Marion Leary (left) talking with Start Talking Science participants in September.

Conrad Erb

From STEM to STEAM: An Interview with Marion Leary

Philadelphia’s 2017 Geek of the Year on using virtual reality in resuscitation science research.

Marion Leary recently won Philly’s Geek of the Year award, and for good reason: her research on virtual reality (VR) could revolutionize cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training. Leary is the director of innovation research for the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania, an instructor in Penn’s Master of Public Health program, and an innovation specialist and course director in Penn’s School of Nursing. She’s also a staunch advocate of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math education, more commonly known as STEAM. And it’s STEAM that powers all of Leary’s professional pursuits, from her CPR training research to coorganizing the March for Science in Philly earlier this year, in response to the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts for scientific research and general disdain for the scientific community. Distillations recently spoke with Leary, who also coorganized a Start Talking Science event at CHF in late September, where she gave some attendees the opportunity to participate in her ongoing CPR study that uses VR to measure provider response. 

Q: Why is it so vital for scientists to be able to communicate the importance of their research to the general public?

A: As someone who “hearts” science, I believe I have an obligation to communicate not only my work to the public but all knowledge about science, technology, research, engineering, art, and math (STEAM). As an academic researcher most of the work I perform will generally only be accessible to others in academia. We preach to the choir with our published manuscripts, committee meetings, and lectures, which—don’t get me wrong—is intellectually stimulating and professionally energizing, but it does little to spread our collective work and findings to those who would benefit most — the people.

As scientists, science communicators, science educators, and advocates, we need to make our work more visible so the public can begin to appreciate and understand the depth and breadth of how pervasive and integrated STEAM is in our everyday lives. As a resuscitation scientist it is my responsibility to make sure everyone knows that the work I do literally saves lives.

Q: Could you talk about the value of the public being able to engage with scientists and to ask them questions directly about their work?

A: As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” That holds especially true for the public when they think about these mythical creatures — scientists. Being able to bring the public and scientists together in a way that allows for a dialogue really brings home why science is so important and essential to our lives — and to our country. That is why Start Talking Science is a necessary event: the scientists who are there want so much to interact with, teach, learn from, and share their work with the public — the people who will ultimately benefit most. And the members of the public who show up want to hear about all of the groundbreaking work going on and learn how that work benefits them and our world. These types of events break down the walls of the academic Ivory Tower, walls that should not exist but unfortunately oftentimes do. 

Leary VR CPR training.jpg

Courtesy of Marion Leary

Q: Could you describe your research study in using VR to provide CPR training? 

A: A cardiac arrest occurs when someone’s heart suddenly stops beating and they are technically dead. It takes the quick provision of CPR to hopefully bring them back to life. We have technologies available today that can allow us to create these high-stress, time-sensitive emergency conditions in as realistic a setting as possible using VR and augmented reality. Using a multisensory (audio, visual, tactile) VR system, combined with a CPR training manikin, we were able to observe lay bystander response to an unannounced sudden cardiac arrest event. 

We took our VR sudden cardiac arrest system out into the community and enrolled a convenience sample of the general public [people who were easy to reach]. Without explaining what was going to happen, we put them into the VR system and told them to respond however they would in real life to some type of emergency situation. And then we observed how they responded based on the links in the Chain of Survival: Did they call 911? Did they attempt CPR? Did they ask for an automated external defibrillator (AED)? Did they use the AED on the victim? We also collected their CPR quality data — chest compression rate and chest compression depth via the integrated CPR manikin. The data from this first feasibility study was submitted for publication in September and will be presented at two national conferences later in the fall.


Q: Did your training as a nurse contribute to your interest in this research topic?

A: I worked as a critical care nurse in the Medical Intensive Care Unit full-time for a year and part-time for an additional three years. And as part of the work I did with the Center for Resuscitation Science, I responded to all cardiac arrest events within the hospital for many years as a type of resuscitation consultant. Both of these positions substantially increased my experience with cardiac arrest. These experiences contributed to my knowledge in a way that allows me to do the work I do today. I don’t believe I could understand the intricacies of what I do without having had those experiences.

Q: Where did the idea come from for using this technology in this way? 

A: I actually got the idea during the Philadelphia Science Festival. At their closing carnival I saw the immersive VR technology being demoed, and I immediately began thinking about the potential use of this immersive technology for sudden cardiac arrest. Due to the sudden nature of cardiac arrest there is really no way for us to study bystander response because we don’t know to whom it is going to happen, or when or where. These immersive technologies are the closest we can get to heightening the realism of what it would be like to have to respond to a cardiac arrest in the real environment.

Q: What are your plans for developing this study further? 

A: I have a lot of ideas for where to take this study. Right now we are working on phase 2 of the study, randomly allocating the victims to determine if gender and race play a role in the way people respond. I also have grants submitted to examine the VR sudden cardiac arrest system in a randomized trial versus the standard CPR training courses. It is one thing to say that VR heightens realism and therefore increases the likelihood that bystanders will respond better, but it is another thing to prove it!

As a resuscitation science researcher it is my responsibility to prove that this type of training is better than what we are doing right now, which is training people in a classroom setting completely devoid of the stress or emotion of having to respond in the real-world setting. We are also working on mobile VR sudden cardiac arrest training, which will be more generalizable and able to be disseminated to communities that do not have access to the fully immersive VR systems.

Finally, I am working on an augmented reality CPR training system as well.

We have integrated a CPR feedback manikin with the Microsoft HoloLens so that as the CPR provider performs CPR on the manikin, the data are rendered through the HoloLens and projected back out as a hologram of an anatomically correct circulatory system with blood flow to the brain and vital organs based on the actual quality of CPR being performed. You can see links to the VR and augmented reality system on my company website.

Q: Could you talk about your role with the March for Science earlier this year? Is there more to expect with this movement?

A: I was honored to be a speaker and coorganizer of the March for Science in Philadelphia. We estimated that approximately 20,000 to 25,000 people showed up and took to the streets to march for science. I am still on the organizing committee, and we are still meeting regularly, reorganizing, and will begin more initiatives in the upcoming new year.

Zack Pelta-Heller

 is the Institute’s web content manager.