A team formed by a collaboration of City speech & language and human-computer interaction researchers has today been recognised for their exceptional contribution to promoting the use of technology to help keep the nation healthy.

By Mr Shamim Quadir(Senior Communications Officer), Published (Updated )

Researchers from the University’s Centre for Language and Communication Science Research (CLCSR) and Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design (HCID) have been named as one of the Nation’s Lifesavers – the top 100 individuals or groups based in universities whose work is saving lives and making a life-changing difference to our health and wellbeing.

They have been named for the first time today as part of Universities UK’s MadeAtUni campaign, which brings to life the impact of universities on everyday lives.

Co-led by Jane Marshall, Professor of Aphasiology and Stephanie Wilson, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction, the City, University of London collaboration has developed numerous technologies to help people with the language disorder, aphasia.

Aphasia is a complex disorder of language and communication caused by damage to the brain, and is usually caused by a stroke. People with aphasia may have difficulty speaking, reading, writing or understanding language. About a third of people who have a stroke are affected, and there are over 350,000 people in the UK living with aphasia. Many will experience social isolation, reduced wellbeing and poor quality of life as a result of the condition.

To help, the researchers have developed technologies such as EVA Park, a multi-award winning project that is investigating the use of an online, interactive 3D world that allows users to take part in virtual interactions that mirror activity from their everyday lives, like visiting the hairdresser, or meeting people in the park. It has already been shown to be a ‘safe’ environment that supports users’ language and communication skills, and is currently being trialled as a service, which could in the future be adopted more widely across the UK.

The work of the team has also culminated in the CommuniCATE aphasia clinic, directed by Dr Celia Woolf and located at the University. The clinic helps clients with aphasia through a variety of evidence-based services using both familiar and novel computer technologies, and is providing training and support to NHS clinicians.

The Nation’s Lifesavers selection also includes other individuals and groups making amazing uses of technology, such as drones to fight malaria, and a smart glove for communicating sign language, as well as developments in fighting diseases, and helping new parents and children enjoy the best start in life.

Universities from across the country were invited to nominate an individual or group who has made a significant contribution to the nation’s health and wellbeing. Over 100 universities from Plymouth to Dundee submitted a nomination.

John Smejka has aphasia and participated in the EVA Park study and said:

“I was paired with Abi Roper, the speech and language [therapist]. So we said at the start I would like to do some project management. Build a extension to the gym, yeah. So we did that and Abi played the cast of players. But I just me as manager.

I haven’t got the words to do for it. But it was fantastic!

Paula, John’s wife added:

“John was practising all this stuff [in EVA Park] that he might use in real life. I don’t know about turning my hair purple, but definitely the stuff they practised in the café was useful.

“We had a little tradition that the last day of term we would go out for Frankie and Benny’s with the kids for tea, and that was the first time since John’s stroke that he ordered his own dinner. So he absolutely put that practice into real life. That’s really, really lovely for everybody!

“Now he wants a gammon steak, and he wants a pineapple and egg, and he wants the chef to cut it up, and he does the whole lot on his own!

“Also, from my point of view, taking part in the focus groups, being a little addition to the City research team, you just feel really, really valuable and you know they can’t do it without you. So when they say thank you they really mean it, and they listen to us.”

Professor Stephanie Wilson and Professor Jane Marshall said:

It is a fantastic honour to feature as one of the ‘Nation’s Lifesavers’ for our work using technology to help those who have lost important language abilities after stroke. We’re incredibly grateful for the support we have received from funders of our work including the Stroke Association and The Tavistock Trust for Aphasia. The MadeAtUni campaign is a great chance to celebrate the many ways universities are having a significant impact on our everyday lives.

Henrietta, Duchess of Bedford and The Hon. Nicole Campbell, trustees of The Tavistock Trust for Aphasia, said:

“The Tavistock Trust for Aphasia is delighted to support the exciting and transformative research being conducted by the aphasia researchers at City. Through technological innovations like EVA Park the team is reaching individuals who may be missed by conventional services and thus find new ways to tackle the devastating consequences of aphasia.”

Professor Dame Janet Beer, President Universities UK, said:

“When people think of lifesavers they tend to focus on the dedication and skill of our doctors, nurses, carers, and paramedics – many of whom are trained at universities. Every day, up and down the country, universities are also working on innovations to transform and save lives. Research taking place in universities is finding solutions to so many of the health and wellbeing issues we care about and the causes that matter.

“By proudly working in partnership with charities, the NHS and healthcare organisations, universities are responsible for some of our biggest health breakthroughs and in revolutionising the delivery of care.

“This campaign is a chance to bring to life the wonderful and often unexpected work going on every day in our universities and to celebrate some of the people working to make a life-changing difference to the nation.”

Raising awareness of UK universities' work

Research shows the public are proud of UK universities but have little understanding of the benefits they bring, with most not being aware that UK academics are behind many of the discoveries that save lives and keep us healthy. The MadeAtUni campaign gives the public an insight into some of this work and celebrates those who made it happen.

More information on the campaign can be found on the dedicated website: madeatuni.org.uk

City, University of London/MadeAtUni campaign