Spit for Science reveals fourth year research findings

Janeal Downs
Staff Writer

Spit for science collects student saliva samples and compares the DNA to survey answers to come to conclusions on substance abuse and mental health outcomes. Photo by Christian Martinez.

This academic year is the fourth year students will spit and take a survey for money, and researchers say the data they have collected offer some interesting responses about the students of VCU’s urban campus.

The Spit for Science initiative is funded by an FDA grant and findings have included insight into alcohol and drug abuse, as well as family life components.

Research professor Danielle Dick, who runs the Spit for Science program, described the programs as a university-wide research opportunity for all incoming freshmen 18 and older. Students receive a $10 incentive for taking the survey and another for contributing their spit.

Dick said the goal of the project is to see how substance abuse and mental health outcomes relate to environments and to also get students talking and aware of how genes and the environment come together.

She said researchers use the date to look at the patterns of substance abuse with drinking, smoking, marijuana use and the use of other drugs, in order to understand how these activities change during students’ time in college. They put students in either a low-using, medium-using or heavy-using class.

“What we actually found is that patterns of substance abuse are remarkably stable,” Dick said. “Almost everybody stayed in the same class and we thought that was really interesting.”

Last year, they also found 40 percent of the students from the first group of participants were gone from the university. Dick said things like being engaged in university activities through Greek life, athletics or clubs were “protective” of dropping out. There was a correlation of family history; if people believed they had a family member who had a problem with alcohol or drugs Dick said the students are two to three times more likely to drink heavily. With heavy focus on rates and the reports of sexual assaults, that is another thing they plan to pay close attention to.

“Your relationship with your parents growing up is not as important as your friends, the association between substance use and your friend’s substance use is much stronger than you relationship with your parents which some people are very surprised about,” Dick said.

Not only did family and friends play a role, but Dick said personality factors are also correlated with substance abuse. A small percentage of students drink to cope rather than socialize and is the group she says they are most concerned about. However, she also said they are interested in starting an awareness campaign to educate people that, although being extroverts and high sensation seekers can be positive, these are the majority of people within the heavy using class.

“Being someone who is a high sensation seeker and extrovert myself, I can get how all that unfolds because people they like being social, they like being around other folks and having fun and the reality is that part of that culture does involve alcohol sometimes.”

Dick said as long as funding remains for the project, students who participated in their freshmen year can continue taking the survey every spring until they graduate. She said each class has been “amazingly consistent” and close to 70 percent of each class has participated. She said this offered a decent representation of VCU in regards to gender and race.

“I really want to say thank you to all the students who come out and participate because this
project has become more than any of us dreamed it would be or I guess what I had dreamed it would be,” Dick said. “It’s been more successful than any of us could have hoped and really it’s been all because of you guys.”

Students not only can participate in giving data, but can also be involved in the research and analysis process.

Senior biology major Rebekah Placide is an undergraduate Spit for Science class with 17 other students this semester. Placide said the class includes guest lectures, not as many readings as other classes and an opportunity to acquire volunteer hours.

She said she is excited for the experience and that the class is different from any other she has taken.

“My whole undergraduate career I really haven’t dabbled in any research at all so it was just interesting to have this opportunity come up and to be able to incorporate it into research,” Placide said.

Post-doctoral fellow Amy Adkins teaches the class and said students have the opportunity to pick their areas of interest. This includes the relationship between smoking and drinking, looking at people who have a family history of alcohol problems and their tendency to drink more, and groups in the past have looked at things such as personality traits and patterns of behavior.

“For me it’s exciting to know that the things that we learn from Spit for Science, we can try to implement a prevention program at the university,” Adkins said. “Let’s say we find environments or activities that are protective of certain behaviors, then maybe we could talk to the university about implementing them and helping future VCU students.”

For more information about the project, the class or its research you can email spit4science@vcu.edu.

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