“If this is driven by differences in stress reactivity, we should measure cortisol after the task!” I blurted out excitedly to the room full of faculty members and graduate students that I had weaseled my way into. As an undergraduate research assistant, I was a bit new to study design meetings, and was eager to contribute something that might improve the project being discussed.
But to my dismay, instead of being met with nods of approval, the leading faculty member in the room laughed and said, “Yeah? And who’s going to pay for that??”
Not them, apparently.
So, I looked into it myself. They weren’t kidding – adding even one measure of cortisol (and really, I would have needed 2-4 cortisol timepoints per participant, knowing what I know now) would be prohibitively expensive. And beyond the cost, it was hard to figure out how to go about the collection, storage, and processing of the samples. We didn’t have a freezer cold enough in the psychology department to store samples, and it was hard to tell which supplies were needed and which were marketed to chumps like me who didn’t know what they needed. I quickly got discouraged and moved on; however, despite the faculty member’s dismissal of adding biological measures to our social psychology research, I never lost my passion for better understanding the biological mechanisms that underlie human behavior, I just had to tuck it away for a bit. (I should also note, that said faculty member was incredibly supportive of my other, less costly research ideas!)
When I began looking for someone to work with for my PhD, I stumbled across a small lab in Texas that seemed like the answer to my dreams. After growing up in Minnesota, I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school somewhere closer to the equator, if at all possible. And even better – they were a social psychology lab measuring biological processes in their research! Of the handful of labs that I found that utilized biological measures, they were the only lab that was doing so extensively and processing their samples in-house. And they wanted me to join their team – I couldn’t believe my luck!
Before I got to Texas, I was still a bit apprehensive about my abilities to process my own biological samples. Sure, it would give me the tools I needed to answer the types of questions that I had always been intrigued by, but I didn’t know much about working in a biological lab or processing samples. What if I was bad at it? (I wasn’t.) What if I hated doing it? (I didn’t.) Even scarier – what if I didn’t find anything interesting? (I absolutely did.)
Once I arrived in Texas, I realized all this biological stuff wasn’t nearly as complicated as I had thought it would be. Through collaboration, we were able to gain access to lab space, skills, and expertise from neuroscientists who definitely knew their way around a bio lab. Once I learned the skills and terminology (big emphasis on the terminology, because nothing makes you feel more out of your depths than having to google every third term in a protocol), I found that my favorite days were the ones we spent in the bio lab running samples. Not only that, but that I wanted to learn more about the assays, how to optimize capture rates, and how to carefully design studies to make sure that I was taking biological measures at the correct times and in the correct ways. Plus, the data I got out of this work was fascinating.
Now, when I mention that we should measure cortisol in a study, instead of getting laughed at and shrugged off, I get responses like this:
“How many timepoints do you think we should measure cortisol at?”
“What about proinflammatory cytokines? Alpha-amylase? They might be important here too!”
“Other people measure CRP in relation to this, maybe we should do both!”
People will tell you that doing what you love is important, but in my opinion, finding your people is even more important. At EOS BioAnalytics, I’m surrounded by my people – a ragtag team of super curious scientists who don’t let traditional divisions between disciplines stop them from asking big questions about human behavior and figuring out the answers. And it probably doesn’t hurt that I love what I do too.