First-year of National Science Foundation-funded training project draws to a close with presentations on May 21


PhD students from a variety of disciplines have spent the year engaged in multi-disciplinary research projects as part of Mason’s first-ever National Science Foundation Research Traineeship grant. The students explored opioid use disorders, mental health in school-age children, and Parkinson’s disease. On May 21 from 2 to 4 p.m. they will present their project findings to the Mason community and other stakeholders.

The program is training the next generation of leaders to take on some of the most challenging problems faced by society today. These complex problems cannot be addressed by one individual or even one discipline. To address these challenges leaders will need to work together across traditional academic disciplinary boundaries to integrate engineering, data science, and social science knowledge, while meaningfully engaging with stakeholder communities in a mutually beneficial manner. The cohort included 11 students from seven different graduate programs.

“Working in multidisciplinary teams helped us gain a much deeper understanding of the real problem at hand, and freed us from the shackles of having to think within the silos of our science disciplines,” says Shriniwas Patwardhan, a PhD candidate in bioengineering. “We are able to think of a problem and how to solve it, without passing it through the filter of our individual disciplines. If not for multidisciplinary thinking, every problem looks like a nail because we have a hammer.”

Patwardhan and his fellow trainees became immersed in community settings to confront the traditional hierarchies between researchers and participants. They teamed up with community stakeholders as full participants in the research process and worked with them to identify challenges and needs, formulate research questions, and engage in participatory design to develop and test solutions. 

“I have really enjoyed my experience with the trainees. Integrating patient input into every aspect of research and development is so necessary for success,” says Soania Mathur a physician, as well as a Parkinson’s patient and advocate.

“We are all really excited to share the progress we made on our projects over the past year despite the pandemic and look forward to the comments, questions, and feedback from the audience,” says Keri Anne Gladhill a third-year PhD who is studying cognitive-behavioral neuroscience concentration in the Psychology department.

For the NRT project, Gladhill and her team of Shriniwas Patwardhan and Lindsay Shaffer focused on understanding how people with Parkinson’s track and communicate both their motor and non-motor symptoms with their care team. The students sought to empower the patients (with Parkinson's) in their healthcare decisions by improving communication channels between the patients, their caregivers, and their physicians.

People with Parkinson's typically meet their physician one or two times a year, for 15-20 minutes. “In that short span of time, it is hard for the physician to get a good understanding of their varying symptoms throughout the year,” says Patwardhan, “That is why it would benefit the patients and their physicians greatly if the physician could see data related to their daily states in real-time.”

A wide variety of ways to track symptoms from pen and paper to wearable devices already exist; however, none of the existing methods allow for reliable, accurate, continuous, and accessible measurements. One approach to solve this problem is to establish a data-rich communication channel between the patients, their caregivers, and their physicians, by collecting data about motor and non-motor symptoms. The team members believe that If executed well, they could expand the same process to other chronic conditions and improve health outcomes while enabling mobile health solutions and more.

“The findings from our project could be interesting to people who are not interested in Parkinson's disease at all,” says Patwardhan. “We are trying to show that one way to overcome problems with multiple actors in a data-gathering loop is to establish data-rich and real-time communication channels. That may apply to anything from healthcare to solar power grids.”

Find out more about the projects and their teams.