Nursing Students Help with Study on Using Virtual Reality to Boost Positivity

Djessie Saint Lucien demonstrates virtual reality
Djessie Saint Lucien demonstrates the virtual reality system.

By Karen Angelo

While working as a nurse in the neuroscience unit at the Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston, Yun-Ju Lai noticed a pattern among certain patients. 

“I observed that an optimistic mindset had a positive impact on recovery,” says Lai, an assistant professor in the Solomont School of Nursing

This experience prompted her to study the connection between optimism and health for her dissertation. Since then, she has conducted and published research that shows that optimism may reduce stroke severity and inflammation. Now she has set her sights on helping UMass Lowell students improve health and well-being. 

Lai is currently studying whether positive cognitive behavioral therapy, delivered via virtual reality technology, can boost optimism. Funded by a university seed grant, the research compares the effects of the intervention to a control group, measuring optimism levels, sleep quality, stress and mental health. 

“The innovativeness of this study lies in its use of virtual reality as a tool for delivering a positive psychology-based intervention to increase optimism and improve mental health outcomes,” says Lai. “While previous studies have used various methods for delivering positive psychology interventions, the use of VR technology is still relatively new.” 

Yun-Ju Lai assistant professor of nursing
Asst. Prof. Yun-Jun Lai is studying whether positive behavioral therapy, delivered via virtual reality, can boost optimism among UMass Lowell students.
Lai is collaborating with Assoc. Prof. of Nursing Yuan Zhang and Asst. Prof. Jiabin Shen and Assoc. Prof. Yan Wang, both in the Department of Psychology

“Using virtual reality has the potential to be an innovative way to apply positive psychology among college students to boost social and emotional well-being,” says Shen, who studies the use of virtual reality-based rehabilitation for children who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. 

Open to all qualified UMass Lowell students, the study takes place in Shen’s Pediatric Injury Research Lab in Coburn Hall. During the spring semester, 10 students participated; in the fall, the study will repeat with at least 30 student subjects involved. 

Under the direction of Lai, four nursing students are working as research assistants: Amee Patel, Djessie Saint Lucien, Hirschfield Ssozi and Alicia Eng. They brief student participants on the research, guide them through the use of the virtual reality equipment, and collect and document survey data. 

“I am intrigued by research, so when the opportunity came up, I wanted to get involved,” says Ssozi, a rising junior from Chelmsford. “I’ve enjoyed learning how virtual reality can improve health and forming connections with the students involved in the study.” 

Four nursing students hold up flyer about the optimism research study
Nursing students Amee Patel, Djessie Saint Lucien, Hirschfield Ssozi and Alicia Eng hold a flyer that encourages UMass Lowell students to participate in a research study about improving health and well-being.

Rising senior nursing student Eng, a Braintree, Massachusetts native, sets up the schedules, sends reminders and accompanies study participants in the lab. 

“This research could really make a difference to students, and I wanted to gain this experience to be more well-rounded as a future nurse,” says Eng. “It’s really cool to be in contact with the students and to be involved in an intervention that could help improve the health of our students.” 

Saint Lucien of Methuen, Massachusetts, makes sure students are comfortable using the VR technology and collects survey data. 

“I would like to become a research nurse, so I appreciate the opportunity to gain research experience as an undergraduate,” she says. 

Patel’s connections with the student participants heightened her ability to empathize. 

“As I engaged with the students, I could understand them better, and because of that, I feel that this research experience allowed me to become a better health care professional,” says Patel, a native of North Conway, New Hampshire, who will complete the nursing program in December and would like to work in geriatric care, mental health or cardiology. “I am very excited to join the health field as a nurse and build upon the experience UMass Lowell has already helped me achieve.”