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R.I. Foundation awards two innovation fellowships

The projects aim to eradicate Hepatitis C and bring design tools and programs to students

Lynn Taylor, assistant professor of medicine at Alpert Medical School and attending physician at Miriam Hospital, and Adrienne Gagnon, executive director and co-founder of Downcity Design, were each awarded a three-year Rhode Island Innovation Fellowship to fund their efforts to devise a creative solution to a specific problem in the state.

The fellowship, awarded by the Rhode Island Foundation, provides each fellow with $100,000 per year for three years to work on their respective projects.

“The mission and the vision that started this was to encourage and to elicit ideas from Rhode Islanders who would come up with innovative ideas to meet Rhode Island challenges,” said Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.

The two recipients of the fellowship were selected from a pool of 180 applicants for “their passion and commitment,” Steinberg said. The project was started a year ago as the brainchild of philanthropists John and Letitia Carter. There is no education requirement for the fellowship and students are encouraged to apply, Steinberg said.


Confronting Hepatitis C 

Gagnon’s project aims to bring design programs and tools to students, while Taylor’s project seeks to eradicate Hepatitis C infections in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island is on the verge of an “enormous silent epidemic” of Hepatitis C because the disease is symptomless in its early stages, and people who were infected in the 1960s and 1970s will begin to experience severe health problems now, Taylor said. About one in 30 baby boomers have Hepatitis C, she added. With revolutionary drugs coming onto the market, it doesn’t make sense to ignore a solvable problem, she said.

Taylor’s project will take advantage of Rhode Island’s art community by raising awareness through an art campaign, which will include a poster competition judged by Shepard Fairey, a jewelry sale and a Hepatitis C WaterFire event in July 2014, she said. She said she would also like to stage a guerilla arts campaign like one in New York, where giant letter C sculptures were distributed throughout the city. Taylor added that she hopes the campaign will help destigmatize the disease.

The project also aims to increase the reach of Hepatitis C testing in the state by taking it out of the doctor’s office and bringing it to at-risk individuals. Because of new advances, a test can be performed with a simple finger prick and results determined in 20 minutes, she said.

Taylor said she hopes to achieve a “coordinated response” by engaging the state’s medical community. The state’s small size and collaborative healthcare community make Rhode Island a perfect test case for this project, she said.

Finally, Taylor will work with Brown analysts to evaluate the success and financial feasibility of the project, she said.

“I was so surprised and so grateful” to be awarded the fellowship, Taylor said. “Once it sunk in, I rolled up my sleeves and jumped right in to get to work.”


Dialogue by design

Gagnon’s project is intended to involve children and teenagers in efforts to improve their communities by teaching them about “design thinking,” which Gagnon defines as a problem-solving approach that encourages “21st century skills.” The approach includes defining and researching a problem, brainstorming possible solutions and collaborating with other people, she said.

Gagnon’s project will implement free after-school design programs in disadvantaged schools across Rhode Island, focusing on Providence, Central Falls and Woonsocket, she said. Gagnon is also developing “mobile design labs” — oversized shipping containers outfitted with work tables, tool storage and supplies for design projects. These labs can be placed in any location and will serve as “hubs” for students working on projects, she added.

Gagnon said she anticipates that students will work on a combination of physical, graphic design and other projects, including building community gardens and bus shelters, creating awareness campaigns and crafting products.

After setting up the initial after-school programs, Gagnon said she will build a website with tools for educators to help spread the design curriculum.

The project is ideal for Rhode Island because of the state’s history with manufacturing and textiles along with its large creative community, she said.

Upon hearing she had been awarded a fellowship, Gagnon said, “I was speechless, which is rare for me.”


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