Roni Barak Ventura (’21) wins NYU University-Wide Outstanding Dissertation Award

Roni Barak Ventura

New York University graduates hundreds of doctoral students each year, but the winners of the University-Wide Outstanding Dissertation Award stand out for the depth of their research, their erudition, and the potential impact of their work.

Roni Barak Ventura — who earned her doctoral degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in mid-2021 and has conducted post-doctoral studies in Professor Maurizio Porfiri’s Dynamical Systems Lab — recently attracted the attention of judges with “Exploring Design Principles Toward Enhanced Engagement in Technology-Mediated Telerehabilitation,” a dissertation that uses an interdisciplinary approach incorporating concepts from medicine, biomechanics, mechatronics, and human psychology to explore various aspects of technology-mediated telerehabilitation design and lay the foundation for citizen science-based telerehabilitation that capitalizes on individual intellect, interest, and social value.

Ventura, who is now an engineering analyst in the Division of Civil, Mechanical, and Manufacturing Innovation at the National Science Foundation, explains that more than 11 million Americans have neurological disorders that cause them to require assistance to perform the routine activities of daily living, costing at least $170 billion every year. Approximately half of these costs stem from unemployment and loss of productivity. While individuals with neuromuscular disability can return to work and regular life by adhering to a rehabilitation regimen with repetitive, high-intensity exercises, the vast majority do not receive sufficient treatment.

Leaving home and traveling to a clinic can be exceedingly cumbersome or even impossible for patients with limited mobility, and rising treatment costs and medical understaffing block many patients’ access to out-patient care. Recovery thus generally depends on exercise at home, with limited professional feedback, but patients often fail to comply with their prescribed routines because exercises can be repetitive, monotonic, and uninteresting.

Ventura’s research proposed to incorporate citizen science into rehabilitation — inviting patients to perform their exercises while collecting or analyzing data in authentic research studies, allowing them to recuperate, learn science, and help advance knowledge and society. In her dissertation, she evaluates and develops four design aspects: incorporating social interactions into citizen science and studying their effects on engagement and motivation; designing 3D-printed retrofit attachments to personalize interface interaction and target specific joint movements; developing a citizen science platform for training bimanual movements; and creating a machine learning algorithm to identify movements patients perform, in order to provide automated motion analysis and smart feedback. Her findings have the strong potential to transform telerehabilitation in both theory and in practice.

“My biomedical and mechanical engineering background, as well as my deep interest in working with and helping people, led me to undertake this important research endeavor,” Ventura says.