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Psych department's RSVP program invites scientists and subjects to join in demographically diverse exploration
New registry of volunteer subjects is a no-brainer that, somehow, nobody thought of before

| 25 January 2007

Ben Bush's first experience as a research subject involved having sensors attached to various parts of his body while viewing images of people at ease, as in Matisse paintings, or not, as in Edward Hopper's. He found it so interesting he volunteered a second time - for a test in visual perception that required him to wear 3-D goggles and resembled a video game - and then another.

Psychology lab experiment in hand movement
For an experiment in hand movement, postdoc Julie Duque electrically stimulates parts of lab manager Andrea Weinstein's brain. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Unfortunately for the mind sciences at Berkeley, however, Bush does not suffer from amlyopia - better known as "lazy eye" - and so struck out on what would have been experiment No. 3. For scientists investigating the workings of the brain, eye, and nervous system, such mix-ups are something of an occupational hazard, the upshot of recruiting volunteers via campus flyers or Craigslist postings, and only then screening whoever happens to respond. All too often, applicants turn out not to be qualified - on medical grounds, or due to the presence of metal objects in (and, in some cases, on) the body - or fail to show up at all, leaving labs as desolate as Hopper's famous diner.

More significantly, the one-two punch of limited outreach and modest compensation - roughly $12 to $25 hourly for tests that might last no more than an hour or two - yields a volunteer pool teeming with undergrads, a group that's eager and available, but too homogeneous to assure widespread applicability of many research findings.

Enter the Research Subject Volunteer Program, or RSVP. Conceived as a sort of online matchmaking service for scientists and subjects, the registry's greatest value may be the promise it holds for new breakthroughs in the understanding of human behavior.

"The big idea is that we open up research participation to a far broader demographic - age-wise, ethnically - that reflects the population of the Bay Area," explains psychology department chair Stephen Hinshaw, whose own research includes investigations into cultural attitudes toward mental illness. [See "Exploring the stigma of mental illness."] "It's crucial for all kinds of research that the findings generalize to the population that's out there, not to any kind of restricted population, whether in terms of age or other demographics."

RSVP is the brainchild of Lisa Stewart, herself a former volunteer as both a subject and assistant in the lab of psychology prof Rich Ivry. While still a volunteer, Stewart noticed a recurring problem with absent or unqualified subjects, and found the issue was common in other labs as well. With encouragement from the department, she created a Web page with links to individual lab websites aimed at promoting volunteer opportunities.

From these humble beginnings, says Stewart - now on staff as RSVP coordinator and systems analyst for the psych department - the effort "sort of evolved" into a full-fledged online program that's signed up more than 1,000 participants since officially launching in the fall. The site, at psychology.berkeley.edu/rsvp/index.html, lists studies in search of test subjects in the psychology department, the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, and the School of Optometry, including a brief description of the experiment, compensation, and any special requirements. Registrants are initially asked to disclose basic information like sex, age, and handedness, with more probing questions to follow - such as those relating to medical and psychological histories, or to the presence of bone pins, shrapnel, or body piercings that simply can't be parted with - when they apply for particular projects.

Besides the efficiency of pre-screening volunteers, Stewart says, the program is expanding the pool of research subjects to reflect "the diversity of the Bay Area," including those in their 40s, 50s, and beyond, a demographic that's essential for investigations into aging, memory, and other issues of growing interest to the discipline and to a society whose members are living longer and longer. She also views it as a way to "get the word out to the general population" about the path-breaking work taking place on campus.

"Part of this is to educate people about what's going on in mind science," she says. "I personally feel that it's going to have a very profound impact on our society, and it's important that people understand the process and know what's going on."

The numbers reflect the problem as well as the promise. Of the 1,000-plus people who have signed up so far for RSVP, one in four are Berkeley undergrads, and about half of all registrants are still in their 20s. Thirty-somethings clock in at 15 percent, with representation dropping off for each subsequent decade. Females make up 68 percent of the volunteer database.

Both Stewart and Hinshaw are hopeful that over time, the pool of applicants will look less and less like a Berkeley lecture hall, and more and more like the Bay Area at large. Whatever else RSVP brings to the lab, Hinshaw says, its most vital function is expanding the diversity of research subjects.

"Many people in the community are very eager to participate in research, but don't really know how," Hinshaw explains. "And RSVP, in some ways, is one-stop shopping. People in the community can get a sense of the studies that are being offered by psychology and neuroscience, and can navigate how to get involved much more simply than searching individual flyers or websites. Investigators, in turn, may have a need for people who are left-handed or right-handed, or for people in a certain age bracket. On both sides, the idea is to streamline the process.

"But," Hinshaw adds, "the bigger and deeper issue that many investigators grapple with - at Berkeley, in California, in the United States, and around the world - is, 'Do my results hold?' We now know that much of psychology once thought to be universal principles may not be as universal as we thought because of cultural differences. . The idea of broadening and deepening our research participation pool is one that a lot of investigators would like to see realized."

And while Stewart says labs have been somewhat slower than the community to join the program - in part due to regulatory paperwork required when a research project is amended in any way - response from researchers has been positive enough to have prompted discussions about expanding RSVP to other UC campuses.

Stewart is also hoping to recruit corporate supporters to help offset research expenses and to donate product coupons as alternative forms of compensation to test subjects.

For Ben Bush, at least, the real rewards of being a volunteer are, appropriately, more psychological than financial. A 27-year-old UC Santa Cruz grad who works as a reporter for a small East Bay newspaper, he says he initially viewed being a test subject as a way to augment his meager wages, but found the experience "fascinating" and is likely to volunteer again.

Now enrolled in RSVP, Bush adds that more than monetary remuneration, his two successful forays into Berkeley labs - before he was excused from that "lazy eye" project - yielded valuable insights into his own mind.

"Sometimes," he observes, "it's sort of useful to have someone else pay you to go to therapy."