Students Salivate for VCU Professor 

click to enlarge news34_spit_for_science.jpg

Seniors at Virginia Commonwealth University will be among the first class to finish out what could be the school's grossest retention effort.

Psychology professor Danielle Dick started asking incoming freshmen to volunteer their spit in 2011, dubbing the experiment Spit4Science. After three years, she's collected 7,600 samples.

All of that saliva eventually will help VCU keep students healthier, she says.

Students, who can sign up at spit4science.vcu.edu, begin the process by filling out a survey about alcohol and other drug consumption and donating a spit sample. Students then update researchers with each passing semester — earning $10 per survey.

"There are no genes for alcohol problems or dropping out of college, but it is a piece of the puzzle," Dick says. "The environment is also equally important, so we're studying how these things come together."

So far, Dick says the results aren't surprising. She says the university's overall dropout rate is about 20 percent. But 40 percent of students who reported drinking "multiple times per week" upon enrollment in the spit study had dropped out of VCU by their junior year.

Dick says none of these numbers is tied to the DNA results. Surveying behavior has had the largest impact on her understanding of the link between drinking and dropping out. While the program pursues the genetic aspect of the research, she says, in the meantime "we can do a better job of thinking about how to promote healthy behaviors from the time they step on campus."

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