How my toddler son helps scientists with their experiments

My son, Rigel, is only two years old, but he's already helping scientists make new discoveries.

Volunteering as a research subject can be rewarding and fun

Rigel, 2, regularly takes part in child-development experiments. Here, he warms up in a play area at the University of Toronto's Language and Learning Lab under the watchful eye of lab manager Heather Gallant. (Emily Chung/CBC)

My son, Rigel, is only two years old, but he's already helping scientists make new discoveries.

It's not because he's a genius – he isn't. Like many kids his age, he's illiterate and not fully toilet-trained.

Obviously, he's not conceiving and running any grand experiments himself, but he volunteers to be experimented on instead.

Yes, you could call him a guinea pig.

At his latest gig, the role involves playing a hiding game on the second floor of a century-old house in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood.

Rigel stands behind a curtain and watches as research assistant Bianca Bondi hides a plush, green toy alligator in a box at the University of Toronto's Language and Learning Lab.

Heather Gallant, the lab manager, invites Rigel to leave the quiet, windowless lab and hang out in the sunny office next door. Minutes later, Bianca joins us.

In order to test Rigel's memory, Heather Gallant teaches him some other games involving toys and cards. (Emily Chung/CBC)

"I put the alligator in the drawer," she tells Rigel. "I put the alligator in the drawer."

Everyone returns to the lab.

"Where's the alligator?" Gallant asks Rigel.

He walks past the box, over to the drawer, and pulls it open. Triumphantly, he yanks the alligator out.

The goal of the experiment is to find out how common it is for children Rigel's age to be able to use information from other people to find things out about an object that they can't see. The researchers are interested in finding out how much that depends on factors such as age and short-term memory.

In order to test Rigel's memory, Gallant tries to teach him some other games involving toys and cards, but he soon becomes distracted and refuses to play. We decide to call it a day. Bondi offers Rigel a choice of toys and he chooses a green ball to take home.

'I want to go there!'

The experiment was the latest of several that Rigel and I have volunteered for since he was a baby. At first, it was just because I was interested in science and wanted to make a contribution to research.

Now that Rigel is older, I'm looking for interesting things for him to do when he's not at day care. I'd also like him to get this perspective on science and how it works, even if he won't appreciate it until later.

Rigel mostly enjoys the games he plays at the Language and Learning Lab. After our first study there, every time we walked past the building, he would point to it and say, "I want to go there!"

Even so, some of the experiments we've done haven't exactly been fun for him.

Rigel finds a toy alligator and yanks it out of a drawer during a hiding game at the Language and Learning Lab. (Emily Chung/CBC)

The study on the development of infant vision at York University required him to lie down in a cabinet and look at shapes on a screen. Some infants happily cooperate, but Rigel, who was three months old at the time, cried during the experiment. Researcher Audrey Wong Kee You assured me that it didn't matter that much, because he was still looking at the screen and generating data.

Wong Kee You is a graduate student with the Visual and Cognitive Development Project run by Scott Adler, an associate professor of psychology at York University, and I contacted her after seeing a Google ad looking for volunteers.

Rigel is also part of a long-term, longitudinal study out of the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children that aims to uncover how common adult diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and cancer are linked to health, nutrition, lifestyle and behaviour during childhood.

As part of a study, Rigel has to have blood samples drawn once a year to be tested for cholesterol, glucose, iron and vitamin D.

It's a little uncomfortable. But I know that such studies are very valuable – similar studies have uncovered a wealth of information. For example:

Some of the studies that Rigel has participated in have already yielded results.

So far, Wong Kee You and Adler have found that three-month-old infants can use visual cues to help them track objects, just like adults, but that their eyes move more slowly. They shared the preliminary findings at the Vision Science Society conference in Florida in May.

Every time he walks past the Language and Learning Lab in Toronto, Rigel points to the building and says, 'I want to go there.' (Emily Chung/CBC)

The ongoing research aims to uncover how normal infants develop the ability to turn their attention to something, Wong Kee You said. This information could one day be used to diagnose developmental disorders and intervene at an early age, she added.

Similarly, the Language and Learning Lab aims to find out how children learn best, and what factors can help them learn better or impede their learning, said Patricia Ganea, the lab's director.

"We ultimately hope that our findings are being taken into the schools and the homes and better children's development," she said.

Recruiting subjects a challenge for scientists

Ganea said her biggest research challenge is recruiting enough children.

"I don't see another way of learning about children's development," she added.

The lab typically runs six to eight experiments at a time on children 17 months to eight years old, and each one requires an average of 50 children. Some need as many as 200. To find volunteers, the lab does outreach at baby shows, libraries, preschools and farmer's markets.

Families who volunteer are not just contributing to valuable research.

"We try to design our activities to be fun for children," Ganea said. "We hope that the families who come into the lab have a great time here."

Sold yet? If you're interested in giving the guinea pig life a try, here are three suggestions for places to start:

As for Rigel and me, we're always keeping our eyes open for our next scientific gig.


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