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Promising Young Scientists Receive Prestigious Career Award

Grants recognize ‘individuals who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar’

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February 26, 2016 | by Julie Deardorff

Anne Marie Piper
Anne Marie Piper

Brenna Argall
Brenna Argall

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University research scientists Anne Marie Piper and Brenna Argall have received the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation, a grant that supports exceptional young faculty.

Piper, an assistant professor in Northwestern’s School of Communication, designs, develops and tests new technologies to help older adults with disabilities. Her award -- $500,000 over five years -- will be used to help create and study new software that helps people stay active and engaged online.

Argall, trained in robot autonomy and learning, is an assistant professor of rehabilitation robotics at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Her work leverages the autonomy of robots to help people who may have sensory, motor or cognitive impairments.

The CAREER Award is designed to support promising young faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through the combination of outstanding research and education.

Anne Marie Piper

As the director of Northwestern’s Inclusive Technology Lab, Piper investigates how modern technology can help an aging population. Much of her work focuses on older adults with disabilities, including vision impairments from macular degeneration or speech challenges from conditions such as aphasia, a common result of a stroke.

Older adults who aren’t comfortable with computers, smartphones or other devices may become even more resistant to using them when a disability sets in, Piper said. As a result, she’s creating new online social systems that work through technology that feels familiar: traditional phones, digital pen and paper technology and interactive digital photo frames.

“The impact of providing these individuals with new ways to go online and stay socially connected may be vast,” Piper said. “Staying socially connected can affect late-life physical and mental health, and staying connected online is associated with lower rates of depression and loneliness among older adults.”

The award will allow Piper’s research lab to keep working on the next generation of online technologies that allow people to stay engaged throughout older adulthood. “I’m often asked by family caregivers for access to the technologies we create in my lab, and this award will help us make our software more widely available,” she said.

Brenna Argall

Argall’s five-year, $525,000 grant will help people with a wide variety of disabilities who can benefit from robotic devices. Paradoxically, the more severe a person’s motor impairments, “the harder it is for them to operate the very machines meant to enhance their quality of life,” Argall said.

Her team is spearheading a new area of research that explores the intersection of autonomous robots and rehabilitation. “We work to incorporate robotics autonomy and intelligence into assistive machines, offloading some of the control burden from the user to the machine,” she said.

Robots that provide physical assistance to people need to adapt to the many different needs of their users. In addition, the way a patient interacts with the robot will also change over time. Argall’s algorithms will take these dynamic factors into account.

The advances can help patients with a wide variety of disabilities, including spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, stroke survivors, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

“The work is poised to transform rehabilitation science by treating motor impairments as an advantage rather than a constraint,” she said.

Argall also is affiliated with the departments of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern and physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She is director of the Assistive & Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the nation’s premier rehabilitative hospital.

Topics: Honors