Tor Finseth immerses himself in a zero-gravity virtual reality simulation that Biomarkers of the Family students designed to compare stress responses. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Human development and family studies students use virtual reality to measure stress response

Students in an Iowa State University human development and family studies course are venturing into virtual reality to intensify scientific inquiry.

When Elizabeth “Birdie” Shirtcliff challenged her HDFS 640/440X Biomarkers of the Family class – a mix of undergraduate and graduate students – to create a situation that would trigger a stress response, they created a computer simulation.

Designing a stress response test

“Students learn about what triggers a hormonal stress response, and create a scenario that will act as a stressor,” Shirtcliff said. “They did karaoke one semester, and another semester they looked at a haunted house. We even did skydiving.”

This year, students designed a task consisting of answering mental math problems while balancing on a steel beam many stories in the air.

After they completed the design phase, doctoral student Tor Finseth programmed the virtual simulation in the interdisciplinary Virtual Reality Applications Center, creating a virtual world that makes study participants feel tbirdie-shirtcliff-vrac-biomarkers-classhey are hovering high over a city street. Finseth studies human-computer interaction and aerospace engineering, and took Shirtcliff’s class to learn more about how stress affects the body — and later apply that knowledge to astronauts.

“Space is a dangerous place, but biomarkers (signs that point to the body’s medical state) can help to measure if astronauts can be at the top of their game to complete the mission safely,” Finseth said.

Finseth said that while he’s gained a greater understanding of stress responses as they relate to missions in space, the class has provided him and his classmates with new knowledge about how stress affects a person throughout a lifespan.

“The class emphasizes that all individuals can experience the impact of stress even at a genetic level,” he said. “Often, these impacts can occur early in childhood and have long-lasting effects. The resulting behavioral changes can have large decrements on a person’s memory and decision making, and the ability to reconcile with others, maintain stable relationships, and just have a healthy mental state.”

Testing a hypothesis

Studenbirdie-shirtcliff-vrac-biomarkers-class-contentts create their own individual hypotheses and then test those hypotheses against the data they collect.

“One student is interested in ‘VR presence’ (connecting with a virtual world) — whether it creates a bigger stress response,” Shirtcliff said. “Another is looking to see if earlier stress exposure is a moderator for stress.”

Andrew Zaman, a graduate teaching assistant in kinesiology, is using the data to look at how a person’s self-reported physical activity level might mediate stress — testing the hypothesis that people who spend more time exercising are more stress resistant.

Measuring a molecule

Zaman is also spending time in Shirtcliff’s lab to learn more about measuring the biochemical activity of biomarkers — a skill set he sought to master as he works alongside assistant professor in kinesiology Elizabeth Stegemöller, learning how stress affects those with Parkinson’s disease.

“I get to understand the biomarker process, which is pretty complicated,” Zaman said. “You can read about it all you want, but it isn’t until you get your hands on it that it’s made real. It isn’t just an abstract idea anymore. There are so many different interactions — both environmental and genetic.”

Shirtcliff gives all Biomarkers of the Family students the opportunity to explore those interactions through their coursework — moving from abstract concepts to concrete measurements. They collect saliva to determine participants’ levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress responses. They perform cortisol assays, procedures for measuring the biomarkers, themselves in the lab. They then compare the cortisol levels exhibited during the steel beam simulation to those exhibited by the same person during a non-stressful VR simulation of floating inside the International Space Station.

“Experiment results can sometimes have variability in age, gender, or the conditions under which individuals grow up. By using biomarkers — such as hormones and the body's autonomic nervous system response — we can obtain quantitative measurements for human health and well-being,” Finseth said. “This class teaches us the role of the stress response in human development, how to design experiments with biomarkers, and critically evaluate the biomarker research.”

Shirtcliff said the class boosts students’ self-assurance in the scientific process.

“It’s a lab — you measure the molecule,” Shirtcliff said. “You add concepts and theories to understand individual differences, but you still need to measure the molecule well. The class builds confidence in students’ ability to use biomarkers simply by using them.”