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Social Work student works on stress-reduction tool

USC School of Social Work doctoral candidate Rong Xiao

USC School of Social Work doctoral candidate Rong Xiao has been chosen to participate in the USC Diploma in Innovation project, a highly selective program that allows current doctoral students to demonstrate their potential to push the boundaries of existing scholarship by translating novel ideas into tangible benefits for society.

Xiao and computer science student Harshvardhan Vathsangam have teamed up to create a computer game that acts as a low-cost, stress-reducing tool, an alternative to traditional therapy for individualized intervention. Their collaboration is one of 13 proposals that were selected, with the top projects to be awarded the USC Diploma in Innovation next spring.

Xiao initially came up with the stress-relieving idea because she wanted to translate the theoretical research she had done for her dissertation into practice.

Along with studying the effect of psychophysiology, neurocognition and social cognition on the rehabilitation outcomes from schizophrenia, she was also inspired by observing traumatized children and adolescents in psychotherapy while volunteering at the child trauma clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Toxic stress has adverse effects on brain development and leads to many adult diseases,” Xiao said. “Our goal is to create a communication-based computer game that simulates stressful situations in order to teach coping capabilities and gradually reduce stress levels.

“A cost-effective system that coaches people to cope with stressful situations is needed in place of current stress interventions that are therapist-leading, expensive and not individualized,” she explained.

Within the computer game, users will interact with stressful scenarios and have their galvanic, or electrical conductive, skin response and heart rate objectively measured. They will then be taught relaxation and coping skills to reduce stress levels and win rewards.

Because the Diploma in Innovation program requires teams of two, Xiao has partnered with Vathsangam, whose research focuses on statistical machine-learning techniques for body-worn sensors, to work on developing the sensor interfaces and early prototypes of the game.

The pair was allocated $5,000 to buy devices to build the program and hire graduate students to do the programming work for the computer game, with the goal of successfully translating the game to a smartphone app that would clients to use it anywhere.

In addition to the two doctoral students, each team includes a faculty mentor to support and guide the students with their projects.

John Brekke, professor and associate dean of research at the School of Social Work, is the duo’s official mentor, having been the principal investigator on multiple studies funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Xiao said she hopes to translate into practice Brekke’s research on the integration of biological aspects of mental disorders into psychosocial rehabilitation models for understanding the course and outcome of mental disorders.

“Dr. Brekke is a knowledgeable and supportive mentor who teaches me a lot in both academics and professional attitudes,” Xiao said. “He gives us a lot of freedom to create novel research ideas.”

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