Research on the Midway
A University initiative tests scientific theories at the Minnesota State Fair.
During her many years of studying insects, Professor Sujaya Rao kept encountering a conundrum. Humans use pesticides on crops because they don’t want to eat bugs in their fruit, but these pesticides also kill the key pollinating insects that make fruit form.
“So when I give talks, I say, ‘I’ve got the solution: Let’s just eat the bugs!’” says Rao (Ph.D. ’91), who heads the U’s Department of Entomology. “And then people laugh, and I’m like, ‘No, really!’”
To prove her solution has legs, so to speak, Rao tested it out last year at Minnesota’s premier event for weird food, the State Fair. She and her assistants convinced 175 fairgoers to taste chips made with cricket flour and compare them to traditional potato chips. Rao called her experiment “Jiminy Crickets.” The results were positive: 55 percent of respondents preferred chips flavored with crickets, 67 percent reported a willingness to eat other insects, and 71 percent said they would be open to serving cricket-flavored potato chips at a party.
While Rao’s study may seem quirky, it’s underpinned by a serious statistic: By 2050, the world’s population will surpass 9 billion people and will not have enough resources to support the population. Bugs can serve as a cheap protein source, she says, as long as people are willing to eat them.
Rao’s study was one of more than 50 conducted last year at the U’s Driven to Discover Research Facility at the State Fair. The initiative dates back to 2011, when Logan Spector, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics, and Ellen Demerath, a professor in the School of Public Health, tested out whether people attending the fair would be willing to submit to academic surveys. They wound up recruiting 800 children within 36 hours to participate in a study following their long-term development.
For scientists seeking large, diverse samples of people who are otherwise impossible to find in one place, the State Fair is a gold mine. Daily attendance usually fluctuates between 100,000 and 250,000; last year, more than 2 million people walked through the gates over 12 days.
Spector and Demerath obtained a grant from the U’s vice president of research in 2014 to permanently set up shop in the old Spam building on the fairgrounds in Falcon Heights. By 2017, they’d convinced the U to put $500,000 toward a new building, where the initiative operates today and shares space with other universities and colleges conducting research.
Tens of thousands of State Fairgoers have participated in a plethora of studies since then, including distracted driving simulations, assessments of public attitudes on infrastructure spending, and studies gauging signs of sleep apnea.
Silvia Balbo, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health, and Postdoctoral Associate Laura Maertens worked last year on a study looking at how tobacco and nicotine exposure affects DNA and causes cancer. They compared saliva samples, cheek swabs, and mouthwash samples from tobacco and nicotine users to those from nonusers, calling their experiment “Swishin’ and Swabbin’ for Science.”
Recruiting people for this study proved tougher than getting them to eat bug-flavored chips. Balbo and Maertens took the equivalent of two days to recruit 190 participants, while Rao recruited nearly the same-sized pool in under seven hours. This might be because the saliva study included making participants brush their teeth. “The debris of typical State Fair food had to be removed,” Balbo says.
Maertens expects recruitment to be easier this year, as her team plans to replace the “squeaky Gopher hats” used to entice participants with $10 gift cards. “You need an incentive that’s actually going to bring people in,” she says