Summer 2015

Me and My Study

Research volunteers embrace life in the cohort

By Julie Flaherty

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Nia Bissanti, the most-researched HNRCA volunteer, with 67 studies to her credit, visits with nutrition tech Verona Bembridge, herself a 30-year HNRCA employee. Photo: Kelvin Ma

Nia Bissanti of Quincy, Massachusetts, is a record-setter at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA), having volunteered for 67 studies over the past 30 years. It would have been 68, had she not recently been turned down for a study on muscle loss, which is common in people her age. Her muscle mass, the researchers told the petite 90-year-old, was just too good.

The secret to her robust health? “Good food,” she said, “and optimism.”

Bissanti was one of a couple hundred HNRCA volunteers who were celebrated at an appreciation event in May. It was a way to say thank you to some of the 2,339 people who made possible the 62 human research studies conducted at the center over the last five years.

Some volunteers are like Claudette Norville, 64, who took part in a grains study. While she could have lived with 12 weeks of white bread had she been assigned to the refined grains group, she was happy to be in the whole grains group. “That’s all I buy now,” she said, describing how volunteering has changed her eating habits for the better.

Some are couples like Dee Ramee, 63, and Dean Brown, 67, who wanted to contribute to science while making a little extra money during retirement. “For me, it’s about giving back and doing something that you feel is eventually going to help a lot of people,” said Ramee. At the event, she was particularly looking forward to hearing about the results of some of the studies. She was curious about the outcome of the vitamin trials she took part in, even knowing she may have been taking placebos.

Outreach like this is crucial to successful research, said Professor Sarah Booth, Ph.D., the HNRCA’s associate director, who chatted with the guests over breakfast. She pointed to a 2013 survey of 5,600 volunteers conducted by the Center for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation, which found that the prospect of receiving results was one of the top five reasons people participate in trials.

“Volunteering for anything helps lead to improved health and even to reduced mortality.” —Karl Pillemer

After researchers presented study results and took questions, the volunteers heard from gerontologist Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., a professor at Cornell University, who interviewed more than 1,000 senior citizens for his book 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. Heads in the audience nodded as he shared the seniors’ sage advice for aging happily.

Pillemer said later that the elders he spoke to for the book absolutely recommended volunteering. “This kind of generative activity, where you are giving up your time to benefit other people—and in this case, to advance knowledge and improve heath—is extremely positive. Volunteering for anything helps lead to improved health and even to reduced mortality in a lot of studies.”

For Bissanti, the event was a chance to visit with center staff, some of whom she has known for decades. It’s been a long time since her first exercise study, to which she wore dress shoes. (She had to borrow the principal investigator’s sneakers to ride the stationary bike.)

The staffers are meticulous in their jobs, Bissanti said, recalling the time she was called back to the kitchen because she had not finished her assigned breakfast. She returned to find that a grain of sugar remained in the bottom of her drained coffee cup.

The data is important, but the people who provide it are never treated as numbers, as Bissanti knows. She has lived at the HNRCA from time to time, for studies that require overnight stays. If she sometimes had trouble sleeping, it was only because a favorite nurse kept her up—laughing and talking with her.

Julie Flaherty, the editor of this magazine, can be reached at

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