Curious by Design

Donors make it possible for undergraduate students like Mackenzie Martin to pursue original research

Sarah Pratt - 18 April 2019

Mackenzie Martin

For Mackenzie Martin, '18 BEd, '18 BSc, the cutting edge of research was literally a cutting edge.

Sitting with residents of the De Hogeweyk dementia village, in the Netherlands, Martin watched in shock as a nurse handed one of them a knife. It was the summer of 2016, and Martin was on a five-day research trip where she observed this cluster of houses specially designed to provide care and quality of life to its dementia-suffering residents. Coming from North America, Martin was accustomed to strict risk aversion as a rule when caring for people with dementia. But when the nurse then handed the resident a pot of water and a bucket of potatoes, her shock turned to pleasant surprise. Without hesitation, the resident picked up a potato and started peeling. This is how life in this Dutch village works.

Martin's experiences taught her that research didn't have to be a dry, isolating experience, but rather something interactive and personal - an inherently human practice.

"At De Hogeweyk, knives and cleaning products and things like that are left to create a normal living environment," says Martin. "It's the familiarity that is important to people with dementia. It was so wonderful and so totally normal."

About halfway through her combined bachelor of science in human ecology/bachelor of education program, Martin took an independent study course on dementia and design with Megan Strickfaden, an associate professor in the Department of Human Ecology. Martin was inspired by Strickfaden's passion and research, and she was soon hooked.

Her independent study had ended, but Martin still had questions. In her studies she learned about villages that had been designed specifically for the therapeutic benefit of people with dementia. How did these villages operate? How did the residents interact with each other? How did they interact with everyday objects -- including objects that could be harmful? Martin wondered: could objects that were potential physical hazards actually benefit the residents?

Eager to find answers, Martin turned to the University of Alberta's Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI). Made possible because of donor generosity, URI helps students overcome constraints of time, money, confidence, or access to meaningful research opportunities. Through URI, students put their classroom learning into practice. Students learn how to make connections and discoveries, learn how to ask tough questions, manage a project, deal with setbacks, and communicate complex concepts to a general audience. Based on Strickfaden's recommendation, Martin applied for, and received, a research stipend from URI. The money allowed her to spend five days at De Hogeweyk - where Strickfaden has conducted research - to study how its material environment impacts the dementia residents' quality of life.

She arrived in the Netherlands with her notebook and pen, ready to observe and record what she saw. But she quickly found herself spending as much time as possible interacting with the residents. Some would hold her hand, others would stroke her hair or repeatedly take her on the same tour of the village. Her experiences taught her that research didn't have to be a dry, isolating experience, but rather something interactive and personal - an inherently human practice.
In 2016, there were an estimated 564,000 Canadians with dementia, and that number is expected to balloon to 937,000 by 2031, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada. Martin wants her research to have far-reaching effects for people with dementia.

Martin's research at De Hogeweyk revealed that the design and layout of the Dutch village had a positive impact on the quality of life of the dementia residents who lived there. In particular she discovered that the certain physical hazards in their environment, such as a knife for peeling potatoes, actually bring comfort to the residents because of their familiarity with the object. Her findings could be valuable to policy makers in Canada, where dementia patients are typically kept away from physical hazards.

"I hope this research fills a gap in the area of design as therapy," Martin says. "I believe the results shed light on potential solutions to issues that are relevant to residents, families, caregivers and policy makers who make decisions for people with dementia living in Canada."

Martin is a Rhodes scholar who began graduate studies at Oxford University in England last fall. She plans to expand on her URI research, investigating ways to promote people's quality of life from teenagers to the elderly. She credits URI as the opportunity that helped direct the course of her life.

"My URI research opportunity was three things: life-changing; empowering; and enlightening," says Martin. "The initiative is an example of the many things the U of A does to support students. I had fabulous mentors and exciting findings - it was an impactful experience."