Doctoral Experiential Component Spotlight: 2nd Year OTD Student Tara Sarkar’s Project on Virtual Reality and Pain
Q: Before we dive into your project, can you tell us a little bit about your background and interests as they relate to occupational therapy?
A: Of course! For those who don’t know me, my name is Tara and I am a current 2nd year OTD student at Tufts. I am originally from Stamford, CT, and I graduated with a B.S. in Biology and Society from Cornell University in 2017. After graduation, I took some time to travel and volunteer internationally, and work as an after school preschool teacher in Boston before starting graduate school. While I loved my time in South Africa, Chile, and Southeast Asia, the true highlight of my travel and volunteering experiences was based in southern India, in the Mysuru district to be specific. There, I worked in varying capacities at a nonprofit focused on healthcare and grass roots development, and at a day school for children with varying ability levels. This was my third summer coming to work with these organizations, and the inspirational staff, therapists, and students are the reason I ultimately decided to pursue a career in OT.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your doctoral project including what you are working on and where you will be located?
A: The doctoral experiential component (DEC) project of my capstone involves conducting a research study on virtual reality and pain. My faculty mentor, Dr. Nancy Baker, and my site mentor, Dr. Robert Edwards, will support me through the implementation and analysis of a pilot study to assess the feasibility and potential effects of a virtual reality (VR) mindfulness program on reducing pain for older adults with knee osteoarthritis (OA). For this 14-week project, I will primarily work on site in Dr. Edwards’ lab at the Pain Management Center (PMC) from mid-June to mid-September of this year. I will actually be completing this project prior to my fieldwork IIs, as some adjustments in scheduling have been made to accommodate fieldwork experiences during the COVID pandemic. I am excited about this timeline because I have already spent several months developing this project with Dr. Baker and Dr. Edwards, and I am eager to finally get started on the real thing as soon as possible!
Q: What was the process like for selecting this specific research topic?
A: So, some aspects of the project were selected for me, as Nancy has a strong background in research related to musculoskeletal disorders, chronic pain, and virtual reality. She also has an existing relationship with Dr. Edwards at the PMC, and he was interested in co-mentoring a Tufts student to work on study related to VR and chronic pain. Once these parameters were set, I was able to search the literature and narrow the topic down further based on gaps in the science and my personal interests. It turns out there is limited evidence on the feasibility and effectiveness of VR for reducing pain specifically for older adults, which is why I decided to study this population. I also have a personal interest in mindfulness and meditation, which have been shown to help with relaxation and pain, so I am hoping to find a good VR program in this category.
Q: What do you think will be the biggest challenge with your DEC project, and what are you most looking forward to?
A: I think the biggest challenge for me is the fact that I am new to research. This will be the first time that I am leading the process of planning and implementation, data collection and analysis, and compilation into a scientific poster and paper that we hope to get published afterwards. I feel lucky to have such supportive mentors who are also experts in the field, as they have made me feel much more confident throughout the process. As for what I am most looking forward to, I can’t wait to be on site at the PMC for the 14-week project. I am excited to learn from and have daily interactions with the interdisciplinary team of professionals that work in either patient care, research, or both. I have so much to learn from them about pharmacological and nonpharmacological treatments for chronic pain, and the field of rheumatology as a whole. I have already been in contact with many of these professionals, and I look forward to further developing these relationships over the summer!