By James Shea
As part of Research Weeks (March 17–April 29) we are highlighting some of the remarkable research done by undergraduates at VCU. Research Weeks features a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines from across the university.
Software development is a challenging process. Over time, the bugs need to be eliminated so the interface works smoothly for users.
Jeffrey Duah, a senior computer science major in the College of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University, has had the opportunity to experience that iterative process firsthand on multiple projects through the Isosceles Lab at VCU. Elizabeth Baker, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Information Systems founded the lab, which focuses on health care information technology, in 2020.
Duah has worked on several projects at the lab, most recently building a medical software application that helps an underserved population. Duah fine-tuned the platform through user testing.
The idea for the app came from Bethany Cosgrove, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Nursing. Cosgrove approached Baker about a project for her dissertation. Baker said it is not uncommon for doctorate students to work with a lab like hers when the project involves developing mobile technology, and she agreed to take it on because the project fit with the lab’s mission.
“We wanted to build technology that encourages patients to learn about their families’ health to be able to work more effectively with their health care professionals,” Baker said.
Cosgrove observed that families who have children with Down syndrome often see multiple medical providers given their children’s complicated medical history. The families can have a difficult time keeping track of doctors, medical records and appointments. Cosgrove thought a specially designed app would be useful to the families.
“The idea was to create something that could help alleviate those problems of having to keep track of all this information,” Duah said. “Sometimes it can be overwhelming. Any way that we can alleviate that pain is what we were aiming for.”
Last summer, Duah and a team of computer science students worked with Cosgrove and built the app to her specifications. In the fall, they began user testing. Cosgrove focused on testing the app for functionality with the families, while Duah and others in the lab performed general usability testing, making sure there were no glitches and that the platform was navigable.
“We wanted to get a sense of how well the systems were integrated and how well users were receiving the app,” Duah said. “We wanted to know if it was a usable thing and what we could do to improve the usability.”
Duah said he has really enjoyed the process and learned a lot. He built a product that has the potential to benefit families with special needs children. The experience also helped him land a job at a software consulting firm after he graduates in May.
Duah, who received an Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship fellowship to work on the Down syndrome caregivers app, said he originally was just looking for a job when he contacted the lab. He did not know VCU offered opportunities in undergraduate research.
Duah started working in the lab in the fall of 2020, and his original project was an application for health care workers intended to help them communicate during a crisis.
“It was for an emergency so they could contact each other quickly,” Duah said.
Duah enjoys building new technology that helps people and is grateful for the opportunities provided through the VCU lab. He is proud of the work he’s done on the Down syndrome caregivers app.
“It was great to develop something and help those families better coordinate their care,” he said.
Duah enjoyed the research experience and encouraged students to take advantage of the opportunities at VCU by asking around and finding ways to get experience in their major. He feels fortunate that he was able to connect with Baker and the lab.
“It was pretty cool. Computer science is an area where you can build new things that help people.”