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:


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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Screenshots via @castrowas95/Twitter

In the Pacific Northwest, orca sightings are a fairly common occurrence. Still, tourists and locals alike marvel when a pod of "sea pandas" swim by, whipping out their phones to capture some of nature's most beautiful and intelligent creatures in their natural habitat.

While orcas aren't a threat to humans, there's a reason they're called "killer whales." To their prey, which includes just about everything that swims except humans, they are terrifying apex predators who hunt in packs and will even coordinate to attack whales several times their own size.

So if you're a human alone on a little platform boat, and a sea lion that a group of orcas was eyeing for lunch jumps onto your boat, you might feel a little wary. Especially when those orcas don't just swim on by, but surround you head-on.

Watch exactly that scenario play out (language warning, if you've got wee ones you don't want f-bombed):

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Photo courtesy of Macy's
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Did you know that girls who are encouraged to discover and develop their strengths tend to be more likely to achieve their goals? It's true. The question, however, is how to encourage girls to develop self-confidence and grow up healthy, educated, and independent.

The answer lies in Girls Inc., a national nonprofit serving girls ages 5-18 in more than 350 cities across North America. Since first forming in 1864 to serve girls and young women who were experiencing upheaval in the aftermath of the Civil War, they've been on a mission to inspire girls to kick butt and step into leadership roles — today and in the future.

This is why Macy's has committed to partnering with Girls Inc. and making it easy to support their mission. In a national campaign running throughout September 2021, customers can round up their in-store purchases to the nearest dollar or donate online to support Girls Inc. and empower girls throughout the country.


Kaylin St. Victor, a senior at Brentwood High School in New York, is one of those girls. She became involved in the Long Island affiliate of Girls Inc. when she was in 9th grade, quickly becoming a role model for her peers.

Photo courtesy of Macy's

Within her first year in the organization, she bravely took on speaking opportunities and participated in several summer programs focused on advocacy, leadership, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). "The women that I met each have a story that inspires me to become a better person than I was yesterday," said St. Victor. She credits her time at Girls Inc. with making her stronger and more comfortable in her own skin — confidence that directly translates to high achievement in education and the workforce.

In 2020, Macy's helped raise $1.3 million in support of their STEM and college and career readiness programming for more than 26,000 girls. In fact, according to a recent study, Girls Inc. girls are significantly more likely than their peers to enjoy math and science, to be interested in STEM careers, and to perform better on standardized math tests.

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