We're a little crazy, about science!

The first dissertation experiment

One of my favorite photos I took years ago of my labmate gelling a participant for an experiment. The syringe holds a conductive gel, the needle is blunt tip so it doesn’t hurt or puncture the skin. The gel bridges the air gap between the scalp and cap because hair gets in the way.

It had to happen eventually! But not today, this Friday however will mark the first of several experiments I will be undertaking in the (currently) slow march to my PhD. In an effort to help people understand that experiments aren’t just something that happens at the scheduled time, let’s take a look behind the scenes at what I need to do between now and Friday to get ready. It’s going to be a looong week.

So how did we get to this point? It feels like only yesterday I was getting started. But a few weeks ago I had my PhD proposal approved by my committee (here). I now have a detailed map of the things I need to do between now and my proposed time for graduation, the problem is getting all those things done in the timeframe I set! Since this is my project, it goes at my pace, but if I want to graduate… ever, we need to do this quickly.

Since the equipment I’m looking to get hasn’t arrived I’m borrowing a bunch from roughly four different labs. It’s a mess and I’m not thrilled about it, but we do what we have to until I can get my equipment. So first I need to organize getting all that equipment together and find a time it’s not being used. Thankfully I’ve found one. The second problem is getting to that equipment.

It turns out there’s locks I need to get through. Like physical locks, not card access locks. So in lieu of practicing my lockpicking skills, they are providing me with a key to the rooms… maybe. I don’t know yet honestly how I will be getting into these rooms since I don’t have the key and the next time I’m on campus will be the day of the experiment. Another factor in all this is the head of the department we’re borrowing the equipment from is not very responsive to my emails and isn’t giving me much to work with at the moment. He’s confirmed I have the room and equipment booked, but I have no key and no way to contact him outside of his email. It’s just a touch frustrating when I’m working full time on top of all this.

So for the equipment we do have, you would think it would be simple! Nope. I need to reserve the equipment from our lab, transport it to the place I’m experimenting at (across campus), set up, teardown, and return everything to the correct places. I also need to set up our equipment prior to the big day, which again since I’m not on campus a whole lot will be THE day of the experiment. Don’t be me kids, seriously. Things will inevitably go horribly wrong doing it this way, but I have no choice in the matter at the moment.

Setting up EEG equipment is a time consuming task that involves placing each of the 64 sensors in the correct spot on the swimcap style holder. This process takes a lot of time, but I’m pretty speedy with it thankfully. Ideally I’ll have the equipment setup and ready to go while we’re in our lab meeting. I’m sure school-PI won’t complain about me working on getting my experiment done. Below is the cap we use and how we arrange the electrodes.

The dummy head we use to set up our EEG equipment. You can see my old laptop underneath!

Each of the 64-channels are numbered and we have a template because they are not ordered the way you would imagine. You have two 32-channel bundles so each goes from 1-32 and you have to place them in the correct spot (we color coordinate them so we have green and yellow, which is why you can see two different colors of holders. You’ll also notice that they are in no particular order, that’s because the pattern we use for this isn’t very straightforward so I can’t just slap them in order and walk away.

Then I need to get all the experimental stuff ready. Namely I have to use several different types of software to collect all the data I’ll be collecting, since it isn’t just brain data, I also need to collect EMG or muscle recordings. That is a whole different system with its own communication protocol so we need a way to link the two together. They don’t start recording at the same time so I need to know which parts of the data line up to the EEG data. To do that we usually have a trigger box of some sort, a way to send a signal to the programs we’re using to “mark” the time point. We use that marker to align the recordings. I’m currently at a loss for how I will do this. Like I said it’s going to be a mess. We have a trigger box that I can use, but I’ve never used it and I’m not certain it will work with the software I want to use for data collection.

I also have several other odds and ends I need to figure out. Namely I need to finalize my protocol. But Alex, didn’t you do that when you had your defense? Why, yes Alex I did, but it wasn’t the complete detailed protocol, it’s just a rough outline. Yes, I’m talking to myself, but I don’t judge me for doing it. Seriously though, I need to create the detailed protocol so I can collect the data and maximize the chances of success for the project. I know, in theory anyway, how I want this to go, I just need to put finger to key and type it out (see what I did there?).

Luckily I’ll have some help from some of the junior members of the lab. Or at least one of them this time anyway. Which will be good since I saw some of the data they collected solo and it wasn’t good. They will get the chance to see how the data should actually be collected by someone who’s run a full experiment already. It’s weird how you become an “expert” at these things without realizing it. But still the help is mostly in the form of cleaning up after the experiment and putting things away. I had to scrub the caps and sensors when I helped so now they get to to that for me too since that’s about all they are qualified to help with at this point.

All this to say, things are coming up fast and with all the work that needs to happen at work this week I’m not sure things will go as smoothly as I want. I know, from a lot of experience, that the first experiment never goes well. It’s a fact of life, just like the first draft of a paper is crap, always. The point is to go in as prepared as you can be so the second time you do it you get it right. Currently I don’t even feel like I’m anywhere close to prepared. But that’s also why we’ve scheduled out a larger block than I’ll need for the actual experiment. There’s a lot of testing and what not that needs to happen.

So a bit of a stressful week, but as long as I get the first dataset collected, even if it’s not a smooth data collection it will be one step closer to graduation.

But enough about us, what about you?

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