The first attempt at conducting clinical research at the Minnesota State Fair was so wildly successful four years ago that now more than 30 University of Minnesota scientists are getting in on the act.
The U is taking over an entire building — the former Spamville! exhibit across from the Education Building — where fairgoers this summer can take part in clinical studies that will have them driving car simulators, participating in mock juries, discussing their dreams, or playing a video game in which they try to prevent a national food crisis.
“Talk to any population researcher and it’s getting harder and harder” to recruit study participants, said Logan Spector, an associate professor of pediatrics at the U and the brains behind the new Driven to Discover research building at the fair. “The fact we have one and a half million people who converge next to the U each year is just something we have to take advantage of.”
The intense interest among researchers was based on Spector’s Gopher Kids study, which sought genetic and basic health information from 500 children in six days in 2010 and ended up recruiting 841 kids.
“It was amazing, the turnout, and just how excited people were to participate, and how engaged they were,” said Heather Zierhut, who was a doctoral student helping with Gopher Kids four years ago. She is now leading her own study at the fair.
Unlike Gopher Kids, which invites parents to bring participating children back each year to track their growth and development, most of the studies at the fair this year will be “cross-sectional,” which means fairgoers will be done with them when they leave the U building.
Most activities are designed to last 30 minutes or less.
That is the amount of time, for example, that fairgoers will need to answer a survey about technology usage and then test multitasking skills while driving in a simulator. The goal is to understand how much time people truly focus on driving while attempting other tasks, such as texting.
Researchers figure it will take 10 minutes for people to answer questions about their sleep habits and take a smell test before strolling on a walkway that measures their speed and gait. The goal is to study how smell and sleep habits affect how people walk.
There are few other ways to recruit such a large number of Minnesotans from so many different corners of the state, said U law researcher Francis Shen. His State Fair Justice study will have volunteers evaluate legal statements and then talk with others in a mock jury format to make a judgment about them.
“Juries are pulled from the general population,” he said, “not just from undergraduate students who take studies for extra credit.”
Many of the studies are ongoing, but seeking a boost in enrollment that they can’t get through e-mails, advertisements or fliers on vending machines around campus.
Dr. Elizabeth Seaquist has only found 11 diabetics so far for a federally funded study to determine the best medicine combinations for combating type 2 diabetes. The goal is 100 diabetic adults.
“I know people want to participate,” she said. “We just have to find them.”
Other projects were developed specifically for the fair, such as the “Blue Ribbon Snacking” study that will query people about their eating strategies as they crisscross the fairgrounds.
Zierhut plans to check the cholesterol of 1,000 fairgoers and identify five to 10 of them who are genetically predisposed to high cholesterol. Her goal is to ultimately study the barriers within families with genetic risks of spreading information about testing and treatment.
Zierhut is confident her team will prick enough fingers at the fair to complete the study. “People have waited in line for cholesterol levels and would actually pay for their cholesterol levels at the fair” in past years, she said.
Some of the studies seek special populations, such as military veterans, while others target a general audience. Despite the need for common participants, researchers will follow strict recruiting guidelines and won’t compete with their colleagues.
“No hawkers,” Spector said.
Incentives for participation vary by the studies, each of which was cleared by Institutional Review Boards at the university. Some offer nothing, while others provide $5 gift cards or raffles for bigger prizes. Details of the studies and their schedules can be found at: https://www.statefair.umn.edu/d2d-building.html.