Student stories

Biomedical engineering student volunteers with UVic's CanAssist

Rishi Vasandani

CanAssist, University of Victoria

For Rishi Vasandani, a third-year student in UVic’s brand-new biomedical engineering program, some of his richest learning experiences come from connecting classroom to community. In the fall of 2010, Rishi approached UVic organization CanAssist about applying his engineering skills as a volunteer. “I enjoy working with people and I enjoy engineering, so volunteering gave me the best of both worlds,” he says. “I wanted to make a difference in the community and found that this was the easiest way to do it.”

CanAssist, located on the UVic campus, is dedicated to developing customized technologies to help people with disabilities increase their independence and quality of life. During his volunteer time at CanAssist, Rishi worked closely with a woman named Nairne as she practiced using a tool that enables her to control a computer. Nairne, who has cerebral palsy, has difficulty using a standard keyboard. The tool, called the “Dynamic Keyboard,” lets people with dexterity limitations operate a keyboard using a variety of input devices. The program displays predicted characters and words in one of six large boxes on a computer screen. When Nairne makes a selection, the characters or words inside that box redistribute themselves among all of the boxes until she narrows the choice to one. The program also tracks Nairne’s word choice and typing patterns to predict what she is typing, which helps her create the right words more quickly.

Spending time with Nairne had a profound effect on Rishi. “I felt like my work really mattered when Nairne told me how much she appreciated the time and effort I had put into helping her,” he says.

Rishi is excited to pursue a career in the biomedical industry, and feels that the valuable experience he gained at CanAssist broadened his knowledge of how engineering solutions come into play in the real world. “I hope to work in a place where engineering goes hand-in-hand with helping people and solving problems to increase quality of life—just like CanAssist does,” he says. He strongly believes that volunteering is the best way for students to gain experience. “Volunteering helps you to establish a record of reliability and gain credibility and respect within your local community,” he says. “Contributing even a little each week makes a world of difference.”

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