Faculty and students present new home-like research facility

Tuesday, September 26, 2017 - 2:34pm

University of Michigan researchers have figured out a new way to help research subjects feel at home during experiments: actually doing the experiments in a home.

The BioSocial Methods Collaborative at the University’s Institute for Social Research unveiled its new HomeLab Tuesday. The “lab” is a fully functioning research facility, with one catch — it looks like a regular apartment. According to Richard Gonzalez, director of the BioSocial Methods Collaborative and ISR's Research Center for Group Dynamics, the HomeLab has a fully functioning kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom. It also has hidden cameras and microphones, motion sensors and many other devices to help researchers collect data on their subjects in the most natural setting possible.

Gonzalez said the idea for the lab came out of a need for increased interaction between different fields of science.

“We started out about four years ago and we wanted to build a stronger interface between the biological and behavioral sciences,” he said. “We realized that one area of exciting new development is around the smart home, but what if we added biology to that? Sensors on the body that are recording all kinds of stuff. … So we thought about making a home lab. This way we can study these new possibilities.”

Collaboration is a big component of the HomeLab. It’s how it will run effectively, but it’s also how the lab was built. Jeannette Jackson, the managing director for the BioSocial Methods Collaborative, said students and faculty from the engineering, kinesiology, psychology and medical programs, among others, worked on putting all the pieces for the lab together.

According to Jackson, student involvement has been a big part of the HomeLab’s creation. Over 33 undergraduate students from all different disciplines have been involved in the HomeLab, including Engineering sophomore Cyrus Najarian, who has been working on the project since last August.

He said the teamwork and collaboration he’s experienced while working on the HomeLab have been very impactful and will make for a great research environment.

“In the collaborative, we obviously work as a team, but working on the HomeLab specifically really took that to the extreme,” Najarian said. “There’s always something that we were collaborating on other people for. I was working on multiple different things at the same time … and we were always trying to synthesize all of our own perspectives and experiences to getting things as close to perfect as possible.”

Thanks to this collaboration, the lab was finished less than a year after construction began last November.

“This is a new space for research that facilitates what we’re calling collaborative team science,” Jackson said. “(People) aren’t working on one little slice. When you work with us, you work with everything we’ve got going on.”

And the HomeLab already has a lot going on. The lab will be used to study mobility and cognition in older adults, and a research project from outside the University has already been lined up with Procter & Gamble to study adult incontinence.

Gonzalez thinks the HomeLab will bring more data to these projects than researchers would otherwise be able to collect.

“The (current) state of the art for that work is that you just ask people in a survey, ‘Do you have trouble washing dishes?’,” Gonzalez said. “And they say yes or no or rate on a five-point scale. But what our facility allows someone to do is actually observe people in a controlled environment like at a kitchen sink.”

Many future projects are planned. Gonzalez emphasized the lab’s compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, so disability research would be a possibility. He’d also like to see intergenerational experiments in the lab.

“We’ve had lots of inquiries about mother-child interaction studies, and right now they just do those in a classroom in East Hall where Psychology is located,” he said. “It would be much more natural to run those studies in the HomeLab where there’s a bathroom, a playroom, maybe a sibling involved. You just get higher-quality data.”

However, running experiments in the home is not always straightforward. Psychology professor Jacqui Smith, who will do studies in the HomeLab on health in elderly populations, said the one-of-a-kind nature of the lab is exciting, but will require some extra thought when it comes to designing projects.

“We need to be really creative in the way that we design studies to be able to do this, and of course we need to get funding to actually do it,” Smith said. “I think this is very unique and my colleagues that I’ve spoken to at a recent international conference in San Francisco, everyone was really excited about this idea … I hope we can encourage people from many different disciplines to write this into their studies.”