Few would expect to walk into a physics lab and be welcomed by notes of basil and mint. 

Far from just pleasing the nose, they are hints of what physicist-inventor Ran Yang and the MindBot student team have put on the table: a semi-autonomous countertop greenhouse expressly designed for those living with dementia.

Mentored by Yang, a teaching professor of physics, the team includes three engineering physics and applied design (EPAD) majors – Anna McNally ’24, Emily Morris ’24 and Trinny Xu ’27 – as well as a neuroscience major, Emma Stiller ’24. 

 “Whenever I’m developing something with students, I’m always thinking, ‘Are we solving a problem, what’s the solution and who cares about the solution?’”  

said Yang.

A few members of the Williamsburg Landing senior living community did care, for a start, and collaborated with the MindBot team throughout the project’s development. For instance, Activities Manager Kelly McGregor was initially interviewed as a potential user, providing suggestions that helped inform design; the team also gathered feedback based on their own observations. Recently, the team presented their work at a “Let’s Talk Science” event hosted by the Williamsburg Landing community as part of a series aiming to keep residents current with developments in science and research.

Williamsburg Landing resident Leslie Bowie, a longtime volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Association and board member of the Virginia Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Commission, expressed her appreciation for the project, which she defined as a “great intersection of town and gown.”

MindBot, explained Yang, is not just another greenhouse-product type, but aims to innovate memory care treatment strategies and support care of patients with dementia. It offers a scalable and mobile solution allowing outdoor-like activities for every season, with the aim to improve cognition and quality of life for people living in memory care facilities.

“We always try to make something people want, not just for the sake of making something novel,” she said. This is reflective of the EPAD curriculum track’s objective to produce “engineering-minded” physicists focusing on real-life problems.

“I think there are definitely a lot more opportunities for this program to grow,” she added,  mentioning the physics department’s inclusion in William & Mary’s proposed school in computing, data science and physics.

A neuroscience-backed design

Neurodegenerative diseases have been on Yang’s radar for some time, given her interest in technology-assisted healthcare solutions – such as her ongoing work on an AI-enhanced laryngoscope – and her resulting interactions with the National Institute on Aging.

According to the World Health Organization, dementia – an umbrella term for several diseases – affects over 55 million people worldwide, with profound physical, psychological and social impacts. 

The WHO recommends that people with dementia partake in activities that stimulate the brain and maintain daily function; however, the project team argues, the activities currently offered by the memory care industry can often be unengaging.

That’s why MindBot targets the mind. The prototype comes with activity cards designed to engage cortical areas of the brain used for cognition and memory: for example, scent bags, based on studies looking into olfactory stimulation in dementia care; or bouquet-making, which aims to improve visual-spatial memory.  

MindBot also includes simple recipe cards that use greenhouse-grown herbs and produce – all of which are edible, non-toxic and selected for their antioxidant properties.

“Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is vital to maintaining proper brain function,” said Stiller, citing research that investigates interactions between the gut microbiome and Alzheimer’s disease.

As for the “bot” in MindBot, it means “robot.” The system self-regulates lighting and watering thanks to sensors detecting light exposure and soil humidity. It also stands for “botany,” in a nod to horticultural therapy.

The final product came after different iterations. “We tried different designs, found and solved issues and tried different materials,” said Morris. 

The framing is made of PVC pipe, a material chosen for its affordability but also for its weight, allowing for a stable yet light structure that can easily be picked up.  

A funnel, equipped with a filter to avoid dirt clogging up the system, helps recycle the water until a top-up is eventually needed. 

MindBot was designed with the safety of participants in mind. Following McGregor’s suggestion, a latch was added as a safety element, making it easy to put away the structure and deter access when not in use.

McGregor, said Stiller, also advised the team to adapt MindBot to people living with different stages of neurodegeneration and Alzheimer’s Disease – which made them focus on limiting additional tasks for both the users and the caregivers, designing a product that requires minimal maintenance.

“The idea is that it has to be an activity rather than like a chore,” said McNally.

Working on MindBot also allowed team members to express artistic inclinations, as it incorporates visually pleasing aspects designed to further stimulate cognitive engagement.

Close mentoring and interdisciplinary collaboration

There is also a third meaning to “bot”: It indicates the Botetourt Complex where the three seniors in the MindBot team lived during their first year. 

MindBot, designed as part of their final capstone project, represents their legacy to William & Mary as graduation approaches. It will be available for Xu and future students to further improve and build on.

The MindBot team in the Yang Lab. From left to right: Professor Ran Yang, Emma Stiller '24, Emily Morris '24 (sitting), Anna McNally '24, Trinny Xu '27.
The MindBot team. From left to right: Professor Ran Yang, Emma Stiller ’24, Emily Morris ’24 (sitting), Anna McNally ’24, Trinny Xu ’27. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas.)

Yang lauded the group capstone requirement for the EPAD program, which gives seniors the opportunity to work as professionals in an engineering design team that is often interdisciplinary, applying their skills to actual projects from concept through prototype to business planning.

“It works very well,” she said. “When things work out, the reward is really large; when they don’t, you work with each other to solve the problem.”

“I feel a lot of times in education, we lack the team aspect,” echoed Stiller, who also appreciated working with the community and consulting with professors from different departments.

McNally defined the project “inspiring” and enjoyed the hands-on experience of designing and fixing errors with the team. Xu, too, appreciated the teamwork element and the project-based learning aspect.

“I’ve learned that if one plan goes wrong, there is another way to do it,” said Morris.

The MindBot experience was rewarding for Yang too. She had led many collaborations between physicists and computer scientists, but this neuroscience spin was a first for her.

“I think that’s the spirit,” she said. “How we can put a different sense into a project is a lesson that we can all learn for the future.”

, Senior Research Writer