Studying Populations

Similar projects at other institutions

Virginia Commonwealth University’s “Spit for Science: The VCU Student Survey” is not unique in reaching out to the student population for involvement in research. In fact, the study design of the VCU project is similar to studies that have been conducted at other academic institutions such as the University of Missouri-Columbia.

What is unique, Dick said, is that Spit for Science “is a university-wide research opportunity to study both genetic and environmental influences on substance use and emotional health outcomes in college students.

According to Danielle Dick, Ph.D., co-principal investigator for the “Spit for Science” study at VCU and associate professor of psychiatry, psychology and human and molecular genetics in the VCU School of Medicine, the proposed study design is similar to previous studies in its use of participants drawn from a representative sample who provide behavioral and demographic data, as well as DNA samples for future research aimed at testing the effects of genetic variation on outcomes of interest. 

At the University of Missouri-Columbia, researchers recruited first-year students to participate in a four-year study called Intensive, Multivariate, Prospective Alcohol College-Transition Study, or IMPACTS, which assessed drinking and substance use in addition to demographics and other variables, though genetic analyses were not a component of that study.

The Peer Impacts on Attitudes and Drinking Behavior study, led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, examined peer influences on risky behaviors such as binge drinking and smoking at a large public university. Those who participated completed an on-line survey for modest compensation and were eligible for additional compensation if they also agreed to provide a DNA sample in the form of saliva.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, known as the Add Health project, led by researchers at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, led by a research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, employed a similar design to the VCU study. According to Dick, both are population-based studies that included the collection of health-related phenotypic data. The Add Health project invited participants to provide DNA samples for the incorporation of a genetic component to the study.

According to Dick, collection of DNA enables researchers to incorporate genetic data into analyses investigating the roles of social and biological factors on outcomes such as substance use, mental health and more. Dick said that the above mentioned projects have experienced high levels of participation and served as useful models for the current project.

“We designed the components of the study using methods that have already been used successfully at other universities,” she said.

All incoming freshmen who are 18 years of age and older will be invited to participate in the VCU study, which includes two parts - an electronic survey and collection of a DNA sample via saliva. The study is completely voluntary and confidential.

More information can be found at

Student demonstrates DNA collection through a saliva sample.
Student demonstrates DNA collection through a saliva sample.