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  • Ken Ilgunas

Desperate times call for desperate measures

I knew when I arrived in North Carolina I had to find a job right away because of pressing financial needs. After paying for the van and tuition, I’d have next-to-nothing pretty quickly.

During my first week here I got a job as a “research assistant” for a professor; “research” meaning looking up and down a list of 5,000 businesses on a Microsoft Excel worksheet for hours on end. By the end of the day my eyes looked like a child scratched red lines on my sclera with an Etch a Sketch. I’m still working for the professor but I only get six hours of work a week.

And while the $11/hour is probably enough to cover costs of food and even monthly bills like my cell phone and car insurance, it isn’t enough to make my future tuition payments, which will amount to, in total, about $2,500 for the semester.

I saw a few ads on campus seeking “study participants.” Generally, the researchers pay $10 an hour, but MRI study participants get $20. Wary of not having enough money for food, I signed up for a few of these MRI studies.

As of now, for just four hours and forty-five minutes of “work,” I’ve made $105. Plus, I have two more studies this week and a few lined up for the weeks ahead. The picture below is me giving blood for a memory study.

They gave me a test run through an inoperable MRI to see if I’d “freak out,”as they so delicately put it. Apparently, two-thirds of the people who sign up end up panicking in the MRI because of claustrophobia. I scoffed when she told me this because I am well-acquainted with tight quarters.

If you’ve slept in a one-person Bibler tent before, having an MRI is like frolicking on an empty football field. I slept in a Bibler for a few weeks while I was backpacking up in AK. Doing something as ordinary as turning onto your stomach has to be done with precision and skill–like a thief artfully dodging moving laser sensors. One false move, and you and your green sarcophagus go end over end.

I was in the MRI for an hour and a half. While laying on your ass for an hour and a half may not sound like “work,” it becomes quite challenging when you have to sit perfectly still. At one point my ass was falling asleep so I yelled, above the drone of the machine, “Is it alright if I shift my legs around a bit!?” One of the researchers answered, most disconcertingly, “No. Not unless you must.”

Beforehand, they hooked my wrist up to some electrodes and told me to tell him when the shock felt “highly annoying.” He zapped me a few times on their “low” setting and I shot them back an alarmed look, wondering what their “high” was going to feel like.

Once I got plugged into the machine, they showed me a series of rather disturbing pictures and monitored my brain’s response. The pictures were a series of expressions of a male’s face, ranging from calm to scared to what your face would look like if a hundred ravenous 10-year-olds were chasing you.

They shocked me at strategic points so that I would, in turn, fear a certain picture. Needless to say, the experiment worked.

In between “ picture sessions” they played a video of a train—chugging along at a snail’s pace—on the Canadian Pacific Railroad in hopes of calming my nerves.

Despite all my complaints, I would have let them hook up those electrodes wherever they wanted for $20 an hour. The saying goes: no pain, no gain. For me, at the moment, it’s no pain, no food. For a little zap, a little claustrophia, and a couple trauma-induced nightmares, $20 bucks sounds just fine.


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