Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Research: What it is and Three Fun Facts about It by Kayla Hutchinson, Rudy Mercado, Angelica Gutierrez, and Elizabeth Diane Cordero, Ph.D.

           Research plays a vital role in our world, but some of us don’t know what it is exactly or maybe have some bad impressions of it. Research—proper, scientific research, that is—is the careful, systematic collection and analysis of information. Admittedly, this is a pretty broad definition of what research is, but there are a lot of different ways that research is conducted and applied. It’s a good idea to be knowledgeable about what scientific research is comprised of, especially because we can help improve the lives of other people and the world around us if we make ourselves available to participate in it.
We’re not always aware of it, but we’re presented with statements about research findings fairly often. For instance, television, radio, the internet, and billboards all advertise products that claim to be effective, and the “evidence” for how products work is usually reports made by consumers who have tried the products and have benefited from them (for example,  9 out of 10 people who tried Miracle Product X lost an average of 15 lbs.!!).  These can technically be considered research findings in that the advertising agencies, or the companies they represent, set out to collect information about how/if their products work for people and to make sense of that information in some way (such as counting the number of people for whom the product worked). However, the findings described by advertisements are often based on information that was collected using less-than-careful methods, or those who are making the statements are not held very accountable for the truth behind them.   
Scientific research is quite different than the research that we hear about in advertisements. It is based on empirical (observed) findings from data (information) collected using the scientific method. This means that researchers learn from past studies of the phenomena they are interested in (the phenomena of interest are called “variables” because these are things that vary or change according to different circumstances), create hypotheses (educated guesses) based on past research about what circumstances will affect or be affected by their variables, and systematically measure their variables (for a more in-depth discussion of the scientific method, visit: The scientific method makes sure that research is done in a controlled fashion so that the results are as unbiased as possible and so other researchers can evaluate the process the researchers used and whether or not something can be learned from the results of the study.  This last part is one of the most important points of research—to be able to learn something that can be used to help people or the world in some way.
            There’s a lot that can be said about research. Here are some of our favorite things about it:

1) Research is safe.
Research is sometimes viewed as negative. You might have seen something in a movie in which an evil scientist creates a sinister concoction that will turn human beings into monsters. Or maybe you’ve heard in the media about some kind of research that was done and that it harmed people or animals. Or maybe you have a funny feeling that researchers are cold and consider the people who participate in their studies their “guinea pigs.” In any event, people are sometimes apprehensive about participation in research because of all of the misconceptions they have been exposed to. And to be honest, there have been some immoral and unethical things done under the guise of research in the past.  When participation in research is discussed, people sometimes focus on extreme cases or exaggerated, often inaccurate, horror stories. However, government agencies and researchers over the years have developed safety measures to protect participants from harm. We have institutions that review, approve/disapprove of, and monitor what researchers are doing. Additionally, research participants have rights and these rights are protected throughout the research process. Most researchers are required to provide you with a document that explains the purpose of the research and describes what you will be asked to do so that you can provide informed consent to participate. As a participant, you have a right to know about any consequences or side effects that might be reasonably anticipated, how much time it will take to participate, and most importantly that you can end your participation at any time without experiencing penalties. Many people do not know that when participants want to stop their participation, they can. Participants should never feel forced to continue something if they do not want to. Also, information that you provide that has your name on it or any other type of information that would identify you is required to be kept private and guarded—this usually means locked up somehow, maybe in a filing cabinet or in a password-protected database.
            You might be thinking at this point, “Well, what if I’m asked to take a new drug or try out a new treatment? If it’s new, how can the researcher know it won’t hurt me?”  Sometimes researchers are testing out novel medications or medical procedures. That’s a good thing because there’s potential for interventions that are even better than the ones we have now, but it means that there are some unknown risks involved. This can be scary, but please know that there is some sort of history of reasoning or evidence behind the safety of a medication or procedure by the time researchers are allowed to administer it to human beings, such as data from animal subjects (who researchers are legally and ethically obligated to treat well) or from closely-related substances or techniques that have been used in human beings before. Correspondingly, researchers involved in these kinds of studies will monitor the health of their participants, and participants are given the opportunity to provide feedback about how and what they’re feeling. Bottom line: Participants’ safety is of utmost importance to researchers.

2) Research is essential.
Research is necessary and we need it for advancements in any type of field. How do we know how best to support cancer patients and survivors so that they are living their best lives? We need to conduct research, possibly ask cancer patients and survivors to talk with us about what they need. How do we know which medications will help us to feel better when we’re sick? We need to conduct research, maybe ask people to participate in clinical trials for new medications. Many of the medications that we take when we are feeling ill were part of an investigational drug program in the past and now we take them because researchers found that they are effective and help us feel better. These are the advances that researchers make for our benefit.

3) You can help change the world by participating in research.

Scientific research has improved the lives of people worldwide. The discovery of a particular phenomenon can help efforts to provide resources that can aid in alleviating world dilemmas or concerns. In addition, understanding what affects us can spark the curiosity of another researcher to apply that knowledge to future studies. What many people do not realize is that none of this would be possible without participants. Participants truly are researchers’ partners in the scientific process; without people providing researchers with information about whatever it is the researchers are studying, then researchers couldn’t make discoveries or advancements in any field of research.
Cancer-based research is a field that’s always in need of participants. Cancer is a life-changing illness that unfortunately affects many people, both directly and indirectly. Participation in research is one more way to fight and beat cancer, whether it’s research about medications, treatments, surgeries, or quality-of-life issues. The information that you give to researchers can be used to help others, and when—not if, but when—a cure is  found, you can look back and say that you were a part of saving the lives of the many people who might be diagnosed with cancer in the future. Participate in research and change the world! 

Have we convinced you? Here are some helpful links with more information about research, including how to participate:

Cancer Prevention Research Studies

Pictured:  Rudy Mercado and Kayla Hutchinson

Kayla Hutchinson, Rudy Mercado, Angelica Gutierrez, and Dr. Elizabeth Cordero are proudly affiliated with the psychology program at the Imperial Valley campus of San Diego State University (SDSU-IV). Kayla and Rudy are undergraduate students, Angelica is a recent graduate, and Dr. Cordero is an associate professor.

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