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Recipient of the RSA Edward Boyle Prize Safiyyah Yacoobali explains her award-winning project examining whether virtual reality technologies can help calm the anxieties of dental patients − and explores what directions her RSA Fellowship might take her in next.

An annual tradition of the RSA Edward Boyle Prize is to seek out one exceptional student from The University of Leeds that can best demonstrate development in personal skills. As a Leeds Undergraduate Research & Leadership Scholar, I was eligible to apply for this prestigious prize and was successful in securing an interview. Despite my initial reservations about the interview, I left feeling empowered. There was nothing more refreshing than being in a room full of female leaders, all well accomplished and supporting the next generation.

The research project I was involved in explored the potential effects of immersive virtual reality on pain perception. Ideally, the long term aim includes informing the clinical management of chronic pain patients, specifically in musculoskeletal related cases. The study comprised of carrying out an experiment using a pressure pain simulator. The participants were asked to use the virtual reality headset whilst rating their pain. Whilst the results are not yet conclusive, we hope to have a paper published very soon.

The fusion of virtual reality technology and dentistry may appear irrelevant; however, the forever changing face of medicine inspired me to explore how it could be used in the management of anxious dental patients. I decided to conduct a systematic review, collaborating the small amount of existing research focusing on altering a dental patient’s perception of pain, or simply improving their overall experience, using virtual reality. We hope the published results of this systematic review will allow us to challenge traditional pain and anxiety management techniques in dental practices.

What did the research project teach me, and what will I do next?

Fundamentally, this project has helped me to develop a global mind-set. I now understand that sometimes we are our greatest critics, and that embracing our uniqueness in a prescriptive society can help us champion progression. Other aspects that have assisted have included the practice of mindfulness during yoga and seeking deeper inspiration from a personal favourite, Mevlana Rumi: “The garden of the world has no limits, except in your mind.”

As an RSA newbie, I am just beginning to discover the plethora of opportunities at my feet. One of my primary interests is mental health: a silent killer that overshadows our society. In the UK, female suicide rates are at their highest and male suicide rates are three times higher than those of women (Samaritans, 2015). Despite these shocking statistics, there is a national shortage in funding and resources. My ideas for future projects include building ‘retreats’ within cities to serve as sanctuaries for vulnerable people. In doing so, I hope to enrich society while embodying the fundamental values of The RSA.

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