Degree In Sight

Getting time with such expensive department equipment as fMRI machines or positron-emission tomography (PET) scanners can be tough, if not impossible, for student researchers. Such machines are in hot demand because many departments must share them, and hospital patients often receive priority. Plus, scanners tend to run only during business hours, so jockeying for time can be tricky, says University of Michigan psychology graduate student Marc Berman.

Yet increasingly, these tools provide new insights into the human psyche, making them a method of choice for neuroscience research. Get the time you need with these tips:

  • Try out the technologies. Anyone interested in working with heavy-duty research tools should first get exposure to the different techniques as well as training in how they work, says Wayne State University psychology professor John L. Woodard, PhD. Most research universities offer fMRI training as part of their regular curriculum as well as more intense introductory five- or 10-day fMRI workshops for professional researchers, says Robert L. Savoy, PhD, director of fMRI education at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging in Charlestown, Mass. While professional courses can come with hefty price tags, many schools offer discounts to graduate students or allow them to audit the classes, Woodard says. Training courses may also help you establish relationships with other researchers who use the technology, says Berman.

Also, he adds, a background in general computer programming comes in handy when analyzing data. Students can download software and sample data online (http://afni.nimh.nih.gov or www.fil.ion.ucl.ac.uk/spm/) to practice with PET or fMRI image analyses, says Woodard.

  • Volunteer. Once you know how the technology works, apply to help out in your department's lab. Research assistantships can give you hands-on experience with the tools as well as access to the researchers who work with them, says Woodard. Often, research assistants contribute to papers and can develop new questions from the data, he adds.

And don't fret if you aren't enrolled at a big research school or if you find yourself up against fierce competition for assistantship spots, Woodard says. "An MRI or PET scanner at the student's institution is not necessary as long as they can collaborate with another institution that does have a scanner," he says.

Instead, you might find one at a community hospital, which may even allow you to do a series of no- or low-cost scans if the data are to be used as part of a pilot research study, Woodard adds.

  • Find a collaborator. When you're looking to gather data for your master's thesis or dissertation, it's best to piggyback on a funded professor's ongoing study, says Berman.

"Starting your own fMRI study cold can be extremely daunting and many times impractical," he says.

If you've got some flexibility with your research topic, choose to analyze a different aspect of data that's already been gathered, or ask that the funded researcher tack on a short task for their study participants to complete while in the scanner or as an additional experiment in line with their research agenda.

  • Decide if it's worth it. If you're still having trouble getting time with or data from the equipment you need, step back and determine whether there's another way to get the information, says Berman. You might, for example, be able to answer your research question through behavioral experiments or with event-related brain potential data (ERP), a tool for measuring the timing of brain events, Berman says. ERP machines are much less expensive and may be more accessible than an fMRI machine, he adds. But if your research just wouldn't be the same without the big magnet, he says, be persistent in asking for help.

"Usually, if you have a good idea for an fMRI study, a professor will be willing to help you run it," Berman says.

By Amy Novotney
gradPSYCH Staff