Gerontechnology research provides undergraduate students opportunities

Department of Psychology Regents Professor Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, third from left, is with graduate student mentors and undergraduate researchers during the 2023 International Neuropsychological Society Conference in San Diego. From left, WSU graduate students Samina Rahman and Brooke Beech, GSUR researcher Audrey Almeria, a GSUR student from University of California at Fresno Angela Hickman, Schmitter-Edgecombe, and WSU graduate students Katie Luna and Carolyn Pagan.

A multidisciplinary program at Washington State University funded by the National Institute of Aging is engaging undergraduate students in scientific research that may help older adults live independently longer.  

The WSU Gerontechnology-Focused Student Undergraduate Research Experience (GSUR) connects students from complementary degree programs such as sociology, nursing, medicine, computer science, electrical engineering, and clinical psychology. It introduces them to faculty mentors and opens doors to a wide range of careers that support the world’s aging population. 

“The beauty of this opportunity is how it brings together students from varying degree programs and amplifies their future impact,” said Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, co-PI for the multi-year grant and a Regents professor in the Department of Psychology. “For example, when students who have participated in GSUR take on projects in their chosen career field—say perhaps designing a community park—their awareness of what older adults require will likely influence their blueprint.”

Since GSUR’s inception in 2016, WSU has received $2.7 million in grant funding from the NIA to support student research fellowships and training in the growing field of gerontechnology, which blends the study of aging with the use of technology. 

Applications for the WSU program are accepted year-round and students from any U.S. college or university may apply. Undergraduates receive a $6,000 scholarship and commit to developing a faculty-mentored research project and creating a scientific poster and/or paper. The program also accepts students each spring for an online gerontechnology class and smartwatch data collection project.  

“I’ve benefited greatly and learned so much conducting research and interacting with participants,” said Audrey Almeria, a recent WSU psychology and neuroscience graduate who assessed whether digital (tech-based) or non-digital (paper-based) compensatory strategies differed for older adults in carrying out their daily memory tasks. 

Like GSUR students past and present, Almeria has had several opportunities to present her original research to national audiences, including at the International Neuropsychological Society conference in San Diego this past spring. She currently is writing a scientific paper on the results of the study for publication.

150 and counting  

Schmitter-Edgecombe co-directs the GSUR program with Regents Professor Diane Cook and Associate Professor Bryan Minor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.  

Over the past seven years, the trio has welcomed 150 undergraduate students from WSU and other U.S. institutions into the program. Many continue to advance the field of gerontechology long after graduation. Some go on to earn PhDs in clinical psychology, others pursue advanced degrees in the medical field, including in speech and hearing, and still others enter the workforce and apply their computer science knowledge to a wide variety of real-world needs.

GSUR student Reagan Kelley graduated from WSU Pullman this past spring with two degrees—a BA in philosophy and a BS in computer science— and is considering a military career. Working with faculty mentors, he developed software that transforms raw research data into succinct tables for scientific evaluation. He also created a web application that enables researchers and clinicians to better visualize the progress of participants over time. 

“I learned what it may be like to work in the medical industry, respecting the rights of patients and their protected data,” said Kelley. “I learned how I might apply my expertise to situations in the professional world and domains outside just computer science.” 

The unique WSU program and student researcher Parveer Kaur were featured in an NIA article highlighting the success of the agency’s various Advancing Diversity in Aging Research programs. In addition to expanding the workforce, programs like ADAR and GSUR are helping researchers identify new ways to address health disparities, prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, and promote healthy aging overall. 

Kaur’s career goals include becoming an academic physician so that she can teach and continue doing research. 

“I was so grateful to participate in the research experience at Washington State University because I realized that I enjoy working with the aging population, especially when I got to shadow the clinicians,” Kaur said in the NIA article. “Geriatrics is a field that I’m interested in long-term.”

By Juli Wasson, College of Arts and Sciences, for WSU Insider.