Featured Researcher: Dick Myrick

Featured Researcher: Dick Myrick

Like many at MIT, featured AgeLab researcher Dick Myrick is an engineer by training. But the path he took to his current role was decidely unusual, involving moves across continents, across disciplines, and even across the table from study participant to research scientist.

Today, Myrick, 65, not only conducts scientific investigations but also serves as a patient advocate, project manager, public speaker, and industry liaison. An engineer at heart, he applies his expertise and personal experience to designing practical solutions to many of the challenges associated with aging.

A career ago, after graduating from MIT with a degree in electrical engineering, Myrick worked as a project manager for Hewlett-Packard and several offshoot companies that manufactured medical electronics. He got married, had two kids, and even lived with his family in Japan for a few years.

Throughout, he sustained a lifelong love affair with technology. It began at age six, when Myrick’s father, also an engineer, took him to the phone company where he worked. At that time, phones functioned by traditional dial relay, facilitated by phone centers in each town. It was at one of these phone centers that Myrick’s father showed his young son the incredibly complex set of electromechanical devices that connected incoming and outgoing calls. Remembering it now, Myrick becomes almost effusive. “It was the most amazing thing ever,” he recalls. “I couldn’t imagine how anyone could have conceived it. From that moment on I knew I wanted to become an engineer. Of course, I was good at math, so that helped.” This fascination with applied science propelled him into his first career. Years later it would propel him again—out of retirement.

Myrick had retired at 60, and soon found himself with extra time on his hands. One day, while casually perusing the website of his alma mater, he clicked on a link that led him to the MIT AgeLab’s webpage. The AgeLab was looking for participants in one of its driving studies and, intrigued, Myrick decided to volunteer. Hooked up to the AgeLab’s AwareCar, Myrick drove around the streets of Boston for hours as a laptop and a backseat researcher recorded his reactions. Soon, Myrick was offering to volunteer his time and expertise at the AgeLab. It was under these circumstances that Myrick met AgeLab director and founder Dr. Joe Dr. Coughlin, and the rest, as they say, is history. Dr. Coughlin recognized the skill set and industry connections that Myrick could provide, and brought him onboard—initially as a community representative who could speak to senior centers and other organizations on possible technological solutions to the challenges faced by older adults. A personable and engaging speaker with a knack for explaining science, Myrick rose to the occasion.

Now, as a part-time research fellow, Myrick is kept busy by a dynamic roster of projects. In the recent past, Myrick and the AgeLab have worked jointly with major Japanese communications firm NTT to build eHome, a medicine-monitoring interface that tracks medication usage and also facilitates electronic communication between older adults and their adult children. Myrick has also been involved with a research team that has customized video games on the Xbox 360 and Kinect to help older adults exercise, providing a new, tech-enabled and fun way to increase well-being and fitness.

Some of Myrick’s work simply involves taking a closer, more nuanced view of what others have overlooked. As research into aging grows more complex and sometimes academic, he tells me it is important to remember that sometimes the most important issues to consider when designing solutions for older adults are the physical limitations that they can develop. In one of his first projects with the AgeLab, he was asked to vet the buildings in a Boston-area housing community intended for adults 55 or older. When he visited the homes, he quickly discovered major flaws: the houses weren’t designed for wheelchairs, there were no grab-bars in bathrooms to prevent someone from slipping and falling, and the community itself was located far away from any major town or city, forcing the residents to drive themselves to the nearest urban center. He now asks himself: Is this product suited to the physical needs and limitations of an older person? Who will install this product in a consumer’s living space, and how? Does the product make the user’s life better or more convenient in any way? Most importantly, does the user like the product—do they find it fun or refreshing?

Now, Myrick stands at the beginning of his second career even as he works with people embarking on their first. Myrick believes that both he and his younger colleagues, many fresh out of college or grad school, absorb a lot from each other as friends and as professionals. He says that he’s learned to “think like a grad student”—that is, unerringly detect the presence of free food within a five mile radius. And those younger students and researchers have realized that Myrick has a lot to teach them as well. One fellow researcher and Myrick have even decided to introduce each other to new experiences by writing each other "bucket lists" of experiences to try, such as kayaking.

One thing Myrick's bucket-list colleague has never experienced is the pleasure of eating s’mores, so Myrick is now taking it upon himself to educate her. After he and I finish our interview, Myrick heads to the AgeLab’s kitchen, armed with chocolate, graham crackers, and a giant bag of marshmallows. The other researchers crowd into the small space, puzzling over the ideal cooking time for a marshmallow in a microwave. Surprisingly, many have never tried s’mores. “I know it’s not the same as a campfire,” Myrick says, handing around a freshly microwaved batch of s’mores to young colleagues. “But it’s pretty good.”

By Nandhini Sundaresan