like skin conductance transducers on my index and middle finger of one hand, and an electrode called “the wasp” on my other arm. We adjust the electric shock until it’s a 7/10 in terms of annoyingness. I get shocked 50+ times, so I have to calculate in how often I can take that 7/10 rated shock. Afterwards , I get a pair of headphones in which I hear a scream parallel to getting a shock on my arm. Again, we adjust the loudness of the scream until it becomes very annoying, but far away from being too loud for my ears.

My head gets positioned on a semi-comfortable eyedoctor-like headrest so it does not move during the experiment. A high-speed camera records 1000 infrared images per second of my eye movement; it then tracks the movement abnd measures the dilation of my pupils. And off we go: Lights out, I am alone in the room, and go through the images. I don’t do anything apart from watching images come up in different combinations, and shocks/screams being given in irregular intervals, with constantly changing patterns. In the beginning, I have to laugh about the absurdity of not being able to control or anticipate or calculate when the next shock will come. Towards the end of the experiment, the laughter turns into exhaustion, and I nearly fall asleep multiple times, just to be woken up by a shock. Later, I get a great summary of how the experiment works and what it tests – basically, how much I anticipate pain in connection to my normal anxiety level – and how long that anticipated pain / anxiety lasts. On a skin resistance graph, they show me how the resistance spikes fractions of a second after the shock is given; similarly, the pupils dilute with even more speed and accuracy to the shock. We sometimes hear that our eyes widen when we are afraid – exactly that is the case in this study.

The research lab was just like you would imagine it – full of cables, a few computers, lots of electrodes and measuring systems, somewhere hidden away behind a card-access-only  door. Great stuff, the shocks were fun (just like touching electrical fences of cattle farms when you were a kid) – and I learned something more about my own fears and emotions that seem to be very difficult to control under these circumstances.

Lab Rat #3: Speed of Cognition and Associated Brain Activity

The fMRI machine in the Li Ka Shing Center - literally the most high-tech apparatus I have seen and touched in my life.

The fMRI machine in the Li Ka Shing Center – literally the most high-tech apparatus I have seen and touched in my life.

This was by far the most exciting experiment, because it involved an fMRI. I’ve never seen that machine in real life, so I just signed up for that sole purpose. I found the experiment online in the Psychology database. I first get invited to participate in a simple computer exercise: Stare at a white point in the middle of the screen, until two disks flash up on the right and left side – in your peripheral vision. Both disks have a line pattern inside them that is randomly leaning 45 degrees left or right. The disks are shown for a small fraction of time, maybe 1/30th of a second. The computer then chooses a disk and asks you to identify what pattern you saw inside of it.

Then, the exercise gets more complicated; you have to go either by speed or by accuracy, whereas the computer shows an arrow to the disk that will be chosen. That arrow is only right 60% of the time, so you still can only access your peripheral vision but try to “concentrate” on one specific side. After you make a choice, you have to give that choice a confidence rating. Depending on how accurate or fast you rated the patterns, multiplied by the confidence rating, you get a certain score. I scored just about average, and after about 30 minutes of the exercise, my rain was ready to smoke off to the sky.

About one week and an additional selection process later, I am invited to do the same test again, but this time under an fMRI. I am lead down to the basement of Li Ka Shing center (card access only, that thing is worth a million dollars or more). We walk through multiple doors that all say “MRI zone III, II, I” – security zones around this futuristic machine. I fill out another funny questionnaire (asking if I have any metal in my body … like shrapnel pieces). I have to take off everything metallic, the researcher then opens a huge solid metal door, and we step through a 3-ft-high “DANGER” sign. And then, there it is: The most beautiful, elaborate machine that I have ever seen in my life. Well, at least the most futuristic – I’ve seen a 200ft long steam engine before. The fMRI is about 12ft tall and long, with a small bed coming out of it.

I am given nonmetallic headphones that contain no drivers or speakers – but instead are being fed air pressure through a plastic hose, which I can perceive as sound. Then, there’s a ball with another plastic hose that I should squish if there is an emergency; I lay down in a padding, get more padding around my head (the head has to lay as still as possible, so there’s not that much anti-movement work in post production to clean up the data), some padding under my feet, a blanket over me, and a cage placed around my head – feels like the inside of a knight’s helmet, just that it is plastic. Then, there’s a mirror system placed on top of that helmet, which allows me to see into the tube. The researcher lets me drive into the tube, where there is a plastic screen that shows a projection of a computer screen. Everything in the room is made of plastic. Now I am lying there, tucked inside a blanket, cushioned on all sides, inside a cage, inside a relatively tight tube: If you have claustrophobia, you will most likely make the acquaintance of various unwelcome body fluids at this time.

The experiment is just about the same as when it was on the computer, but instead of a keyboard, I use a 4-button-box, and instead of confirmation messages, i just see the dot in the middle changing color. I spend about an hour inside of the fMRI, continuously getting tired from the exhausting mental exercise and lack of physical movement. The fMRI is very loud, so I am wearing earbuds like on a rock concert; after a final 10-minute control scan (so activity can be compared with nonactivity), I slowly dolly back out of the fMRI. I am excited to death, so I ask the researcher if I can see what he sees. He shows me the following photo, which blows my mind a second time – seeing yourself, your own mind, on such a physical level is a profound experience.

My brain, as scanned  by an fMRI. You can see the crooked nose as an identifier.

My brain, as scanned by an fMRI. You can see the crooked nose as an identifier.