Hi, my name is Yifan (She/her). I am a rising sophomore planning to major in Rehabilitation Science with a Chemistry minor and a Global Health certificate. Writing this introduction post means an official start of my research investigating the facilitators and barriers to supporting the use of mainstream wireless technologies of rehabilitation providers for improving the health, independence, and participation of people with disabilities and older adults.
If I had asked myself in two years before, I would have never believed now I will be at Pitt working in a research team under Pitt Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) with the lead of Dr. Dicianno who is a researcher, professor, and physician and Dr. Lindsey who is an occupational therapist. Even a year ago, I had never heard about the field “rehabilitation,” and I would have been surprised if somebody told me a year after I am on this track. My path to here is like a zigzag: it was full of unexpected turns, but I collected pieces of my passion at each of them.
Journey to rehabilitation technologies
I was exposed to research back to high school. My first research experience was about material physics. At that time, I was amazed by the idea in my physics class that I can always find endless inspiration from the amazing structure and characteristics of materials. Because of this, I ended up creating a novel catalyst with a university professor for developing a safer and greener zinc-air battery. Even though this research was in the STEM field, it is far away from the path I am enthusiastic about now. However, I started to have a logic of thinking because of this experience: first to get inspiration from problems, second to initiate an idea to investigate, and then to use the outcomes to serve those subjects/people affected by the problems.
Another turn is my decision to join the Artificial Intelligence (AI) class as an alternative for math class in high school. This is not a popular or safe choice among my peers since math courses are essential for scoring decently in college entrance exams or performing well in future advanced math courses. But I will never regret my choice of making this decision: I was amazed by how broad AI can be used by interdisciplinary developing teams to benefit different fields ranging from finance to healthcare. Having a glance of how fast those algorithms and products are developing, I believe AI or other innovative technologies is pushing human’s life experiences forward to a place where we cannot even imagine technologies are not only lightening up people’s enthusiasm but also bringing hopes to eliminate limitations avoiding people to live their best self.
After all the “ups and downs” in high school, I came to Pitt as an Honors College student hoping to discover more of my potential. I came as an undecided major since I did not want to put a cap on myself in this world of possibility. I tried a bunch of new things after coming here but also failed many of them. However, these led me to find my love in rehabilitation science, thanks to its undergraduate program adviser Amy Evans. The flexibility of this track and Pitt Honors’ motto “cross boundaries” granted me opportunities to integrate all my previous experiences together to serve in this field. Therefore, I found rehabilitation technologies really empowering, not only for me as a student but also for people with disabilities. After connecting with the faculty member in Human Engineering Research Lab (HERL), I have clearer directions to find my current research in RERC.
Transformation of my thought: Mainstream wireless technologies as rehabilitation technologies
My view of rehabilitation technologies has been transformed once I put my feet in this emerging field. In the beginning, I thought they have to be those complex machines that take up almost half of the room and I will never have a chance to see them out of the rehabilitation outpatient or inpatient unit. Then, I realized it can appear everywhere with the person who needs it: sometimes I may not even realize it because they are hiding in a person with disabilities’ smartphone or smartwatch. Rehabilitation technologies are becoming more and more easily accessible! This is possible because of the wonderful integration of mainstream wireless technologies and different rehabilitation interventions. They can address issues related to all domains within the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning Disability and Health (ICF) including body functions and structures, capacity for activities, the performance of activities, participation, environmental/contextual factors, and personal factors  at anywhere or anytime the patient wants. I cannot even imagine these a few years before as mainstream wireless technologies such as smartphones, smart home technologies, and wearables have not yet been widely used. Because of the hugely diverse rehabilitation interventions integrated with mainstream wireless technologies, the health, independence, and participation of people with mobility, cognitive, vision, hearing, or other impairments have improved.
Current Research Project
Rehabilitation providers such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, vocational therapists, applied behavioral therapists, driving rehabilitation specialists, assistive technology professionals play a key role to support people with disabilities or older adults to use these technologies effectively. However, there are facilitators and barriers that rehabilitation professionals experience in providing services related to these technologies. This leads to the purpose of my research project, and we hope to bring solutions for supporting rehabilitation providers to use mainstream wireless technology on their clients.
This project will not only benefit rehabilitation professionals but also other crucial roles in the development of this interdisciplinary field such as engineers, designers, and researchers. To better support the needs of people with disabilities in wireless technology industries, it is important to prioritize the needs of providers and facilitate changes in research, education and professional training, policy, and technology development. These act as a huge motivation for me and other members of my research term. I am excited to be part of the process to discover the scope of current research and design surveys to gather feedbacks from rehabilitation providers for figuring out solutions to facilitate use of mainstream technologies for interventions on people with disabilities and older adults.
Thanks to the Brackenridge fellowship and all the help from teachers and peers along the way, I can begin this special service in the form of research to make meaningful contributions in the fields I love and gain advantages from the interactions with other undergraduate researchers across the disciplines from arts to sciences. This is a chance to break through the limits for rehabilitation providers, people with disabilities and myself. I do not know what surprises are waiting for me in my research work tomorrow or even next Brackenridge fellowship seminars. But I am sure I will stay as open-minded as I can to discover more possibilities in my and other’s lives.
 World Health Organization. World Report on Disability 2011. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2011. Rehabilitation.