Addressing brain injuries
George Makarenko had the foresight to recognize his career as a program manager for Microsoft Corp. might call for stronger skills in software development.
“Over the three years I was in the MSE program, I grew technically on my job at Microsoft and that was important for me,” he says.
A Russian native from near Moscow, Makarenko first came to the U.S. in the mid-’90s as a high school foreign exchange student and landed in Castle Rock, Wash. He later attended Lower Columbia College in Longview before he enrolled at Washington State University in Pullman, where he majored in the management of information systems and international business as an undergraduate and in finance for his MBA.
He says Seattle University offered the best option for a graduate degree program in software engineering. “This program was specifically what I wanted—a combination of computer science, software engineering and project management. With its evening classes, SU’s MSE program is tailored to people who are working for companies like Microsoft and Boeing.”
As he reflects on his studies at SU, Makarenko says his greatest challenge was his capstone project, which gave him an opportunity to make a difference for those with traumatic brain injuries.
He and two other students were involved in development, testing and architecture for a community service project submitted by Kathy Moeller, who sustained a brain injury in 1990. This founder of Cognitive Harmonics Inc. in Jacksonville, Ore., was moved by her personal experience to explore ways for those with brain injuries to transition from medical and rehabilitation environments back to daily life. In 1993, she created a paper-based system called the BRAINBOOK®, a life management system to assist with mild to severe short-term memory impairment.
“Kathy enables people not only to be more independent but also to go back to work and recover with much less supervision. This project had several elements—creativity, contribution to a community and flexibility—and that’s why we picked it. It wasn’t something defined and simple,” Makarenko says of the Cognitive Bionics project. “And it turned out to be the pinnacle with challenges we never had to face before.”
While they weren’t able to build all that Moeller hoped for in an academic year, Makarenko and his fellow students did create the architecture and design for a platform and built documentation for the features she wanted.
“The students were brilliant and wonderful to work with. They really imagined what it would be like to live with a brain injury,” Moeller says.
The system the students created was based on Moeller’s extensive research, yet they had to think through the needs of the brain injured and those professionals who treat them. They had to explore ways to alert professionals when someone with a brain injury should be prompted to take medication. They also had to develop cues for the brain injured about everything from brushing their teeth to knowing who they are.
“Dealing with a real-life problem and contributing something meaningful was especially worthwhile,” says Makarenko. “I had to rebuild one of my home computers to be the server for our project. That was part of the fun.”