Each month, The Michigan Daily’s research beat publishes a feature on one University of Michigan laboratory to highlight the efforts of the lab team and the importance of the research. The following article is the lab spotlight for the month of February 2023.

To nominate a U-M research lab for upcoming spotlight features, fill out this form.

The Michigan Daily’s second lab spotlight focuses on the U-M HomeLab, which opened in 2017 as part of the BioSocial Methods Collaborative. The lab offers spaces that can be adapted to the needs of research groups outside of the University seeking to pursue their investigations.

The Lab

The basement of the Institute for Social Research looks much like that of any other building with its white cinder blocks lining dimly-lit hallways, but that all changes when entering the HomeLab.

According to Alicia Carmichael, research process manager for the BioSocial Methods Collaborative, the lab rooms are designed to simulate a real household environment, which is useful for researchers in a number of fields, including psychology, sociology, product development and kinesiology.

“(The HomeLab) really is a playground for investigators,” Carmichael said in an interview with The Daily. “It’s (also) a great mental space for designers. So if you’re trying to design a medical product or just a common household product that you want to deploy to millions of homes and millions of people, don’t just jump to those homes and people. Start in a playground like this, control the settings and understand the responses to certain things.”

The first space of the “home” is the kitchen, which includes homelike details ranging from a cereal box resting on top of the refrigerator to cookbooks sprawled across the counter. 

Although the “kitchen” is in a basement, the window decals portray an outdoor scene, allowing  researchers to study participants from the other side of the windows without distracting them. The lab also utilizes a variety of wearable devices to track metrics such as heart rate and sweat response in participants, while microphones and cameras are incorporated throughout the room. Although the devices are fairly discreet, Carmichael said participants are always aware they are being monitored. She also explained how the camera system can be adapted to fit the researchers’ needs in different studies.

“Depending on who’s coming into the lab, or what we’re trying to capture, we will redesign the camera system,” Carmichael said. “So if we’re working with adults, the cameras will be kind of here at eye level. If we’re working with kids, we need to bring those cameras down to their level because we want their perspective … Sometimes we’re doing balance studies, so what we really want to know about is feet and so we’ll drop the cameras to the ground to capture the motion. It really depends on what the investigator wants to do.”

The kitchen is connected to a laundry room space and a bathroom which features two different types of showers: one with a traditional tub and one that is barrier-free. According to Carmichael, since many of the lab’s projects explore accessibility, occupational and physical therapists were involved in the designing of HomeLab. She explained how they recommended inclusion of some non-Americans with Disability Act compliant features, since many people with disabilities do not live in homes with accessible features.

“(People with disabilities) might live in a house that was built in the ’50s, it’s retrofitted at most to accommodate them,” Carmichael said. “So most of the time, the (accessible) features aren’t there. But (the physical therapist and occupational therapists) said we want you to be able to remove the challenges whenever you can.”

Though the lab’s bedroom is usually connected to the kitchen, the entrance is currently closed while the room is being used to simulate a medical exam room for students to learn how to give treatment and the impact of different types of treatment. The exam room setting is currently being used to simulate the difference in treating patients at home or in a clinical environment. The blue lighting of the exam room contrasts with the warm tones of the “home,” and the “shelves” on the wall are actually the underside of a Murphy bed, which folds up into the wall. The walls are dotted with two anatomy posters, and a drape sheet has been laid out neatly on the exam table.

“We (can change the room from a bedroom to a clinic) in two hours,” Carmichael said. “We know our stuff, (and) we have so much documentation for what item goes where.”

The Research

The HomeLab serves as a testing space for projects across disciplines, setting it apart from many other U-M research environments which primarily serve one area of research. As a result, the lab staff has worked on research in an assortment of areas.

One recent project involved tracking muscle activity in people who recently had mastectomies and reconstructive surgeries for breast cancer. Participants were fitted with motion sensors and electromyography sensors to monitor muscle activity.

“The surgery causes your muscles to be reattached in a way that they weren’t before,” Carmichael said. “We had (participants) just go through everyday tasks, like here’s some groceries, put them away. Here’s a shirt, put on the shirt, and we were able to demonstrate that their muscle activity had changed … They had changed the way that they were using their muscles to accomplish the same tasks as they were before.”

