Get your wig on, for science's sake

September 15, 2006

When Ian Walker donned a long black wig and cycled around town pretending to be a woman, he was upholding a long and proud tradition of academics who suffer for their research.

Dr Walker, a lecturer at Bath University, was hit by a bus and a truck while studying how motorists overtake cyclists, though he found that he fared better when disguised as a woman.

In a series of controlled experiments, he cycled along the same stretches of road, sometimes bareheaded, sometimes wearing a cycle helmet and sometimes wearing the wig. He drew the line at women's clothes, however. He chose neutral trousers, although he did select "a shirt I bought in France, which was relatively feminine, mauvish and quite fitted".

"It was definitely worthwhile even if there was a small risk," he said.

"These things need doing. It's really increased our understanding of how close drivers get, and there are obviously lessons for driver attention."

Dr Walker, who found evidence that cyclists were at more risk of being hit when wearing a helmet, is not alone in putting himself on the line for his research.

Laura Piacentini, a Strathclyde University expert in the sociology of imprisonment, lived in a Siberian prison while researching the post-Soviet prison system.

Ioana Oltean, a Glasgow University archaeologist, carried out low-level aerial reconnaissance despite suffering from severe airsickness. David Calvey, a senior sociology lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, was exposed to violence when he posed as a bouncer for six months.

Now researchers who take risks in their work may be able to help colleagues in Leeds University's Institute of Psychological Sciences. Sue Grant, Rebecca Lawton and Mitch Waterman have this week launched an online survey to discover if risk-taking is a general personality trait or whether people take risks in only some areas of their life.

Volunteers can view the survey online at

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