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Marion Leary: VR Visionary on Libraries and Innovation

Posted on by Gretchen Stiteler

“I’m a huge fan of the Penn Libraries!” says Marion Leary, RN, MSN, MPH, FAHA. The Penn School of Nursing’s very first Director of Innovation, Leary conducts advanced research in resuscitation science that frequently entails collaboration across disciplines — including strategic partnerships with libraries and librarians. “Innovation requires everybody’s knowledge and experience,” she explains. “And I cannot say enough about the innovation community at Penn: from the Graduate School of Education, to Annenberg, to Nursing, to the network of Penn Libraries.”

Penn’s Biomedical Library Nursing Liaison, Richard James, has facilitated some of Leary’s past projects and describes her as an “alchemist” who combines multidisciplinary approaches with library resources to solve “wicked, real-world problems.” “I’ve been lucky to have plenty of opportunities to use my knowledge of the Library’s collections to be able to contribute to Marion’s process,” says James, “either by solving tricky discovery problems to get particular sources to Marion, or by suggesting resources that save time by providing efficient ways of identifying the most relevant information.” 

Leary likewise finds such collaboration rewarding and sees libraries as the vanguard of innovation. “I love how libraries have been able to adapt and change with the times,” she says. In order to serve broader communities of patrons, for example, many libraries now loan materials other than books, including tools, clothing, and cooking utensils. As an example, Leary points to the Biomedical Library’s recent partnership with Penn-Health Tech to curate the Medical Device Shared Shelf Collection. This service bequeaths innovators expired medical equipment for disassembly and examination in the development of new inventions. “The Medical Device Shared Shelf Collection is exactly what I mean about libraries being willing to adapt and partner on new projects,” says Leary.

Leary also lauds the staff of the Materials Library housed in the Fisher Fine Arts Library for their strategic acquisitions of hospital materials, which consequently facilitate healthcare innovation. One of Leary’s recent projects was inspired by the electricity-conductive paint in the Materials Library’s collection. She teamed up with the Biomedical Library’s Innovation Intern, James Bigbee, to conceptualize and design an interactive art installation that would illustrate the protocol for bystander intervention in the event of cardiac arrest. “Though we worked on it for a while, we never got it to function correctly. This happens in innovation; it’s one of the hazards of working with cutting-edge technology,” says Leary. Bigbee ultimately wound up creating a computer-generated animation of the idea.

Bystander intervention is, in fact, the focus of Leary’s research for her doctorate. She’s especially interested in the use of virtual and augmented realities in training laypeople how to respond in medical emergencies. Though the national bystander response rate is low — around 40% — Philadelphia’s bystander response rate is markedly lower, at 16%. “It’s a lot to ask someone to intervene during cardiac arrest or an opioid overdose,” explains Leary. “And the training that you receive in a classroom setting is nothing like what you encounter in the real world.” By contrast, VR simulations incorporate the emotional and psychological elements of a medical emergency, allowing VR participants to practice staying focused under fire. Leary points out that the military has been using such technology for years to prepare personnel for the high-stress, high-intensity situations in which they might find themselves on the ground. “I’d like to explore the use of these technologies for other time-sensitive emergencies that lay responders might encounter,” says Leary.

Toward that end, Leary consulted with Barbara Cavanaugh, Director of Penn’s Biomedical Library, about outfitting two unused rooms in the recently-reopened Stemmler Hall side of the Biomedical Library. One of the rooms will be dedicated to design-thinking, the other to VR technology. Leary notes that the Biomedical Library is the ideal home for these innovative spaces because the Library already works with disciplines all across Penn’s campus, and, as noted, innovation is inherently interdisciplinary. “Even healthcare innovation isn’t specific to one discipline,” says Leary. To wit: for another one of her recent projects, Leary collaborated with both an engineering and a nursing student to design a 3D-printed anatomical heart which was printed at the Biomedical Library, connected to a mannequin, and then rigged with red LED lights that lit up when users performed chest compressions. The team brought it to the Philadelphia Science Festival for kids to play with.

Sharing her innovative work at Penn with the greater Philadelphia community is a high priority for Leary. “Innovation isn’t just about research,” she says. “Innovation is about how we communicate with each other, how we communicate with our patients and their families, and how we communicate the work that we’re doing to our community. And partnerships are key to getting information out to the public.” Indeed, Leary recently helped organize a nursing story slam through the Philadelphia nonprofit First Person Arts, which was collaboratively funded through a grant from the University of Pennsylvania’s Sachs Program for Arts Innovation and by both Penn Nursing and Penn Medicine. Cavanaugh notes that microphone-shaped trophies were, fittingly, 3-D printed by the Biomedical Library. “Marion is a terrific example of how libraries can partner with faculty to foster and enable innovation here at Penn,” says Cavanaugh.

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