Want to play a role in research? Look for the U at the fair

Fair research
Eric Krogseng, of Minneapolis, drives off the road while texting during a study about distracted driving at the University of Minnesota's Driven to Discover building Thursday.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Sitting in a "distracted driving" simulator at the State Fair, I'm finding it increasingly hard to focus on driving with simulator attendant Will Schultz yakking into my cell phone.

What's your favorite drink?

Name five things you'd get from the grocery store.

What's the sum of the following numbers?

"Watch your speed."

I slow down. Until I become distracted again.

"Careful. Watch your speed."

After about 20 minutes of this, I get the point about cell phones and driving.

One exit survey later, I have just become part of a two-year experiment at the University of Minnesota: Crowd-sourcing research.

Its new Driven to Discover Building is trying to turn thousands of passersby at the State Fair into impromptu research subjects.

Through the fair's 12 days, researchers from about a dozen departments will conduct 30 studies in an array of fields.

Fair research
The University of Minnesota opened its new Driven to Discover building Thursday on the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

It's not just a matter of filling out surveys — though there's a lot of that.

"There's going to be cool interactive things," epidemiology professor Ellen Demerath said.

In addition to driving distracted, fairgoers may deliberate in a mock jury, attach electrodes so researchers can analyze how they walk, or even taste-test medical liquids.

Each survey or experiment takes up to 30 minutes, but many take only half that.

Researchers consider the fair a potential gold mine — a pool of 1.7 million people with varying ages, occupations, hometowns and socioeconomic backgrounds.

"It's an efficient model" of recruiting, Demerath said. "You can recruit a lot of people quickly into a research study — and more diverse subjects — than you would normally get by putting up a poster next to the elevator [in a U of M building]."

Logan Spector, a professor of pediatrics, relies on an analogy that evokes a notorious gangster. "It's sort of like why John Dillinger robbed banks. He said he robbed banks because 'that's where the money is.' And the State Fair is where the people are."

Because the selection of studies rotates, people will see 10 projects at any one time in the research building on Cosgrove Avenue, across from the Education Building.

Erin Garcia, 33, a dental assistant from Apple Valley, brought her 5-year-old daughter, Seraphina, to a survey that analyzes how people interpret information to make choices.

Like many that morning, Garcia said she's interested in research, and said she hoped her daughter's participation would help others down the line.

"It's in a fun setting," Garcia said. "I'm sure she'll get a little prize at the end. She'll be happy."

Others want to find out something about themselves.

For 50-year-old painter Eric Krogseng of Minneapolis, sitting in the simulator confirmed that cell phones and driving don't mix.

During his driving session, he had to text answers to many of the same questions I did — and crashed about half a dozen times.

"I know that texting and driving is bad," he said. "I was curious to see how bad I was going to be."

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