Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thank you!

The data collection phase of the "Spit for Science" project has come to an end. We are very pleased to announce that we far exceeded our initial goal of 10,000 participants and had an incredible 17,296 kids and teens take part in our study.

The success of this work is an example of what can be accomplished through a partnership between a museum like the Ontario Science Centre and an academic research institute like The Hospital for Sick Children. The behavioural, cognitive and genetic data that we have collected is like a library of science that will pay dividends for years and advance our understanding of normal cognitive development and of several common, impairing and costly psychiatric disorders named Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

The premise of our study is that ADHD and OCD are extremes that are widely distributed in the general population. For example, many individuals are easily preoccupied and worried about things, perfectionisitic, or engage in repetitive and habitual behaviours, etc. These traits may be harmless or even helpful when present to a mild degree, but lead to impairment in daily living if they are extreme. By comparing individuals at both extremes of a trait distribution (e.g.: the top and bottom 10%) we maximize our chances of finding genetic risk factors since the differences between groups is so great. At the Ontario Science Centre, our aim was to collect a large sample so that we would have sufficient numbers of individuals at the high and low ends of the trait distribution to compare to one another with regard to genomic variation.

This comparison would enable one to identify associations between specific genes and the traits we are studying. Identifying these gene-behaviour relationships will help identify key biological pathways underlying common and debilitating childhood onset psychiatric disorders.

We hope this research will represent a first step towards determining alternative and effective treatment strategies, early identification and prevention.

We thank all of the children and families who took the time to "Spit for Science" and have made our project a success. It's now off to the lab to hunt for genes!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Interview with a Senior Research Assistant

Last summer we asked several staff members about their experiences working on the Spit for Science project, so that blog readers can learn more about what it's like to be involved in research and science. We thought it would be nice to hear from some of our other team members, including one of our Senior Research Assistants, Hrag Pailian (pictured above with our 10,000th participant).

What are you taking in school? What year are you entering?
I am a first year Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins University, conducting research in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and visual cognition.

What made you apply to be a research assistant for Spit for Science?
During my undergraduate career at the University of Toronto, I was given the opportunity to work within Dr. Russell Schachar's ADHD Laboratory at the Hospital for Sick Children. My experiences within Dr. Schachar's laboratory allowed me to develop a solid understanding of psychiatric illnesses, and specifically, the etiology of ADHD. However, during this same period of time, I had enrolled in a course at the university, in which the validity of ADHD was constantly debated (as a handful of academics argued that ADHD is the product of disease mongering by pharmaceutical companies). In this vein, "Spit for Science" presented itself as the ideal opportunity through which I would be able to add to this debate, and hopefully contribute to validating the disorder by helping to discover its genetic underpinnings.

What is your favourite part of the job?
Though it is difficult to champion one specific aspect of the job as my favourite part, I would argue that I find two things to be the most enjoyable. I find it quite refreshing to witness young children wanting to take part in our study by virtue of the fact that they would essentially be helping out sick kids who need their help. Though we do offer prizes in exchange for participation, I find it heart warming to see children prioritize helping others above receiving extrinsic rewards. My second favourite part of the job is the opportunity that it provides to educate young children on scientific matters. In this token, my colleagues and I find it quite rewarding to hear kids say that they would like to become future scientists as a result of their experiences at Spit for Science.

Why are you interested in science?
I've always been fascinated by human nature, and have yearned to understand why people do the things they do. In this vein, I find myself particularly interested in cognitive neuroscience and psychology as they provide insight into human behaviour by taking both biological and social factors into consideration. Moreover, I think the ability to conduct scientific research is just so exciting!

What surprising thing have you learned about yourself while working on this project, or what new skill have you learned?
I've realized that I am a lot more patient that I thought I was ;)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Manhattan" Plot

This is a "Manhattan" plot -- so named because of how the groupings of dots look like skyscrapers on the Manhattan skyline. This plot is based on a small sample of children (less than 200) who took part in our study and is for illustration purposes only.

This plot shows differences between the extreme high and extreme low groups for genetic variants across the human genome. Each dot represents the results of a statistical test run for a specific genetic variant.

On the X (horizontal) axis of this plot are locations of chromosomes across the human genome (22 chromosome pairs, plus sex-determining pairs). The differences between the high and low groups can be found on the Y (vertical) axis which displays how significant, or meaningful, these differences are according to our statistical analyses. The higher the value, the stronger the genetic association. If the result lies above the dotted line, it is considered statistically significant after accounting for all of the many tests that have been performed.

The power, or strength, of our statistical analyses will be much greater once we have finished data collection and we have a full sample. We anticipate that multiple results will cross the dotted line, or be significant!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

New Interviews with Team Members

Last summer we asked several staff members about their experiences working on the Spit for Science project, so that blog readers can learn more about what it's like to be involved in research and science. We thought it would be nice to hear from some of our other team members, including Cynthia Nguyen.

What are you taking in school? What year are you entering?
I'm entering my 4th year at the University of Toronto doing a major in health and disease and a double minor in sociology and psychology.

What made you apply to be a research assistant for Spit for Science?
I LOVE working with kids and believe that research is essential to further develop the advancements made in medical science today. It is very appealing to me that the Spit for Science project is looking for the relationship between genetics and the basis for different childhood behavioural disorders. That combined with the fact that I get to work with kids allowed me to combine the best of both worlds!

What is your favourite part of the job?
It has to be interacting with all the kids during the activities they get to participate in while doing the study. Especially seeing their faces when they have to spit.

Why are you interested in science?
I've always been interested in how things come to be or work ever since I was little. I used to think that lightning was someone from space taking a picture of us until I went to the library and realized that's not what actually happens. I must confess, I was a bit disappointed. Science just fascinates me and I enjoy learning about how our body works. Science is just cool!

What surprising thing have you learned about yourself while working on this project, or what new skill have you learned?
Over the past year I've really come out of my "shell" when it comes to interacting with others. Interacting with members of the public on a daily basis has really helped me improve and learn more communication skills. A "new" or improved skill that I have learned is time management! It's not easy to balance school and work but it's possible!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


We are happy to announce that Spit for Science has reached a milestone - on Sunday May 16th we ran our 10,000th participant!

The special participant and his family allowed us to take pictures of this incredible moment to post on the blog - here's Owen with some of the Spit for Science staff as well as with his family.

Owen's parents had some great feedback about the experience:

"This certainly added some more excitement to our day! I've never seen Owen so excited to spit in a cup! We're happy that Owen could be the 10,000th child to participate in a study that could help so many children! Congratulations to everybody that has been involved!"

Monday, May 10, 2010

Updates and Feedback!

Believe it or not, we are up to 9741 participants. A big thank you to all the families who have taken part in our study. We will surely be celebrating once we reach 10,000 participants! If you're visiting the Ontario Science Centre over the next few weekends, the 10,000th participant could be you.

Here is some feedback we received from a family who took part in Spit for Science:

"Our family just wanted to drop you a line to let you know that Spit for Science is a brilliant idea. Having our children participate directly in an 'experiment' has lead to one of the more animated dinner conversations in our house this weekend! We have never been asked so many health/science questions before. I think we covered sampling, statistics, behaviour disorders, consent to treatment and DNA!!

You must also be congratulated on your choice of staff, lead by Hrag, as they were all knowledgeable, approachable, kid-friendly and answered all of the crazy questions that kids (and parents) will always ask!"

If you or your family has taken part in Spit for Science and want to give us some feedback, feel free to leave a comment below. We would love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Photo Update!!

We recently had a camera on hand to capture some fun "Spit for Science" moments

One of our team members, Alex, watches 2 kids complete the "Stop Task"

Participants answer questions about themselves or
their child on our computerized survey

3 participants work enthusiastically on their spit samples

One of our team members, Anoush, collects a completed spit sample