Nov. 30, 2000
Vol. 20 No. 6

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    Student’s research examines influenza

    Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    Wayne Tsuang, a third-year student in the College, surveyed last winter 1,700 Chicago students about contracting the flu virus as part of his research into how living in residence halls may contribute to the transmission of influenza. With funding from the Women’s Board of the University and guidance from two professors, Tsuang has found some answers to the question that sparked his research.
    Most people are simply relieved when the sniffles and aches of a bad flu finally disappear. But for third-year Wayne Tsuang, a bout of influenza led to a two and a half-year journey into original research, the results of which he hopes to publish next year.

    Soon after he recovered from the flu in the spring of 1999, Tsuang read several published studies, confirming that students who live in dormitories are at higher risk to catch flu than students who live elsewhere. Tsuang became curious and decided to examine the problem more closely, asking “What is it about a residence hall that affects the transmission of the influenza virus?”

    According to John Bailar, Professor in Health Studies, neither he nor Tsuang could find any study that asked why residence halls create an increased risk for influenza. Tsuang decided to proceed with his question, with support from the Richter Fund and the University Women’s Board for his research expenses.

    “This is entirely Wayne’s project, and it is serious research, addressing a real, unknown issue about the transmission of flu,” said Bailar.

    With research guidance from Bailar and expertise in infectious diseases from Janet Englund, Associate Professor in the Infectious Diseases Section of Pediatrics, Tsuang created a survey to accumulate data, identifying flu victims and their living habits. He distributed the survey last winter to 1,700 undergraduates in the residence halls. Forty-three percent of students responded.

    “I looked at the stack of surveys and thought, ‘How am I ever going to get through this?’” said Tsuang, a double concentrator in biology and environmental studies who has completed this extracurricular research out of his Burton-Judson dorm room. “But I thought this would be a good way to get my feet wet doing research and eventually, possibly contribute to making dorm life better.”

    After months of tabulating and analyzing the data on his computer, Tsuang has some preliminary results that he hopes will spur further research about what is happening in college

    residence halls.

    “This is one study from one school during one year, but so far the results are causing us to suspect some aspects that are causing a higher risk of transmission,” said Tsuang.

    Residence-hall room sett, which include such variables as sleeping arrangements, carpeting on the floor and number of roommates, may have an effect on the risk of influenza. Other aspects, such as shared washrooms and eating in the dining halls do not appear to increase or decrease the risk of flu, Tsuang said.

    “We don’t have explanations yet, but certainly most students spend a lot of time together in their rooms, which brings in the factor of time exposure to the flu,” said Tsuang. “Also, common areas such as washrooms are cleaned by the residence hall staff, but students are responsible for cleaning their own rooms–which might not happen as regularly.”

    Tsuang said he will finish his analysis next quarter. “Applying the scientific method, beginning with a question and then finally getting to some data has been personally rewarding,” said Tsuang. “And the doctors have always been there to support me with an answer to any question.”

    Although Tsuang is not certain what he will do for a bachelor’s thesis, it seems he’s been bitten by the curiosity bug. “I found this is the kind of work I enjoy,” said Tsuang. “And when I am working on this research, I feel like I’m helping the community.”