Kinesiology student and child working together in the Ocean Surf Program

When big ideas are realized, few are more satisfying for the faculty and students who worked on them than improving the quality of life for people with limited mobility and other health challenges.

Take the work of Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Emily Clapham, who believes all kids need to take part in regular physical activity that’s fun for them. “There aren’t very many activities for children with disabilities,” she says, and one of her priorities is to change that by inventing new adaptive physical education programs. And thanks to her Surf Ocean Therapy program, a group of local children of varying abilities — some of whom are on the autism spectrum, or have Down Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, learning disabilities, or cognitive delays — had fun learning to surf during the eight-week program this summer with Professor Clapham and her URI students.

Walter Besio, associate professor of Electrical, Computer, and Biomedical Engineering, and the students who work with him are focused on developing innovative diagnostic biomedical instruments and medical therapies. “My vision is to use technology to save lives and to prevent disease and suffering,” he said. Professor Besio has invented a unique electrode that could revolutionize the diagnosis of epilepsy and the prevention of life-threatening seizures. Because the electrode can detect brain signals four times weaker than those currently used to diagnose and treat neurological disorders, it both improves detection of epileptic seizures and treats them by injecting weak currents into the scalp.

Professors of Physics Yana Reshetnyak and Oleg Andreev, have discovered a technology that can detect cancerous tumors and deliver treatment to them without harming the healthy cells surrounding them, significantly reducing side effects of treatment. It is possible, says Andreev, that one day their detection method could be used as a universal procedure, similar to mammography or colonoscopies. Their harmless imaging test could locate a problem before the patient ever feels ill. In addition to targeting cancerous tumors, the couple has discovered a novel delivery agent, a molecular nanosyringe, that can deliver and inject diagnostic or therapeutic agents specifically to cancer cells.

Dr. Ying Sun and student with Kyle, for whom they designed and developed a ventilator alarm.For Professor of Electrical, Computer, and Biomedical Engineering Ying Sun and his students in URI’s assistive technology lab, the goal is to create tools that increase independence for those with impaired mobility. Examples of their work include automatic book-page turners, voice-activated nurse call systems, and the now-patented EZ-puff, a device that enables quadriplegics to control myriad appliances with a puff of air. Professor Sun’s students created a finger-controlled device that allowed a man whose muscular dystrophy limited virtually all movement to operate the audio-visual equipment in his home. Thanks to a device they designed, a woman with limited mobility due to cerebral palsy is now able to operate her computer, paint, draw, use an iPad and Smartphone—and run her greeting card business. And a ventilator alarm system has allowed a mother more freedom in her home while caring for her son, who relies on a ventilator to breathe.

“First, students come up with ideas, create a prototype, and then they make a business plan to launch it,” said Professor Sun. “Typically, their ideas are generated through conversations with rehabilitation scientists, therapists, and even patients.” By spending time listening to the users and observing them in their environment, these students ensure their devices are as personalized as possible.

And then there’s Psychology Professor James Prochaska‘s behavior change model that’s helping millions of people around the world trade bad habits for healthy ones. And Nursing Professor Pat Burbank’s invention that creates customized exercise reminders for seniors when they’ve been inactive for too long. Many students work with Nursing Professor Carolyn Hames in her efforts to help children grieve the loss of a parent, and our nursing and pharmaceutical programs that work with incarcerated men and women. Thanks to the URI faculty and students who work together to make them happen, these new therapies—and many more—are changing lives of real people every day.