The Genetic Link

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Article by: Shauna White

Freshman’s guide to starting university: laptop, text books and DNA from saliva

2011-09-07

The incoming class of freshman students at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) had something unique waiting for them when they arrived for welcome week this year. Not only did they have a list of text books to buy and a schedule of welcome week activities, they also received an email invitation to participate in "Spit for Science" the VCU student survey. This year’s university freshmen have the opportunity to engage in a voluntary and confidential, university-wide research project aimed at understanding how genetic and environmental factors contribute to the development of problems related to alcohol use and emotional health.

Drs. Danielle Dick and Kenneth Kendler and their team of researchers at VCU are interested in what factors contribute to how well students do during their college years and beyond. For many, starting college is a major milestone, associated with big life transitions. For most, this will be an exciting time, filled with new opportunities. But the college years are harder for some students. For some individuals, this period can be a high risk time for the development of problems associated with alcohol use, other substances, and emotional health. Dr. Dick and her team want to understand what factors contribute to these outcomes, so that they can ultimately use this information to improve the quality of life for VCU students. In this video, Drs. Dick and Kendler describe the project. 

 

"Spit for Science" has two main components. The first is an email to all eligible freshmen (18 years and older) inviting them to participate in the project. The email contains a link to an on-line survey. The survey asks questions about personality and behavior, as well as family, friends, and experiences growing up. Each participating student receives $10 cash for participating in this survey. The second part of the study is a DNA component. At the time that the student collects the reimbursement for the survey, they will have the opportunity to provide a DNA (saliva) sample. Those choosing to participate in this part of the study will receive another $10. The scientific aim of the project is to understand how genetic variation, in conjunction with environment factors, contributes to differences in the use of alcohol and other substances, and emotional health.

DNA is collected through a saliva sample with Oragene. Dr. Dick and her team chose Oragene for this project because it is non-invasive, simple to administer, and the saliva collection reliably generates enough DNA to do all the assessments required for the study. In addition, she utilized DNA Genotek’s marketing team to create the signage, banners, web graphics and promotional items for the project. The study had to appeal to young students so a ‘Spit for Science’ theme was chosen with compelling graphics, images and t-shirts created to launch the study.

It is the research team’s hope that participating in the Spit for Science project will give students a better understanding of the research process. They also hope the project will raise awareness about issues related to the use of alcohol and other substances, and emotional health, and the importance of genetic and environmental influences on behavior. In addition, they believe it’s a way to engage students in the new era of genetics and how it can lead to personalized medicine. At the time of this post, over 1000 students had completed the online survey and so far, they have high participation rates with the DNA component of the study as well.

DNA Genotek is proud to have contributed to this exciting research project and we look forward to learning the results. For more information, see the Spit for Science web site.

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