Click here to learn more about the importance of racial/ethnic minority involvement in genetic research.
Spit for Science: The VCU Student Survey is an effort to understand how genetic and environmental factors come together to contribute to the development of problems associated with the use of alcohol, the use of other substances, and emotional health. The study brings together researchers from across the university and asks a broad base of questions, covering topics including living situation; personality; family history and childhood upbringing; experience of stressful life events; social support; involvement in extracurricular activities; alcohol and other drug use; other mental health related problems, such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders; caffeine use; friends' behavior; nicotine use; and religiosity – to name a few!
A big focus is on substance use and emotional health since the life stage that college students are entering is a high risk period for the onset of problems associated with these outcomes. In any given year in the U.S., one in four adults over the age of 18 suffers from one or more psychiatric or substance use disorders. Nicotine and alcohol dependence are among the most common, preventable causes of mortality and morbidity. In 2020, major depression will exceed cardiovascular illness as the leading biomedical source of world-wide morbidity. Collectively, psychiatric and substance use disorders are the most costly U.S. public health concerns in, both, human and financial terms. The magnitude of these adverse health effects underscores the need to understand the root causes of these disorders in order to provide more effective approaches to both primary and secondary prevention in addition to treatment.
Spit for Science is an effort to bring VCU’s research expertise in substance use and behavioral and emotional health “home” to VCU in ways that will benefit our students and our university community. The project is led by Dr. Kenneth Kendler, Director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics (VIPBG), and Dr. Danielle Dick, the Director of the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute (COBE). VIPBG is a world-renowned research institute focusing on genetic and environmental risk factors for psychiatric and substance use disorders. COBE brings together researchers from across the university who study behavioral and emotional health, and has the goal of promoting behavioral and emotional health through the integration of research with policy, programming, and practice.
One of the VCU Quest for Distinction themes is to become a leader among national research universities in providing all students with high quality experiences focused on inquiry, discover, and innovation. Spit for Science offers students the opportunity to get involved in research. We engage students in the research process in many ways, including:
- Providing the opportunity to experience being a participant in research.
- Raising awareness and understanding of the human factor that is behind research findings that all of us are routinely exposed to in the media.
- Providing generalized feedback to the students about findings that come out of the project, so they can understand how the information they provide is being used.
It is our hope that the shared experience of engaging in research will stimulate conversation and discussion about the research process among all VCU students.
Spit for Science also offers opportunities for students to get involved in the running of the research study. Many students have “taken ownership” of this research study, and are involved in the administration of the project. Students have helped us raise awareness of the study and encouraged student participation. Students also have the opportunity to work with more senior graduate students, postdocs, and faculty who oversee the project, on data analysis and writing up results, both in the form of newsletters sent out to the student body and scientific presentation of the work. Thus, this project offers select students a chance to be intimately involved in all aspects of scientific research, providing a training opportunity and mentoring experience, especially valuable for those who wish to go on to graduate school.
By studying VCU students on these important behavioral dimensions, Spit for Science has information specific to VCU students. This project represents an interdisciplinary, cross-campus initiative that has brought together faculty and administrators from many different areas around the university. The Director of the VCU Wellness Resource center is involved in the project, and it is our goal to use the information that students provide to feed back and develop better intervention and prevention programming specific to the needs of VCU students.
Finally, an important part of Spit for Science: The VCU Student Survey is the educational component. In addition to the more informal learning experiences delineated above, researchers from the Spit for Science research team hold talks and smaller discussion forums to talk to students about the importance of research, improving awareness and understanding of substance use and mental health outcomes and the factors that contribute to them, and, importantly, the role of genetics in health-related outcomes and how genetics is likely to influence the future of medicine (detailed further below).
All eligible students received an e-mail during their freshman year inviting them to participate in the project. The e-mail contained a link that took them to an online survey that asked questions about their personality and behavior, as well as their family, friends, and experiences growing up. Upon completion of the survey, students received $10 compensation. Participants also had the opportunity to give a DNA sample and receive another $10. Those who participate in Spit for Science are invited to complete follow-up surveys each year, for which they also receive compensation. All data that we collect is kept completely confidential.
Most of the major health-related problems facing society today have a considerable genetic component – this is true of everything ranging from cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer to mental health and substance abuse. But, how genes influence these outcomes is very different than the simple genetics that most of us were taught in high school biology. Instead of there being just one gene involved, whether or not you have a particular version of that gene determines whether or not you get the disorder (or have the trait of interest, such as blue versus brown eyes), there are many genes involved in these outcomes – perhaps hundreds or more!
So, any one gene on its own has a very small effect. This means there is no gene FOR a particular outcome; rather, there are just combinations of genes that can increase or decrease your level of risk for a particular outcome. And, having a particular genetic combination still does not necessarily mean that you will be affected by a disorder. The environment also plays a big role. For example, an individual might be strongly predisposed, based on their underlying biology, to become addicted to alcohol, but, if for religious or personal reasons they choose not to drink, they will never develop alcohol-related problems. The environment has essentially "trumped" their genetic predisposition; the individual's genetic predisposition is less important because of their environment. The converse is also true. The importance of environmental risk factors can also vary as a function of one's individual susceptibility. That is to say, some people may be more likely to develop lung cancer when exposed to nicotine or to develop depression when exposed to stressful life experiences. This is why we need to study both genetic and environmental risk factors in order to develop maximally effective prevention and intervention programming.
Genetics is a high priority area for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The idea is that it has the potential to change the way that medicine is practiced – moving from the current treatment model (where you go see a doctor when something is wrong) to a predictive, preemptive, and personalized approach in which prevention, intervention, and treatment efforts can be tailored to an individual's personal risk profile. Understanding genetics promises to be a critical skill for understanding the future of medicine. We want VCU students to be armed to understand these advances and to engage in dialogue about the new era of genetics and the potential and challenges for personalized medicine.