Student Researchers Share Results for Spit for Science
Symposium highlights undergraduate research from campus-wide study
Sathya Achia Abraham
University Public Affairs
Two years ago, after participating in a Semester at Sea study abroad program, Dhara Kinariwala discovered the importance of a hands-on education. So when she heard about an undergraduate research team coming together for “Spit for Science: The VCU Student Survey,” she didn’t have to think twice.
Kinariwala, who already had an interest in pursuing research, joined the “Spit for Science: The VCU Student Survey” team of nearly 40 undergraduate students who immersed themselves in understanding the ins and outs of the research process.
“This experience showed me the breadth of opportunities available. At VCU, it's wonderful that faculty and staff members welcome undergraduate students into their research projects,” said Kinariwala, a dual degree student in Biology and International Studies, minoring in Chemistry and Spanish. She hopes to pursue further studies in global health and medicine after graduation.
“I have definitely learned the importance of teamwork … I've learned that research should be fun!” she added.
Earlier this week, the undergraduate researchers shared their findings based on the data collected thus far for the Spit for Science study with faculty and fellow students during a symposium event.
While the study, which launched last fall, is being led by VCU experts in psychiatric and behavioral genetics, several undergraduate research teams were created to engage students in hands-on research.
The study, headed by Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D., who is a co-principal investigator for the “Spit for Science” study at VCU, together with Kenneth Kendler, M.D., director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, looks at how genetic and environmental factors affect substance use and emotional health in students.
Participation in the study was completely voluntary and confidential for incoming students last fall. The results may be used to inform prevention and intervention programming to improve the health of college populations.
Dick said that she was excited about student participation in this research endeavor – and that the level of participation was beyond what many people had expected. In the end, close to 70 percent of the freshman class took part in the project.
“By engaging our students in this research project, we hoped to spark conversation about the research process, and about issues facing college students surrounding substance use and emotional health,” said Dick, associate professor of psychiatry, psychology and human and molecular genetics in the VCU School of Medicine.
Lessons learned: making sense of Spit
During the symposium, students gave oral presentations about their project and findings. Topics included how personality affects alcohol use in college-aged students to understanding the role of religiosity on a student’s likelihood to engage in risky behaviors.
The undergraduate research teams involved in the project helped with coordinating aspects of the study and analyzing anonymous data. Through this work, they were able to earn research credit by being a part of the research team.
“Working with the data and recruiting students can be challenging, and sometimes stressful, but we ultimately will feel accomplished when our results can be applied to improve overall health and mediate substance use among college students,” said Kinariwala.
Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, oversaw the student driven research projects and helped serve as a guide for those teams.
“As active members of the research team, students were able to experience first-hand what it means to develop and test their own hypotheses, and the hard work that goes into carrying out a large-scale study,” said Salvatore.
Luke Coury, a pre-dental biology major with a minor in chemistry and business, had never thought of doing research – but is glad that he had the opportunity to get involved through this project.
Coury was part of a research team that examined how religion affects substance use, and gained a new appreciation for teamwork that he would not have experienced in a regular classroom setting.
“Being part of a team that works very closely together … It’s completely different than a regular group project, because you aren’t just working with your group; you work with all the groups. It's an interesting dynamic, not like any other class I have taken,” he said.
Through this research experience, Coury said he has learned how to develop a research paper by working with a team, and to effectively approach and talk to people about being part of a scientific endeavor.
The study is supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
For more information on the project, visit http://www.spit4science.vcu.edu.