HomeLab also explored the cognitive-motor demands of the skills that older women with arthritis of the hands use to wash dishes in a recent study. Jacqui Smith, co-director of the BioSocial Methods Collaborative, told The Daily older adults frequently adapt to the challenges of aging without noticing it, so direct observation is important.

“You have to observe people to figure out what they’re telling you,” Smith said. “And that’s particularly important in older adults … because people adapt their behavior very quickly, and they don’t even know about it.”

According to Smith, the study involved having women with arthritis wash dishes using different types of dish liquid bottles while also performing a variety of cognitive tasks.

“(The researchers) wanted to know … the cognitive demand about actually doing (the dishes),” Smith said. “So we had to figure out how you put in a cognitive task while doing dishes … (what the HomeLab ended up doing) was a go/no-go type of task. So (participants) had to say when they heard the doorbell ring and in addition, they had to try to remember at the end what story they heard on the radio.” 

Cognitive tasks like “go/no-go” are used to monitor a participant’s short-term or working memory performance capability in various environments. As Smith explained, arthritis can lead to additional and unconscious cognitive adaptations taken by the brain to reduce stress on someone’s joints. Smith said observing a participant’s cognitive performance while doing an everyday manual task — such as washing dishes — can provide researchers with real-world insight about these adaptations. Using this framework, the study was able to explore relationships between cognitive response time and dish washing time, and the potential effects of using a different type of dish liquid bottle.

The Significance

According to Richard Gonzalez, co-director of the BioSocial Methods Collaborative, unlike most labs that are designed around one principle investigator, HomeLab provides spaces for researchers from different areas to answer their research questions. 

“I think of the HomeLab as being a new way to think about research labs, that they’re not necessarily tied to an individual investigator,” Gonzalez said in an interview with The Daily. “But rather, a resource that can be used to answer many different kinds of research questions and create new collaborations, and innovate new research questions.”

Gonzalez said having an environment that simulates a variety of spaces allows researchers to observe participant behavior in a more realistic environment, rather than relying on participants to convey their experiences via a survey. 

“The lab is allowing us to do social science research questions in whole new ways,” Gonzalez said. “We can actually observe what people do in their daily lives, and it allows for us as social scientists to move in new directions.”

Though objective observations can improve data collection, Gonzalez acknowledged that the survey method is still important and cannot be replaced.

“I think the future is going to (involve) both surveys and sensor data (from a lab). It’s not going to be one or the other. I think we need both,” Gonzalez said. 

Gonzalez said they also hope to collaborate with projects in robotics and virtual reality in the future and use simulations to understand peoples’ lives. 

According to Gonzalez, fundings to build the lab came from the Office of the Provost, the Institute for Social Research and the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research. Gonzalez said the lab is now self-supporting with research and industry grants. 

Jeannette Jackson, founding managing director of the HomeLab, told The Daily one of the unique components of the lab is its interdisciplinary nature, which has allowed it to work with students with a variety of majors from French to engineering.

“I don’t personally know of any other lab that will take on students in literally any discipline,” Jackson said. “This is really unique on this campus, and pretty much in the world.”

LSA senior Janeann Paratore has been working as an undergraduate research assistant and primarily works as an interviewer providing guidance to participants in the lab since the summer of 2020. Paratore told The Daily the collaborative environment in the lab makes the experience enjoyable.

“(The lab) is such an awesome team and really collaborative,” Paratore said. “When everyone’s in person, we all gather around just to bounce (off) ideas.”

According to Jackson, one of the most meaningful influences of the lab is its ability to teach researchers how to engage in multidisciplinary research.

“The biggest impact (of HomeLab) is really around this interdisciplinary approach to research with the students … and really understanding how we’re doing research differently,” Jackson said. “I’d say that we are starting to relate more opportunities that the HomeLab has in terms of teaching a new generation of faculty how to design (interdisciplinary research) in the hopes that it influences them moving forward.”

Daily Staff Reporters Nadia Taeckens and Jingqi Zhu can be reached at taeckens@umich.edu and jingqiz@umich.edu.