NU community probes for the answers to deeper questions

Laurel Felt Column

Northwestern takes great pride in its cutting-edge research. That’s why, in the interest of science, certain Wildcats are rolling up their sleeves to answer some unusual questions. And they’re literally digging deeper than ever before.

From Feinberg to Weinberg, students and faculty have been exploring the insides of area residents. While some medical students administered their first rectal exams last week, Prof. Michael Bailey’s research team continues its three-year investigation of female sexual arousal. I guess “The Vagina Monologues” aren’t such a rarity at NU.

First-year medical student Monica Rho divulged the details of her recent studies. Two weeks ago, the name of the game was breast exams, while students performed uro-genital-rectal check ups last week. This week’s agenda includes pelvic assessments.

“To a normal person, this would seem very weird,” admitted Rho, Weinberg ’01. “But I’m going to be giving rectal exams to my patients someday.”

So, she reasons, she’d best learn how to do them right. To her benefit, seasoned professionals coach Rho and her peers in proctological practices – as well as offer up their own bodies to practice on.

Called “patient instructors,” these individuals have undergone intensive training to guide students’ efforts. Explained Dr. John Thomas, dean of educational programs at the Feinberg School of Medicine: “Students are trying to emulate something they’ve read in a book or seen two or three times.” Well, theory often differs from real-world practice, but the contrast is particularly stark when it comes to uro-genital analysis – ain’t nothin like the real thing, baby. So, PIs show students all the right moves.

Confided Rho, “The real shock for me was that someone would actually let me give them a rectal exam – when they didn’t need it for medical reasons.”

Standardized Patient Trainer Renee Martinez believes that PIs participate because of an interest in education or medicine. And although they are paid $75 to $125 per session, which last between 90 minutes and three hours, Martinez asserted, “These are individuals who, in my experience, are not just in it for the money… I find them to be very giving, very good teachers.”

Because of the sensitive nature of their jobs, patient instructors are paid more than “standardized patients,” who typically rack up $20 per hour. SPs engage in role play, pretending to suffer from various maladies and challenging students’ communication and diagnostic skills. Since SPs present every student they see with a standard set of behavior and symptoms, student performance can also be fairly evaluated.

“Ninety-five percent of all medical schools use this program,” explained Marsha Kaye, assistant director of clinical education and evaluative clinical testing. By 2005, the National Board of Medical Examiners will require student interaction with standardized patients.

Professional actors most often choose to be SPs because of its basis in acting. Speech senior Julia Riedel expressed a willingness, but that’s where she drew the line. Of patient instruction, Riedel said, “It’s like a ‘Do you have any itching or burning when you urinate?’ kind of thing and you have to learn to respond correctly. I don’t enjoy anatomy or medicine enough to want to learn that kind of stuff.”

But maybe she’d change her tune if “that kind of stuff” were presented in the right way. Weinberg psychology professor Michael Bailey, legendary for his Human Sexuality course, has been setting science on its head by taking a look at what goes on below.

Bailey examines women’s sexual arousal in relation to certain video clips, some sexually explicit. Research participants insert into their vaginas a 4-inch, plastic probe that emits a light and judges how much light is reflected back. When aroused, blood flow to vaginal tissues increases, causing the vagina to become engorged and to return less light.

Over the past three years, about 100 women have participated in this study.

“I think we’ve gotten some really fascinating results,” enthused Bailey. “I’m very excited by the research and I hope that it provokes other people to do more research in the area.”

When queried about the immediate application of his findings, Bailey allowed, “I can’t really think of anything right now.”

Obviously, the man has never watched “South Park.”

From Chicago to Evanston, it sure seems like NU is anal in more ways than one. Why is this happening, you may ask, and at prudish Northwestern of all places? Maybe we’re compensating. What we lack in campus courtship, we make up for in the probe department.

Ouch. Go Wildcats.