THRIVE Lab Promotes Therapeutic Tech in Home Settings

Developed by Dr. April Bowling, Lab Director and Assistant Professor of Health Sciences at Merrimack College, THRIVE lab aims to understand what factors can be addressed to improve the driving forces of health behaviors; this includes studying areas such as physical activity, nutrition, sleep, practices of mindfulness, and screen-time in this population.

Through studying these drives and triggers, Bowling, her team, and the clients can work toward improving the clients’ mental and physical health needs.

The Purpose of THRIVE Labs

THRIVE, which stands for Translational Health Research and Innovation for Vulnerable Children, seeks to take advantage of burgeoning innovations in technology, paired with evidence-based practices, to make tangible improvements to health and behaviors in children and teens living life with neuro-developmental and mental health diagnoses.

Bowling’s Inspiration

Bowling and her family grew up in an economically disadvantaged area. Bowling was aware from a young age how social determinants can affect one’s health and functioning. Early in her academic career, Bowling became interested in the emerging research that explored the connections between health behaviors-such as exercise and nutrition-to brain health and lifespan development.

Furthermore, excellent mentorship provided by Dr. Kirsten Davison during Bowling’s doctoral studies at Harvard further cemented her passion for the field. While in the program, Bowling received a grant to investigate how exercise can improve classroom behavior and academic function in children.

She focused her studies on those who were enrolled at a therapeutic day school. Bowling noted how grateful she is for her advisor, Davidson, in the role she played in setting Bowling’s career trajectory.

A Four-Fold Approach to Evaluate Intervention Strategies

When initiating THRIVE, Bowling and her team planned a four-fold project to evaluate the feasibility of an intervention that could increase health behaviors, such as physical activity, nutrition, sleep, and screen-time attitudes among teens. The clients also received special education services for social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.

Bowling explained, “This involved installing Xboxes in their houses and training kids and their parents to use a variety of exergames and fitness trackers to move more, and then virtually meeting with a live health coach remotely via the Xbox.”

Graduate students involved in the project would then be involved in various tasks, including troubleshooting issues related to the video gaming equipment, collecting clinical data, training parents, and working with health coaches to encourage participant adherence to the study. Albeit challenging, the students learned incredible problem solving and client interaction skills.

Interdisciplinary Work That Benefits Teams, Students, and Institutions

Due to the nature of the research, the projects pursued at THRIVE are deeply interdisciplinary; the projects involve expertise from the following fields: exercise science, nutrition, behavioral and developmental psychology, pediatric psychiatry, education, biostatistics, and implementation science. For these reasons, ever since its inception, THRIVE has embraced interdisciplinary approaches to research and development.

By working as a team, each member is able to bring his or her discrete discipline into a broader framework of research to benefit the families of those who use the behavioral adaptation technology. Bowling expressed how working a team whose locations span across the United States–though challenging–ultimately offer more benefits to the community, clients, and students, compared to the alternative to working individually or within silos.

In addition to having professional partners with varied backgrounds, THRIVE also includes student researchers from various majors. THRIVE regularly has graduate students in exercise science working alongside their peers in education, or undergraduate public health majors working in tandem with psychology majors. When students work collaboratively, they build skills in developing a common language, improving flexibility, and practicing more succinct critical thinking.

Digital Partnerships in a Shrinking World

As the world “shrinks,” and more work is increasingly done through digital partnership and international connections, it is critical for students to become accustomed to working with professionals who may have a fundamentally different approach to solving the same core issues.

For instance, at Merrimack, this interdisciplinary practice allows for faculty integration and community partnership developments, which ultimately benefit not just the students and clients, but also the university and other community partners. For these very reasons, Merrimack created an Interdisciplinary Institute, directed by Dr. Simona Sharoni, which aims to foster more interdisciplinary pedagogy and research.

According to Bowling; goals such as these lay the foundation that destroys research isolation and generates a greater sense of unity across the university and community.

Challenges of Using a Virtual Lab

THRIVE is a virtual lab which has the primary goal to connect researchers, clinicians, community partners, and families of young people living with neuro-developmental and mental health issues. This is done with the hopes of improving the clients’ daily lives via therapeutic tech integration. Through this practice, THRIVE intends to accomplish two key tasks: cultivate high quality research and ensure the technologies and therapies end up in the hands of as many clients as possible.

In short, the research is being collected with the intent of provoking real changes in people. A great deal of research is designed to be interesting and theoretical-and therefore likely to be published- though it may offer little in the realm of real-world application. By using means such as the virtual lab, where participants engage researchers from their own homes, students and professionals are better able to serve research participants and adjust their practices to the feedback collected.

Getting in the Community

The students working in the THRIVE program who go into the field are getting real-world application experience with the clients and their family.

This is something Bowling and her team see as essential to teaching the students. Research is critical to ensuring best evidence-based practices are being honored by being active in the field; however, THRIVE is also ensuring that the student and the clients have opportunities to see the immediate benefits of being an active participant in research projects.

Research does not serve its purpose by sitting on a shelf. This is why Bowling and her colleagues strive to put the research in the palms of the participants, while also allowing the students to experience every level of the research/application development process.

THRIVE is working to meet the needs of the students and grants, while still honoring the intention of the research-which is to help families of adolescents or young adults with neuro-degenerative behavioral issues navigate their mental and behavioral health.

This is no easy task, so by integrating students, community, and partnerships in the development of these interventions, Bowling and her team make accommodations as needed to ensure the clients and their families receive the best interventions and therapies possible.

The Future of Thrive Labs

Technology is a field that demands persistent awareness. Just as a new technology becomes available in the mainstream, there are an onslaught of new devices that are in development for the public.

For example, as the THRIVE team started expanding their research for GamerX-as a therapeutic approach that involved therapies with the XBox-VR/AR tech started becoming a household possibility. What does this mean for THRIVE?

As anyone who is experienced in grant writing knows, it is a long, arduous process, and therefore staying abreast of the most recent tech development can be challenging-but not impossible. In the future, THRIVE may even begin using augmented reality applications within their interventions to better suit the needs of the clients.

As THRIVE takes in feedback from their clients, students, and partners, they develop interventions that are accessible and user-friendly to the adolescents and their families.

About the Author
Cassidy Clevenger is a Samford University alum. After earning her BA in Psychology, she studied Gerontology at Georgia State, and is back at Samford finishing her MSW while working as a staff writer for PUPN Magazine.