June 11, 2018

Participate in Research website helps everyone take part in research studies and clinical trials

UCalgary database offers hundreds of searchable volunteer opportunities

Rick Young is an amateur photographer who likes to spend his weekends — basically any spare time he has — taking wildlife pictures in the mountains. “Bears are my favourites,” says the 58-year-old Airdrie-based marketing rep for a furniture company. That’s why Young never imagined he would participate in a University of Calgary research study — and that he would have so much fun and learn something new in the process.

As a volunteer participant in the Lucida: Photography Metering Assistant study — which is just one of more than 400 studies and clinical trials actively recruiting participants through the UCalgary Participate in Research website — Young gained eye-opening insights into how to create better pictures.

He was also one of the first people who tested a new photography app in one of the coolest rooms on the UCalgary campus, the Visualization Studio, which has a wall-sized 35-million-pixel screen. The Lucida study uses the digital wall to project lifelike scenes — think sun-dappled mountains and crackling campfires — and replicate real-world photography locations.

“I’m a better photographer because of this,” Young says of the three times he spent as a study participant testing different iterations of the smartphone app, which aims to teach photographers how to improve their composition and exposure though better metering.

Research participants get to help test cool things — like an augmented reality app

The Lucida app — which integrates augmented reality, a natural language processing bot and machine learning into a talking, purple-haired digital emoji named Lucida — is the creation of Brad Wrobleski, a professional photographer and a grad student in computational media design in the Faculty of Science.

“The goal of the app is to replicate me as the instructor on your mobile phone, so student photographers can learn while they are out in the field taking pictures,” Wrobleski says.

The study, which is part of Wrobleski’s master’s thesis, is looking at how students learn from an augmented reality agent like Lucida, compared to a real-life teacher. “Computer vision and machine learning have really come a long way,” says Wrobleski. “Lucida has the ability to see and identify tonal range that I, even as a skilled instructor with years of experience, can’t. She can use machine learning to see more accurately.”

Lucida continually builds her skills; with every study participant who tests out her teaching abilities, her artificial intelligence improves. Wrobleski is aiming to launch the app this year, but he is still looking for participants to test the latest tweaks. Anyone age 18 to 99 who has an interest in photography using a smartphone or a DSLR camera is eligible to apply to participate; Wrobleski is especially eager to test more millennials who take pictures with a smartphone. 

“Taking part in this study was a huge learning experience,” says Young. “Testing the app and then talking through the experience with Brad gave me a better sense of how a camera sees.”

Rick Young tests the Lucida app in the Visualization Studio as part of the Lucida: Photography Metering Assistant study.

Rick Young tests the Lucida app in the Visualization Studio.

Brad Wrobleski

How to search for a study or clinical trial that interests you

From photography to psychology to health and beyond, the variety of the more than 400 research studies and clinical trials included on the Participate in Research website is quite vast — and all the projects listed are actively recruiting participants. If you can think of a topic that interests you — for example: computer games, exercise, sleeping, gambling, stress, social media, e-cigarettes or dance — type the term into the website’s “Search research studies” box, and you’re pretty likely to generate some potential options.

If the study’s summary details and eligibility parameters look like a good fit for you, you can then click the “I’m interested in participating” button and easily submit your contact information. The eligibility to be considered for studies and trials can vary from the very specific to the very broad: Many of the studies are looking for healthy participants between the ages of 18 to 99 or 0 to 18, for example. The levels of commitment required can also vary considerably: From multi-day appointments, to online surveys that you can complete on a smartphone.

Web database connects the public with researchers 

“Our goal with the Participate in Research website is to create public awareness of and advocacy for research,” says Dr. Marcello Tonelli, MD, associate vice-president (research), who championed the project for the Office of the Vice-President (Research). “It’s a way to support researchers by connecting them with the public and also to offer the public a unique form of volunteer experience that they might not have thought of before.”

A number of universities have websites with information about clinical trials, or lists of research studies for specific subject areas, but the Participate in Research website is one of the first to create a large, searchable, cross-discipline database that combines both clinical trials — which account for less than a quarter of all studies at UCalgary — with an even wider variety of studies underway.

Participate in Research not only makes it easy for the public to take part, but for researchers, too. The proprietary web database draws its information from the university’s existing ethics application software, the Institutional Research Information Services Solution (IRISS), which researchers already use to apply for ethics certification for their research projects.

There are upwards of 4,000 studies and trials underway at UCalgary right now. As researchers learn how simple it is to include their study, the database continues to grow.

“Setting up the Participate in Research website to connect with IRISS makes the process easy for researchers — there is a super low barrier to include the study on the website, so it reduces the administrative burden to recruit participants,” says Tonelli.

Why it’s so important for studies to recruit human participants

The most difficult part of conducting a research study or a clinical trial — by far — is finding and recruiting volunteer participants, says Dr. Christian Jacob, PhD, who is the principal investigator overseeing the Lucida research project. He is also the bioinfomatics program director and head of the Department of Computer Science as well as a professor at the Cumming School of Medicine.

“Getting study participants for all kinds of studies is always a bottleneck to research,” says Jacob. “Researchers usually rely on their own networks to recruit participants, and they often reach out to online communities. This Participate in Research site is very new, but it has the potential to make it a lot easier to recruit quality participants.”

Study participants are key to research; for example, you can’t do proper research into human-computer interactions without the humans, says Jacob. “Studies have to be very careful to filter participants, or the study will be skewed. That’s why a lot of thought goes into the questions that are asked to screen study participants and the way a study is described on a site like Participate in Research.”

Jacob is also the principal investigator for another master’s student’s study looking at the behaviours of computer gamers, which can be found on the Participate in Research website. “The studies I’ve worked on recently are about communities that are passionate about a subject. In this case, they like to play the video games.”

So if you are between the ages of 16 to 99, and you are willing to commit to spending a few hours a week over the course of two weeks playing a video game — for scientific purposes — then this study might be a fit for you.

It’s just one of the hundreds of research opportunities that are waiting to be discovered by the general public through Participate in Research.

This Participate in Research story is the first in a three-part series appearing in UToday. We profile the participants of three very different studies to show how and why the general public can participate in 400-plus diverse research studies and clinical trials