After clinical interviews and eye-tracking with my expert and novice subjects, I’m hoping to do a small pilot test of about 3 of the subjects in the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. I’m headed to OSU’s sister/rival school the University of Oregon today to talk with my committee member there who is helping with this third prong of my thesis. We don’t have one here in Corvallis as we don’t have much of a neuroscience program, and that is traditionally the department that spearheads such research. The University of Oregon, however, has one, and I was getting down to the details of conducting my experiment there. I’ve been working with Dr. Amy Lobben, who does studies with real-world map-based tasks, a nice fit with the global data visualizations that Shawn has been working on for several years and I came along to continue.

On the agenda was figuring out what they can tell me about IRB requirements, especially the risks part of the protocol. fMRI is actually comparatively harmless; it’s the same technology used to look at other soft tissues, like your shoulder or knee. The scan is a more recent, less invasive form of Positron Emission Technology (PET) scans, which require injection of a radioactive tracer. fMRI simply measures the level of blood flow by looking at properties of oxygen atoms in the brain, which gives an idea of activity levels in different parts of the brain. However, there are even more privacy issues involved since we’re looking at people’s brains, and we have to include some language about how it’s non-diagnostic, and we can’t provide medical advice should we even think something looked unusual (not that I know what really qualifies as unusual looking, which is the point).

Also of interest (always), is how I’m going to fund this. The scans themselves are about $700/hour, and I’ll provide incentives to my participants of maybe $50, plus driving reimbursement of another $50. So for even 3 subjects, we’re talking $2500. I’ve been applying for a couple of doctoral fellowships, which so far haven’t panned out, and am still waiting to hear on an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant. The other possibilities are economizing from the budget for other parts of my project I proposed in the HMSC Holt Marine Education award, which I did get ($6000) total, or getting some exploratory collaboration funding from U of O and OSU/Oregon Sea Grant, as this is a novel partnership bringing two new departments together.

But the big thing that came up was experimental design. After much discussion with Dr. Lobben and one of her collaborators, we decided there wasn’t really enough time to pull off a truly interesting study if I’m going to graduate in June. Partly, it was an issue of needing to have more data on my subjects now in order to come up with a good task from my images without more extensive behavioral testing to create stimuli. We decided that it turns out that what we didn’t think would be too broad a question to ask, namely, are these users using different parts of their brains due to training?, would in fact be too overwhelming to try and analyze in the time I have.

So, that means probably coming up with a different angle for the eyetracking to flesh out my thesis a bit more. For one, I will run the eyetracking on more of both populations, students and professors, rather than just a subpopulation of students based on performance, or a subpopulation of students vs. professors. For another, we may actually try some eyetracking “in the wild” with these images on the Magic Planet on the exhibit floor.

In the meantime, I’m back from a long conference trip and finishing up my interviews with professors and rounding up students for the same.