Merging Health and Technology: Q&A with Claire Kearney-Volpe

Claire Kearney-Volpe has the honor of being the first doctoral student in NYU Steinhardt’s new rehabilitation sciences program, an interdisciplinary degree encompassing Steinhardt’s health and therapeutic professions. But she’s no stranger to NYU – Kearney-Volpe earned her master’s from NYU Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) in 2015, where she focused on health promotion and participatory design. She has also been part of the NYU Ability Project, an interdisciplinary research program dedicated to the development of adaptive and assistive technologies.

We spoke with Kearney-Volpe about her path to studying rehabilitation sciences, and how it blends her interests in health and technology.

How did you become interested in rehabilitation sciences?
Before attending ITP, I worked in health care research and mental health as an art therapist. I felt like there was a lot of room for creativity in these fields and a lot of opportunities to innovate with technology. I became interested in rehab sciences because I wanted to pursue my own research interests that combine the development of technology and the rehabilitation process. In short, this work allows me to be creative and to contribute to others’ health and well-being.

How does your experience as an art therapist and your work in interactive telecommunications translate into your work in rehab sciences?
My studies in art therapy showed me just how powerful a tool the creative process can be. It allows people to channel a range of internal processes into making and provides them with a sense of agency and the ability to problem-solve. My work at ITP instilled in me a desire to make tech for social impact and question the standard use of consumer technologies. I learned that a “one size fits all” approach to the development of technology is not necessarily sufficient to address a range of desired use and user ability. Both of these experiences contribute to my view that is important to develop client-informed and adaptive rehab technologies and programs in order to maximize their benefit and enhance human potential.

You co-taught a unique course earlier this year through the Ability Project — can you tell us about it?
I had the pleasure and privilege of co-teaching “Looking Forward,” a vision-related tech class with Gus Chalkias last semester. Gus is blind, a technology specialist and one of the best teachers I have met. Modeled after other Ability Project courses like Disability Studies (taught by Alan Goldstein) and Developing Assistive Technology (taught by Anita Perr), our course was an intimate, graduate-level seminar about the experience of blindness and assistive technologies. Through a series of immersive exercises, guest lectures, and projects, we explored how to use the human-centered approach to the development of technology for blindness and low-vision. It was one of the most fun and best things I have ever done – Gus and I kept saying that we wished we could take the class!

What kinds of research are you doing now?
I am working with the Processing Foundation to make coding software  more accessible. For the last few months I have been doing user research in a series of blind-coder workshops that contributes to the  brilliant development work of Mathura Govindarajan (ITP). I am also working on a suite of video games for stroke rehabilitation and with my advisor Gerald Voelbel on cognitive remediation software for  patients with traumatic brain injuries.

Where do you see yourself after you complete your PhD?
I’d love to work in a hospital research setting on the development of rehab software and continue to develop my skills and understanding of the human-centered approach to this work.

The PhD program in rehabilitation sciences is an interdisciplinary degree program across NYU Steinhardt’s health and therapeutic professions: physical therapy, occupational therapy, art therapy, drama therapy, music therapy, applied psychology, communicative sciences and disorders, and nutrition.