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Students are subjects in studies

Guinea pig or valuable test subject? Depends on who you ask.

Research requiring human subjects is fairly prevalent at the University of Miami. According to UM’s Human Subject Research Office (HSRO), there are currently around 2,700 such programs.

Some of the institutions conducting these studies include the Miller School of Medicine, the department of psychology, the School of Business Administration, the Frost School of Music and the School of Education.

“Research is a systematic search for knowledge, usually to advance a specified field,” said Myron Rosenthal, the vice provost for the HSRO.

All human subject research programs conducted by faculty, staff and students must be approved by the University of Miami Institutional Review Board (IRB). The role of the IRB is to ensure that all research adheres to federal, state, local and institutional regulations that protect human subjects.

“All studies in which humans participate as subjects must have and maintain UM IRB approval,” Rosenthal said. “Per federal regulations, these IRB panels have the final determinate responsibility for insuring the safety of participants in human subject research.”

Research programs must then determine what criteria will be used to recruit participants, among which students may or may not be included.

“Studies are based on “inclusion/exclusion” criteria,” Rosenthal said. “A study of student responses to academic stresses, for example, will likely have inclusion criteria that support enrollment of students and exclusion criteria that do not support enrollment of non-students.”

Depending on the study, participants may be asked to engage in a wide variety of activates, ranging from filling out forms to interviews to more physical tasks.

“This protocol must be defined in detail in applications forwarded to the UM IRB,” Rosenthal said. “Approval depends upon its careful review and approval of the risk/benefit ratio of the study.”

While these experiments are safe, participants are usually not informed about the “why” of the experiment until afterward in order to prevent any changes in behavior or opinion.

“It’s a phenomenon in human behavior,” said Charles Carver, a psychology professor who oversees the department of psychology subject pool. “You are going to be watching yourself and fussing and not behaving naturally.”

In the department of psychology, research participation is a required component of the PSY 110 class. According to the UM course bulletin, students who do not wish to participate have the option of “reading and writing about selected research reports.”

“It’s an educational experience for students,” Carver said. “The subjective response varies from ‘I’m bored silly’ to ‘this is really engaging.’”

A faculty member supervises every study but a graduate or undergraduate student often assists in organizing and carrying out the experiment. For these projects, the PSY 110 requirement often provides a useful pool of subjects.

“It’s easier,” said Joanna Tsikis, a senior psychology major who has been working for the department of psychology research program since her sophomore year. “It’s a requirement and you don’t have to compensate them.”

Tsikis also participated in a study when she took PSY 110.

“It was a little boring but we’re contributing to science,” she said.

Others students, like senior Julia Strasser, enjoyed their experience despite not completely understanding the purpose of the experiment.

“It was fun,” Strasser said. “I was part of the control group. I just sat on the beach reading magazines. The other group had to collect shells, animals and do other stuff.”

Alysha Khan may be contacted at akhan@themiamihurricane.com.

Questions to consider before participating in human research:

  • What is my motivation for participating in this study?
  • What are the real risks and benefits of the research?
  • Are the risks worth it to me?
  • What can I do to find out about the crucial facts of the study?
February 3, 2011

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Alysha Khan

Online Editor


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The Miami Hurricane is the student newspaper of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. The newspaper is edited and produced by undergraduate students at UM and is published weekly in print on Tuesdays during the regular academic year.