Saliva study prepares for spring trials

Participation for the spring portion of the Spit for Science study is under way. Freshmen received emails requesting their participation on Feb. 14. Photo by Annie Agee.

Sarah King
Staff Writer

Freshmen with saliva who are looking to make extra cash will be glad to learn that the Spit for Science study is gearing up for its spring round of data collection.

The annual spring portion of VCU’s Spit for Science study is already under way and plans to improve and educate the VCU community with their findings.

Spit for Science is a project that offers cash incentives to incoming freshmen for participation. The study couples an anonymous questionnaire on substance use and emotional health with genetic science using student saliva. Each fall, freshman who are 18 and older are invited to participate in the study and are encouraged to continue participating during their time at VCU.

“This project is really about what contributes to differences in how well folks are doing, so what we’re trying to figure out is to address how well to put students to set up for success at VCU,” said Danielle Dick, Ph.D., the primary researcher for Spit for Science and an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at VCU.

Spit for Science works with health organizations at VCU such as The Wellness Resource Center to incorporate their findings into techniques for more effective protective substance abuse intervention among students.

“We’re just starting to get the first cohorts’ genotypic data in, the DNA actually has to be extracted then it gets sent to a big genotyping facility, then it’s sent back to us and that takes some time, so now we have the first cohort, and the second is due in another month or two,” Dick said.

The project began in 2011 with the first cohort of students, and currently all funding for Spit for Science comes from the five-year grant from the National Institute of Health. The grant was installed in the spring of 2012 after the testing of the first cohort of students was successful. The grant has paid for the enrollment of the first three cohorts of students (2011, 2012, 2013) and to track their progress for the next five years. Thus far, approximately 7,000 students have participated.

Mainly we’ve used the information we have to triangulate our data.  VCU data matches national data, which matches spit for science data, which matches other campus data, so the stuff that gets published in the Stall Seat Journal is in fact pretty accurate,” said Linda Hancock, Ph.D., the director of the Well.

Hancock also said that Spit for Science data is incorporated in information sent out to parents and new students, as well as in the Stall Seat Journals. She said she hopes to eventually install a black-and-white series similar to the Stall Seat Journal that will strictly portray Spit for Science data.

Each year there is a fall launch that invites all incoming freshmen to participate, then a spring semester follow-up to see how and if student responses to substances have changed throughout the year. The process continues throughout the student’s time at VCU. Dick said she would like to eventually track students after they leave school as well.

“The project is just now an exciting point where we can analyze the data and feed it back and that’s because so much of the first few years was getting the project off the ground,” Dick said. “We’ve literally just hired a database manager and taken these surveys to start to work with the data. There’s no one finding. There’s so many different things we’re looking at.”

There are three spin-off projects currently under way in regard to the Spit for Science findings.  These include the relationship between depressive mood, affect and cigarette use among students, coping-oriented drinking in trauma-exposed young adults, and the use of prevention programing to reduce risky alcohol use among VCU students.

“I’m really interested in the spin-off surveys, and in genetics with high and low alcohol responders and how that correlates to addiction and changing their brains,” Hancock said. “Right now the big dream is to do prevention that isn’t one size fits all because everyone’s a genetic snowflake with different social experiences and the like.”

Dick said some aspects of student life the researchers are investigating include the effect of romantic and roommate relationships and substance use, and patterns of classes of drug and nicotine use throughout students’ time in college.

Spit for Science also incorporates follow-up studies with students depending on their answers in the survey, or sometimes by selecting a random sample.

“The goal now is to feed the results back to you guys and get your thoughts and input on it,” Dick said. It’s the whole idea of community-engaged research, so that’s really the next phase of the project.”

These studies are also used to help predict more effective intervention and prevention methods that student services such as The Well can employ more practically.

“This isn’t about telling you what to do with alcohol, but putting out there what we’ve found with the research,” Hancock said. “I think Spit for Science can change how we view prevention in America and I’m honored to be a part of the project.”

The Spit for Science team includes 15 faculty members from eight different departments as well as five additional faculty in the project planning phase with Dick.  There is also opportunity for student involvement. Each semester approximately 15-25 undergraduates are enrolled to be part of the research team through an application process.

“(The undergraduates) are involved with analyzing the data and coming up with research projects,” Dick said. “Now we’re getting them more involved in outreach activities as well and the face of substance use as well, so we’ve had over 100 undergrads part of the research team.”

Participation in the spring portion of the project for this year is under way. Juniors and sophomores have already been sent emails requesting participation, and the Franklin Street Gym opened for them to begin testing the week of Feb. 3. Freshmen received emails requesting their participation on Friday, Feb. 14.

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