Love N’ Liquor

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“Have you Herd?” from the Feb ’15 SSJ

During Welcome Week I was lucky enough to catch Dr. Linda Hancock’s famous “LNL” sessions.  Dr. Hancock is the Director of the VCU Wellness Resource Center and a strong ally of both Spit4Science and our new COBE initiative. Using her own unique blend of humor (“Have you herd?”) and candor,  she teaches incoming students how to stay safe while drinking and engaging in sexual activity.  One of the more popular and eye-opening aspects of her sessions is grounded in social norms theory.  My rough translation (warning: I’m a geneticist, not a clinician! 🙂 ) is the theory holds students think others drink more, smoke more, have sex more, etc. than they actually do.  Based on these overestimations, a student may manipulate his or her own activities to match this “norm.”

A different kind of social Norm (by mikepetroff)

A different kind of social Norm (by mikepetroff)

Dr. Hancock asks a series of 5 paired clicker questions covering frequency of alcohol use, frequency of energy drink consumption, number of lifetime cigarettes smoked, number of lifetime e-cigs used, and number of sexual partners in the past 3 months. The first time each question is presented, students are asked to report what they think the usual VCU student does.  Next, students are asked to report their own behavior. Time after time, students overestimate the number of drinks/cigarettes/sexual partners their peers actually have.  Dr. Hancock goes on to explain that this is because those doing “things alot” are the people that stick out.  (Her example: you’ll remember the severely drunk person who vomited on your shoes at that party last weekend.) In reality, most VCU students use substances in moderation and had 0-1 sexual partners in the past 3 months.  Multiple VCU datasets back up these numbers.

Below I present the Spit4Science-related statistics Dr. Hancock showed at her sessions. Spit4Science is a longitudinal survey launched in 2011 that enrolled 4 cohorts (sets) of VCU freshmen from 2011-2014.  Over 9,000 students enrolled! Each spring we follow-up with past participants. The purpose of the project is to understand how genes and the environment interact to influence substance use and emotional health.  Each figure below shows our data, sometimes including multiple waves for all those data geeks (like myself!) out there.

So what do all of those figures mean? Here are the bottom lines…

  • In the spring survey, 85% of freshmen (n=5704) report drinking 4 times a month or less. 83% of sophomore participants (n=2470) also report drinking 4 times a month or less.
  • 85% of freshmen participants (n=2052, Fall 2011) reported not having had an energy drink in the past month.
  • Over 50% of all participants (n=7829) have never smoked.
  • 70% of freshmen participants (n=1829) and 78% of both sophomore (n=1185) and junior (n=978) participants have never used e-cigs.
  • 85% of junior participants (n=950) report having 0-1 sexual partners in the past 3 months.

Goodbye, summer…Hello, COBE!

I’m excited and honored to have been able to help develop and launch COBE (the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Initiative) this past week. It has been a busy, crazy, intense, fun whirlwind of activity.


Our fearless leader, COBE

This past June my marvelous mentor, Danielle Dick, had the “crazy” idea to try and launch COBE, a concept that had been bounced around since the inception of our initial project Spit for Science. This coincided with our move from the MCV campus to the MPC (I’m loving the Chipotle). To other people this may have seemed impossible. I’m not sure that word is in Danielle’s vocabulary. Danielle rallied the troops, hired a group of truly wonderful new employees, and began a “media blitz” across the University with an energy that rivaled that of the Energizer Bunny.

By Friday the 14th of August, our T-shirts and door hangers had just arrived. Danielle’s lab pitched in with the COBE team to hang flyers, carry boxes (lots of boxes), distribute t-shirts and provide me with 24/7 anti-anxiety therapy. ☺ The first Love n’ Liquor session was Sunday at 11am and, with that, COBE was officially launched! Since then, we have given out almost 1800 t-shirts and 2500 door hangers, and have met over half of VCU’s Class of 2019. My favorite moment of the week occurred as we wrapped up Welcome Week activities at the Ram Spirit Walk. COBE and the COBE team lined the street to welcome our newest Rams. Student after student walked passed and shouted “COBE!” and/or gave our life-sized COBE a high five.


World’s best roommate, Penny

Thanks to an amazing team and wonderful VCU partners (the Well, Greek Life and the VCU police to name a few), COBE is picking up followers, making friends and bringing together people interested in health and wellness across disciplinary boundaries and levels of academia. It has been a blast! As the first week of classes draws to a close, however, I plan to practice a little wellness myself and relax with my favorite roommate in tow. I look forward to working with the COBE team this year to help promote health and wellness across our VCU Ramily!

“You can’t learn from remembering. You can’t learn from guessing. You can learn only from moving forward at the rate you are moved, as brightness into brightness.”

~Sarah Manguso

Effects of stress


I didn’t know that stress has so many effects on the body! Click here to see some frightening news!  One of the experiments they reference looked at changes in gene expression due to stress.  Luckily we have a fantastic support system at VCU including the Wellness Resource Center, Student Health, and the newly founded COBE to help students be healthy and happy at VCU.

What do you do to relieve stress? Here’s what our VCU Social Media Institute team found out this summer: