My experience at Spit Camp

I’ll be honest – this post is going to be a little niche, and it might not be up your street – which is totally fine. But in this post I’ll be sharing my experience of some recent training that I attended at the University of California Irvine. It might be useful for you if you’re considering some Salivary Bioscience training of your own or if you just want to know a bit more about what that even is!

I was fortunate enough, thanks to an Overseas Institutional Visit grant awarded by the ESRC, to attend two days of Salivary Bioscience training, otherwise known as ‘Spit Camp’ in the USA, specifically, sunny California.

What is Spit Camp?

(Oh, try explaining that to a customs officer at Mineappolis airport when you’ve been travelling for half a day and you’re completely zonked!)

Spit Camp is a two day intensive training delivered by Professor Douglas Granger and his colleagues at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research, which is based at the University of California Irvine.

Doug explained that this training was developed because so many researchers were conducting research that when put under review just wasn’t up to scratch. To prevent the waste of time, energy and money in this way, Doug and his colleagues decided that a comprehensive training to arm researchers with the knowledge and skills they needed to carry out high quality research was required – and thus Spit Camp was born.

Why did I decide to go?

My supervisor had attended a similar training at the beginning of her career and I was feeling that it would be really useful for me to have the same knowledge up my sleeve should I need it. Especially as given this training was predominantly based on analysing stress hormones – and my entire thesis is centred on stress. I also felt that given the huge advances in methods over recent years – it would be wise to get an up to date picture of the situation, the skills required and the technology. This was all delivered as part of the training.

What did the training involve?

The training was a combination of lecture based sessions and hands on lab sessions. Doug began with a disclosure statement, he is the founder of a company called Salimetrics LLC and though this training is delivered in cooperation with them and uses assays that they have developed, Doug emphasised that this training was not a sales pitch. He stuck to his word. There was no point where I felt pressured to be only using products offered by Salimetrics, and in some instances we were told ways to make life easier and cheaper for us.

Once that was out of the way Doug launched into a lengthy but incredibly interesting presentation which led us through the background, rationale and basic assumptions of salivary bioscience work alongside the pro’s and con’s of using oral fluids as biological specimens (of which there are many!). We were informed about the various glands in the mouth which produce saliva, and how important it is to know which ones we were collecting saliva from (as we found out later on in the training!). The lecture continued with a discussion about research design, specifically – collecting, handling and storing samples (again, something we found was very important later on). All of this lecture was peppered with fascinating studies ranging from Dolphins to Military Simulations and though this part of the training lasted about 4 hours (with a brief lunch break) we all commented that we had sat in hour long lectures that felt much longer!

After the lunch break we were told about the basics of salivary assays so that we were prepared for the lab sessions – and then it was into the lab coats and latex gloves!

What did the lab section of the training involve?

This was where we got the opportunity to put all our knowledge into action, with the support of the Lab Manager Kaitlin Smith and Lab Research Associates Hillary Piccerillo and Peggy Galvez.

We were straight into it with a brief of our work stations, the equipment and what we’d be doing. This turned out to be collecting lots of saliva samples, doing some mystery tasks and prepping our samples ready for overnight storage. This was something that was really great – we got to analyse our own stress hormones, which as spit geeks we all found fascinating. There are rarely opportunities where you get the chance to do this, especially when funds are low and when there is only just enough money to analyse the data of your participants, so it was really interesting to do this.

What was it like to collect the samples?

Different! I have used a couple of different techniques and given a couple of saliva samples in my time, but we were taking numerous samples, using different methods from different areas of the mouth over the course of the afternoon. We had pictures of yummy food to help us salivate!

What did we do with the samples?

Once we’d collected the samples we had lots of practice pipetting (at first with water) and then with our very own samples. We had to centrifuge (spin) our samples and pipetting off a very specific amount of the sample ready to assay them the next day.

We were sent home with homework to collect a before bed and two awakening samples to also test during the lab sessions. Day two started quickly and we were back in the lab analysing our samples. We were taken step-by-step through the process of assaying saliva for both Cortisol and Alpha-Amylase and had to do each step ourselves. The Cortisol assay took a couple of hours and the Alpha-Amylase was much shorted. We were all pretty shattered by the end of it, but excited to head off to lunch and come back to our results.

What did we do with the results?

The training ended with us back in a room with Doug who led us through all the important factors to consider before we even begin to interpret the data – things like checking for consistency across samples to see if there was any lab error. Once we’d got that out of the way we were able to look at our own findings. We talked through everyone individually and had a look at the trends within our group. What was particularly interesting was that I was functioning on little sleep having travelled from the UK and had a minus 8 hour time difference. That played some havoc with my diurnal rhythms that’s for sure!

At the end of this session we were able to discuss our own research and ask any more questions. Doug was insistent that we should not leave with unanswered questions and emphasised that the training and the support did not end once we walked out the door. We were encouraged to stay in touch and to consider the Institute as a constant source of information and support should we need it.

After the presentation of our certificates we were free to go!

Would I recommend Spit Camp? Was it worth the money?

Yes. Absolutely 100%. This training is so comprehensive despite it’s length. I feel fully equipped now to enter a lab, use the equipment and take the steps required to conduct a salivary cortisol or alpha-amylase assay. I would also feel that my skills are applicable to other assay’s too – provided the detailed instructions are followed.

One thing that really struck me (and maybe it’s a cultural thing?) was how unbelievably helpful everyone was. Doug had no problems answering queries or questions and was genuinely helpful in all the advice he gave. Kaitlin, Hillary and Peggy were all a huge credit to the Institute. They answered every question we had with respect and encouraged our curiosity, even if we weren’t sure if we were asking a stupid question. We soon realised there aren’t any stupid questions when it comes to working in a lab and it is better to ask. Our guides were so helpful, helping us out every step of the way and spurring us on. Some of the attendees had never ever set foot in a wet lab before but this didn’t phase Kaitlin, Hillary or Peggy at all – they took it in their stride and explained everything in the right level of detail without being overwhelming whilst instilling confidence in us all.

There were six of us on the course so we all got lots of individual one-to-one time and there was lots of space for discussion within the lecture and the lab. We were sent away with a USB stick with lots of information, papers, our data and photos of us in the lab – plenty of content to keep us going and answer any further questions we might have. There were also some other fun treats thrown in too!

If you are considering going to Spit Camp, I would highly recommend it. A comprehensive, high quality and top value bit of training that I know will serve me well in the future.

Until next time 😉

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