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Communication Studies assistant professor wins prestigious NSF CAREER award for young faculty

What can modern tech do for an aging population? As one nationally recognized and award-winning member of our School of Communication faculty finds, quite a lot.

Communication Studies Assistant Professor Anne Marie Piper recently won a prestigious National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award, which acknowledges her work so far in designing, developing, and evaluating new technologies to help older adults.  

“I’m thrilled that the NSF views this topic as important and worthy of support,” says Piper, who heads the school’s Inclusive Technology Lab. “The award provides strong encouragement to my students and I as we continue with this line of research.”

The award, more widely known as the CAREER award, recognizes outstanding research and education by junior faculty who are building a foundation to be lifelong leaders in integrating education and research. The CAREER award, which gives Piper a $500,000 grant over five years, will help bolster her efforts to engage older adults.

Much of her work focuses on older adults with disabilities, whether that might be vision impairments from macular degeneration or a speech challenge from conditions such as aphasia, commonly a result of stroke.

“My research is about helping people of all ages and abilities stay active and engaged in society throughout their lives,” Piper says. “This involves creating new technologies that enable people with severe disabilities to go online and stay socially connected with their family and friends.”

Piper said one of her challenges is to engage an older population that might not be comfortable with computers, smartphones, or other more modern devices but become even less comfortable once a disability sets in.

“Many of the older adults we are working with are currently offline or do not use computers — they may have been online at one point but now face challenges in using computers due to the onset of vision or speech-language impairments,” she says. “The impact of providing these individuals with new ways to go online and stay socially connected may be vast. Staying socially connected can affect late-life physical and mental health, and staying connected online is associated with lower rates of depression and loneliness among older adults.”

Piper has approached this challenge by trying to engage older adults using technology they might already feel they can use.

“Currently, we are creating new online social systems that work through traditional phones, digital pen and paper technology, and interactive digital photo frames,” she says. “We are working with several field sites in the Evanston and Chicago area to create, refine and test these technologies.”

Piper said she was inspired to pursue this research because she wants to change the stereotype that aging is a form of decline associated with social isolation and loneliness.

“Our work challenges this view by creating new technologies that let people embrace the full experience of growing older… and be active and engaged participants in online communities,” she says.

The award will also help Piper make her software available to the public.

“I’m often asked by family caregivers for access to the technologies we create in my lab, and this award will help us make these tools more widely available,” she says.

Piper is now the third member of the current Communication Studies faculty to have won the CAREER award. Professors Michele Shumate and Darren Gergle each received the honor in 2010.