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Virtual communities may foster mental health in severely ill kids

Medford/Somerville, Mass. -- Pilot research into how virtual environments can foster positive development in severely ill youth who are at risk for mental-health problems has earned Marina Bers, assistant professor of child development at Tufts University, a 2005 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. This award is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding scientists and engineers at the early stages of their careers.

Bers was nominated to receive this honor by the National Science Foundation, which in 2005 gave her an NSF Career Award and five-year grant for her work on virtual communities of learning and care.

Bers is leading a longitudinal study of solid organ (kidney, lung, and heart) transplant patients at Children's Hospital Boston that looks at how creating a virtual environment can promote positive development in post-transplant adolescents and encourage these young patients to adhere to often onerous treatment protocols.

"Adolescents who have had an organ transplant have, in a sense, acquired a chronic, severe illness that will change their lives forever. In addition to physical challenges, they face stress, uncertainty, and isolation plus the typical issues that adolescence brings, such as a need to assert their independence," said Bers. "As a result, these patients may stop taking their medication or rebel against instructions from their doctors."

Bers and her students in the Developmental Technologies Group at Tufts University, in collaboration with colleagues in the Department of Psychiatry and the Transplantation Program at Children's Hospital Boston, are investigating whether "identity construction environments" can help these patients in their personal and social development, as well as in their medical adherence and coping strategies.

Building a Virtual World

Enter "Zora," a three-dimensional virtual world first designed by Bers as
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Contact: Kim Thurler
kim.thurler@tufts.edu
617-627-3175
Tufts University
9-Aug-2006


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