Minnesotans drive research forward at D2D building

There aren’t many places where you can ride a Ferris wheel, feed a farm animal, catch a rock concert, and then mosey up the road to contribute to world-class research. The Minnesota State Fair, however, is one such place.

Now in its third year at the State Fair, the University of Minnesota’s Driven to Discover (D2D) building connects the nearly 2 million annual fairgoers with opportunities to learn about and participate in research from across a wide range of University departments and colleges. Visitors to the D2D building can learn about and volunteer for one or more of research projects conducted on the spot, that change every day, ranging from how people regulate their own eating habits to how multitasking affects their ability to safely drive a car. Fairgoers can also sign up to be involved in studies requiring specialized laboratory facilities, which are conducted on the U’s campus after the Fair.

This year, 32 studies were held in the D2D building, and more than 13,000 fairgoers volunteered to participate in a research project.

D2D helps advance research in many ways. It connects Minnesotans interested in contributing to research with opportunities they may otherwise not have known about, while giving undergraduate and graduate students opportunities to gain valuable research experience helping conduct the studies. And D2D research is already being published. For example, Charles Rogers, Ph.D., assistant professor in the U’s Medical School, recently published a paper on his study of attitudes towards colorectal cancer screening in African American men in the American Journal of Men’s Health, which was based on his survey work conducted at D2D.

The projects can also help investigators receive grants to fund further research. Professor Jayne Fulkerson, Ph.D., in the School of Nursing, recently received a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health based on research she conducted at the D2D building in 2014 on preventing excess weight gain among children from rural communities.

The variety of research at D2D spans a surprisingly broad range; two specific D2D research projects are highlighted here:

Thinking about the act of speaking

For three years running, children ages 3 to 8 have volunteered for a D2D study led by Lizbeth Finestack, Ph.D., associate professor in the U’s College of Liberal Arts and director of the Child Language Intervention Lab. Through her research, Finestack aims to understand how children’s metalinguistic awareness — the way they think about their own use of language — can help them not only in developing language proficiency, but problem-solving skills.

For the study, Finestack has asked children to complete brief problem-solving exercises as well as several language assessments, such as repeating a sentence that was spoken to them or finishing an incomplete one. The D2D building helped her study max out participation of 250 children each year — a number that would take two years and plenty more resources to meet outside of the State Fair setting. Finestack said participation is high in part because parents want to know about their child’s development.

“Many parents ask how their child performed,” she said. “Some of the scores are national tests and we can compare them to the national norm. I give them that feedback, and some of the families really appreciate that.”

Finestack will spend the next semester combing through the data, analyzing it and noting factors she thinks may influence language development, such as whether participants spoke more than one language or had a twin sibling. Ultimately, the results could aid in developing better ways for speech-language pathologists in schools and clinics to help children who struggle in developing language skills, including those with developmental disorders such as autism or Down syndrome.

Whooping the cough

Whooping cough — also called pertussis — sickens up to 40,000 people every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But while the respiratory tract infection is highly contagious, it can also be prevented by vaccine. Shalini Kulasingam, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology and community health (EpiCH) with the U’s School of Public Health and Erinn Sanstead, Ph.D. student in EpiCH, have partnered with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) to study Minnesotans’ immunity levels to whooping cough and explore ways to decrease its prevalence in the state.

During this year’s State Fair, Sanstead and Kulasingam asked participants of all ages to contribute to research by providing a small sample of blood and talking about their health history. Fairgoers enthusiastically signed up to participate in the study, as many had either experienced whooping cough or known someone who was affected by it. In the first three hours, their team had already recruited 50 participants that spanned all ages. Because recruitment happened at the Fair, there were participants from across the state. In the end, more than 90 people contributed.

Now, Kulasingam and Sanstead will send the blood samples to MDH, where scientists will measure the antibodies they contain to determine their immunity levels to the disease whooping cough. They aim to combine the data from this collaboration with computer modeling of whooping cough’s spread in Minnesota, which will be developed by Sanstead. Ultimately, the results from this study could inform public health efforts to better prevent the spread of the disease by showing experts where, and among which demographics, the vaccine is needed most.

“Every few years we have more than a thousand kids in Minnesota who end up missing school from a case of whooping cough,” Kulasingam said. “We’re hoping these data give us a sense of what’s driving the spread of pertussis and how this can inform interventions for stopping its spread in our community.”

New, larger D2D facility planned

While the 2016 State Fair has ended, University researchers are already looking ahead to 2017. Next year’s fair will bring with it a new, larger D2D facility, complete with more space to allow for more studies to run simultaneously, along with the capability to support more technologically detailed studies. Other enhancements to the D2D services will include more support for external grant applications, additional recruitment efforts and new ways for researchers to return the findings of their studies to the public.

The new D2D building and service enhancements, including new technology that improves the site’s web presence and ability to connect with potential participants at the Fair, were supported through infrastructure funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research, with matching funds from the Medical School; College of Education and Human Development; Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Research, Pediatrics; School of Public Health; and University Libraries.

A Request for Application (RFA) will be issued in October 2016 for researchers who want to reserve space in the new D2D building for 2017.