How do you make a young doctor really understand what it's like being 74? Virtual reality.

How can a 24-year-old medical student really understand what a patient 50 years older is experiencing?

The U.S. population is getting older. By 2040, the portion of Americans over 64 is expected to rise from about 15% to nearly 22%.

While there is a growing demand for doctors trained in geriatric care, Johns Hopkins University puts the average medical student at just 24 years old, meaning medical students may not have had any personal experience with what it's like to age.


This can lead to a real disconnect between doctor and patient.

What if we could drop medical students right into the lives of their elderly patients?

A radical new project called "We Are Alfred" from Embodied Labs is trying to use virtual reality technology to do exactly that.

Image used with permission from Embodied Labs.

The idea came from Embodied Labs founder Carrie Shaw's personal experience trying to understand her mother's experience with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

While caring for her mother, Shaw says she spent a lot of time trying to imagine and understand what her mother was perceiving.

"We Are Alfred" started as Shaw's master's degree project at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and has since become a proof-of-concept prototype.

"We Are Alfred" isn't just a video you can watch — it uses virtual reality (VR) to immerse viewers in a hypothetical patient's life.

When asked why she felt virtual reality was the best way to bring the connection to life, Shaw said: "A video is contained within this box — your desktop computer, your TV screen — but that's not what a human experience is. A human experience is a world."

All GIFs from Embodied Labs/YouTube.

"We Are Alfred" uses a VR headset, headphones, and a hand-tracking device to immerse users in the story of a 74-year-old patient — the titular Alfred.

The simulation takes about seven minutes and runs the viewer through six scenes of Alfred's story — from a birthday party to a minor spill to a visit to the doctor's office.


Throughout the experience, the viewer sees and hears things exactly as Alfred would – including his audio-visual impairments.

A large, dark aberration in the middle of the screen, for instance, is designed to resemble macular degeneration (the most common visual problem in the elderly).

The audio also mimics hearing loss, another condition common to aging.

Shaw and her team are pursuing this because doctors and patients don't always connect the way they should.

For example, in the simulation, Alfred (and the viewer) struggle when the doctor gives Alfred a cognitive test. But it's not because there's anything wrong with Alfred's cognitive abilities — it's because Alfred can't really hear what the doctor asked him to do.


This is, of course, pretty frustrating. Unfortunately, in the simulation, the virtual doctor isn't able to recognize Alfred's audiovisual impairments, and because Alfred struggles with the cognitive test, the doctor draws the erroneous conclusion that Alfred's problems are cognitive.

Teaching a student to take audiovisual impairments into account is important, but it's those shared frustrations and emotions that are the real key to the "We Are Alfred" project.

The most important function of "We Are Alfred" is fostering empathy between caretakers and their patients.

There are other techniques like having students wear vision-limiting glasses that medical schools use to try to replicate what it's like to be an elderly patient but Shaw felt those methods weren't holistic enough.

Part of the beauty of "We Are Alfred" is that it lets prospective doctors experience Alfred's life outside the doctor's office — like his relationship with his family — and feel firsthand what it's like to hear you have an impairment.


"Aging isn't just about pathology — it's not just about not being able to hear, not being able to see," Shaw explained. It's about "what else goes on in someone else's life."

Shaw and her colleagues have taken "We Are Alfred" from a small project to a big mission.

After receiving her master's degree, Shaw and the team of virtual reality experts, communicators, and filmmakers who worked on the project founded a company, Embodied Labs, to continue their work.

Now Embodied Labs is trying expand on the potential of "We Are Alfred." Ideally, they'll be able to create a larger VR experience that can reach not only doctors, but students in other health professions like nurses or physical therapists.

Though empathy may not always be valued the same way raw training in technical skills is, it is one of the most important aspects of being a doctor or medical professional.

Projects like "We Are Alfred" may help ensure that our next generation of doctors is adept at that.

Watch people experience "We Are Alfred" in this video from Embodied Labs:


It's one thing to see a little kid skateboarding. It's another to see a stereotype-defying little girl skateboarding. And it's entirely another to see Paige Tobin.

Paige is a 6-year-old skateboarding wonder from Australia. A recent video of her dropping into a 12-foot bowl on her has gone viral, both for the feat itself and for the style with which she does it. Decked out in a pink party dress, a leopard-print helmet, and rainbow socks, she looks nothing like you'd expect a skater dropping into a 12-foot bowl to look. And yet, here she is, blowing people's minds all over the place.

For those who may not fully appreciate the impressiveness of this feat, here's some perspective. My adrenaline junkie brother, who has been skateboarding since childhood and who races down rugged mountain faces on a bike for fun, shared this video and commented, "If I dropped in to a bowl twice as deep as my age it would be my first and last time doing so...this fearless kid has a bright future!"

It's scarier than it looks, and it looks pretty darn scary.

Paige doesn't always dress like a princess when she skates, not that it matters. Her talent and skill with the board are what gets people's attention. (The rainbow socks are kind of her signature, however.)

Her Instagram feed is filled with photos and videos of her skateboarding and surfing, and the body coordination she's gained at such a young age is truly something.

Here she was at three years old:

And here she is at age four:


So, if she dropped into a 6-foot bowl at age three and a 12-foot bowl at age six—is there such a thing as an 18-foot bowl for her to tackle when she's nine?

Paige clearly enjoys skating and has high ambitions in the skating world. "I want to go to the Olympics, and I want to be a pro skater," she told Power of Positivity when she was five. She already seems to be well on her way toward that goal.

How did she get so good? Well, Paige's mom gave her a skateboard when she wasn't even preschool age yet, and she loved it. Her mom got her lessons, and she's spent the past three years skating almost daily. She practices at local skate parks and competes in local competitions.

She also naturally has her fair share of spills, some of which you can see on her Instagram channel. Falling is part of the sport—you can't learn if you don't fall. Conquering the fear of falling is the key, and the thing that's hardest for most people to get over.

Perhaps Paige started too young to let fear override her desire to skate. Perhaps she's been taught to manage her fears, or maybe she's just naturally less afraid than other people. Or maybe there's something magical about the rainbow socks. Whatever it is, it's clear that this girl doesn't let fear get in the way of her doing what she wants to do. An admirable quality in anyone, but particularly striking to see in someone so young.

Way to go, Paige. Your perseverance and courage are inspiring, as is your unique fashion sense. Can't wait to see what you do next.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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