Using community-engaged research to develop patient-centered solutions


Nearly one in five Americans lives with a disability that negatively impacts their daily lives. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is estimated that in 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to adding an additional 1.2 million people with disabilities compared to 2020.

This crisis has highlighted the urgent need for cutting-edge solutions, and George Mason University’s Center for Adaptive Systems of Brain-Body Interactions (CASBBI) is poised to answer this call by way of their NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) Program.

students get a tour of the makespace
The 2022-23 NRT cohort took a tour of the MIX's makerspace in Horizon Hall. Photo by NRT

The NRT program was established in 2019 with a five-year grant of nearly $3 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and is preparing an interdisciplinary, community-engaged STEM workforce with the expertise necessary for cross-disciplinary collaboration. Through this program, Mason graduate students from engineering, computer science, clinical psychology, social work, neuroscience, data science, and other fields work alongside partners from the local community on yearlong projects to identify difficulties faced by individuals with disabilities and to develop powerful solutions.

Earlier this year, students presented their design projects to the Mason community and a wide range of community partners and stakeholders, including behavioral health providers, administrators, advocates, and individuals with lived experience.

“The student-led projects result in tools that will aid our community partners working with individuals affected by substance use disorders, reentry after incarceration, mental health disorders, and mobility impairments,” said CASBBI director Siddhartha Sikdar, who leads the traineeship program.

One of the teams, Team Physical-Mental Solutions, analyzed accessibility obstacles on Mason’s Fairfax Campus for those with mobility impairments, and they proposed a smartphone application with navigational support that avoids common barriers that individuals with disabilities frequently come across, such as steep inclines and rough terrain. Team member and Mason doctoral student Eslam Hassan found the project to be deeply gratifying because of its real-world applications.

“Being able to design and develop a project that assists individuals with mobility impairments, while advocating for awareness of the initiative on the Fairfax Campus, was a highlight of my graduate career,” said Hassan, who is working on a PhD in the Department of Psychology.

student work together in the MIX
NRT cohort members collaborate on a challenge in the MIX makerspace. Photo by NRT

The Good Troublers, whose team name was inspired by a quote from late U.S. Representative John Lewis, investigated how people struggling with opioid addiction can be better connected with professional resources. Their intervention—a mobile application that checks in on the user and recommends public services—reflects the group’s multidisciplinary backgrounds. While social work, neuroscience, and computer science may not seem like naturally complementary fields, the NRT Program provided the students with the opportunity to come together in a purposeful way.

“Participating on a team with people from diverse backgrounds challenged siloed views and helped me see problems from numerous angles that I wouldn’t have considered previously,” said Jonathan Mbuya, a PhD student in the Department of Computer Science and a member of the Good Troublers team.

In addition to expressing enthusiasm for the solutions that the students proposed, the community partners offered additional context based on their direct knowledge about the communities and recommended next steps for expanded research.

Both the 2021-22 NRT cohort and the incoming 2022-23 cohort, made up of 18 students, benefited from their involvement in the presentations, becoming more cognizant of the complexity of the problems encountered by people with disabilities. Sikdar is confident that the initiative can continue to address the critical needs of people with disabilities with its emphasis on cooperation across disciplines and communication skills.

“Utilizing a bold and innovative model, the NRT program offers training on understanding issues from multiple perspectives, using team science to produce creative answers, and communicating results to a broad audience,” said Sikdar, who is a faculty member in the Department of Bioengineering and a member of the Institute for Biohealth Innovation (IBI).

Amy Adams, IBI’s executive director, appreciates CASBBI’s efforts.

“I am proud of the diligence and dedication shown by the NRT fellows, who are working to combat significant health challenges and making a difference in the lives of people with disabilities,” said Adams. “In addition to helping advance research for broader impact, they are also gaining invaluable skills that will prepare them to readily enter the workforce.”

Read more about the teams and their projects.