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Using virtual reality to treat self-injury and anxiety

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By Sheri Hall for the BCTR

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Whitlock, Bazarova, and Won

BCTR Researcher Janis Whitlock is partnering with colleagues in the Department of Communications to create a new kind of treatment for people with self-injury or anxiety disorders: virtual reality sessions.

The concept is to create alternative worlds using virtual reality that will help people during moments of stress and encourage them to seek treatment with a therapist.

“People who self-injure tend to be focused on their body and responsive to external stimuli,” Whitlock said. “That means virtual reality has a lot of potential to help them. What if we could deliver a powerful intervention and mindfulness space through virtual reality? What if they could disappear into a world that is incredibly soothing?”

Whitlock is working with Andrea Won and Natalie Bazarova, both assistant professors of communications at Cornell, to develop and test this technology.  With a team of researchers, they are creating three different virtual reality worlds: a soothing world that focused on mindfulness, a euphoric world, and a control world.

They plan to conduct experiments to determine how the worlds affect the people who enter them – both physically and mentally.

“The question is, can we transport people into a space that may take the edge off their self-injury desire or anxiety?” Whitlock said.

Whitlock says that she hopes this work also helps to address more broad concepts about the intersection of technology and humankind. “There are larger questions of how this type of technology affects people,” she said. “What are the limitations of humans and what does that mean about how we use these kinds of devices?”

The project is currently funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to Bazarova and Whitlock to explore how and why people disclose personal information in social media and develop interventions to encourage self-reflection and treatment.

You can learn more about Whitlock’s work at The Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery.

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2015 Iscol Lecture

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Workforce of the Future
Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Reshma Saujani
Founder and CEO, Girls Who Code

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2013 Iscol Lecture: Leila Janah, Monday, September 30, 2013

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Samasource: A Sustainable Solution to Global Poverty
Leila Janah, Samasource

Monday, September 30, 2013
7:30 PM
Kennedy Hall, Call Auditorium



Samasource in Kenya

Come hear the story of how the award-winning  non-profit Samasource was founded and find out how Samasource survived during its most rapid and tumultuous period of growth: the start-up years. Learn from Leila Janah, Samasource Founder and CEO, who went from being a student of international development and budding travel writer to a world-renowned technology leader. Beyond the media hype and the awards Samasource has received in its relatively short existence for their global poverty solution, Leila will share with us her experiences of the fast and furious, iterative process of building a company with real revenue streams. Beyond inspiring to be driven by social mission, Leila will delve into the fundamental secret of social entrepreneurship: survival hinges on getting things done and never giving up. And because there is no road map, recognizing that getting lost along the way is usually when you end up finding yourself… and your product.

Leila Janah is the founder and CEO of Samasource. She serves on the boards of CARE, OneLeap, and TechSoup Global and as an advisor to mobile shopping app RevelTouch.

Prior to Samasource, Janah was a Visiting Scholar with the Stanford Program on Global Justice and Australian National University’s Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. She was a founding Director of Incentives for Global Health, an initiative to increase R&D spending on diseases of the poor, and a management consultant at Katzenbach Partners (now Booz & Co.). She has also worked at the World Bank and as a travel writer for Let’s Go in Mozambique, Brazil, and Borneo.

She is the recipient of a 2011 World Technology Award and a 2012 TechFellow Award. She received a BA from Harvard.

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2012 Iscol Lecture

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From Ideas to Action: Technology and Global Health
October 1, 2012

Nadim Mahmud and Josh Nesbit of Medic Mobile in conversation with Jill Iscol.

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Video from the 2012 Iscol Lecture now online

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Nadim Mahmud, Josh Nesbit, Jill Iscol, and Ken Iscol

On October 1, Nadim Mahmud & Josh Nesbit of Medic Mobile delivered the 2012 The Iscol Family Program for Leadership Development in Public Service Lecture, From Ideas to Action: Technology and Global Health. Medic Mobile uses cell phones to disseminate medical information to remote populations without access to medical care, including parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

This year the program format was a panel discussion with the invited speakers and  Jill Iscol. Following the panel conversation and Q&A, Jill Iscol signed copies of her book, Hearts on Fire: Twelve Stories of Today's Visionaries Igniting Vision into Action. Medic Mobile's story is included in the book. The paperback and enriched e-book editions of Hearts on Fire are being published in January 2013.

Video of the 2012 Iscol Lecture is now online here.

A Cornell Chronicle story with more information on the event can be read here.

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