STEM Interns Get Real-World Experience in NHRC’s Virtual Reality Lab

Story by Lt. Michael D. Young, Naval Health Research Center

For aspiring young scientists, what could be more exciting than working with cutting-edge virtual reality equipment on a project that has the potential to make a real-world impact on military performance?

That question is being answered by scientists at the Naval Health Research Center (NHRC) who are partnering with local schools to provide high school and college students with hands-on experience.

One team at NHRC actively mentoring these future scientists is the Physical and Cognitive Operational Research Environment (PhyCORE) team in the Warfighter Performance Laboratory. This team conducts research to enhance rehabilitation, training, and assessment of healthy and injured warfighters through interactive and enhanced technology. With a full-time staff consisting of research scientists, engineers, and research assistants, the PhyCORE team stays busy with several ongoing projects using the Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN) and other state-of the-art equipment in the laboratory.

The CAREN, one of the lab’s most impressive tools, is a 3D virtual environment with a 180-degree view inside a 9-foot tall curved panoramic screen that provides research subjects and patients the sensory rich experience of movement in an experimentally-controlled setting.

Dr. Pinata Sessoms, a biomechanist with NHRC’s PhyCORE team is an avid supporter of STEM interns. “It’s great to be able to mentor these students and give them opportunities they wouldn’t have had elsewhere.”

Interns at NHRC have the opportunity to work with the PhyCORE team, which include training programs to prevent falls in amputees, balance training in warfighters with traumatic brain injuries (TBI), and the evaluation of personal protective equipment.

PhyCORE’s interns received hands-on experience with validation efforts for force plate software for future clinical work, analyzed treadmill walking data on a ProtoKinetics walkway, and performed pilot testing as models wearing military backpacks on treadmills.

During the past fiscal year, the PhyCORE team welcomed eight interns, primarily recruited from High Tech High School and San Diego State University. High Tech High School, a charter high school in San Diego’s Point Loma neighborhood, has been an excellent source for interns as 34 percent of the school’s graduates go on to major in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields in college—more than double the national average.

While some interns received school internship credits for their work at NHRC, others simply used the opportunity to gain experience using cutting-edge technology. Work generated by the interns has been included in technical reports and presentations, directly contributing to the PhyCORE team’s success.

The team’s seasoned scientists recognize and appreciate the diverse contributions these interns have made and intend to continue recruiting from high schools with STEM programs and seek other motivated students looking for their first taste of professional research.

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