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Be A Lab Rat For Science (and Money)

Onward State had mentioned participating in on-campus studies in the past — usually as a quick way to make money. Despite these mentions we hadn’t actually documented the experience. So, when I received an email seeking volunteers for a Spanish-language experiment I quickly signed up. There are always research opportunities at Penn State available for money, and this one seemed fairly simple.

This particular study required hardly any special skills — basically, just the ability to read English (check) the ability to read basic Spanish sentences (check—barely.) There are 24 participants (subject to change) in three groups: English speakers who are beginning Spanish, English speakers who are highly proficient in Spanish, and Spanish speakers who speak English.

I was told to meet in the basement of the Moore Building at my specified time. I arrived and was greeted by a very friendly postdoc, Carla Contemori. She quickly explained, “I’m part of the Center for Language Science and what we do is research on language and on the cognitive abilities that pertain to learning language.”

This is the Center for Language Science’s first year back in the Moore Building after renovations forced them to move to the Thomas Building basement for several years. “We have had the labs up and running for about a month and a half,” Contemori said.

Contemori then showed me the test setting: a small, sound-proofed Sci-Fi looking room with very non-Sci-Fi armchair in the middle facing a computer screen. I made a move to sit down and get started but she stopped me.

“I would suggest that before you start you use the restroom. You must sit very still for a long period of time and it is not always enjoyable.”

Soon I was sitting in the lounge chair while Contemori fitted a cap to me and prepped my skin with alcohol wipes for individual electrodes below my eyes and behind my ears.

“We need to put gel in all of the electrodes, place the loose electrodes, and make sure the signals are okay. Sometimes this takes longer than the actual test,” Contemori said.


“These electrodes measure the electrical activity of your neurons. The thing is, because they amplify the signals on your scalp so much, they are super sensitive to any kind of noise, electrical activity in the environment and even any muscle movements in your body. And this is why you must sit quite still,” she explained as she squirted gel onto my scalp to ensure a proper connection.

Thankfully, it didn’t take long at all to set up the electrodes, and I was praised for having a conductive skull, “that’s a quality you can show off.”

The test itself was less exciting. Spanish sentences would flash across the screen, one word at a time. If it made sense, I clicked a button that said “good,” if it didn’t make sense I clicked “bad.” Like I said, it required no special skills. There were four blocks of sentences, with about 80 sentences per block. I wouldn’t describe it as fun, but it was an oddly therapeutic experience that was made even more worthwhile by the 15 dollars I was given at the end — for staring at a computer screen and clicking “good” and “bad.”

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About the Author

Mitchell Wilston

I apologize in advance.


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