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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Reprogramming your bad habit

Moushumi Sharmin is an assistant computer science professor at Western Monday, April 3. // Photo by Jonathan Pendleton

In the United States, one in five deaths are related to the smoking of cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those currently smoking may desire an effective way to quit. Western assistant professor Moushumi Sharmin said she hopes to assist people in quitting the habit with the creation of her app, MyQuitPal.

“I have been working with health data and physiological data for some time now,” Sharmin said. “I started working in 2013, and I was looking at stress, and how we can manage it. We all are stressed, all the time, right?”

The computer science professor has been working on developing a prototype of the app since 2016 with some of her students.

“It is kind of interesting how people stop smoking and then start smoking and stop again. They go through these cycles. We’re trying to see what actually causes the lapses.”

Zellie Macabata

The app would incorporate sensor technology, either in the form of a wristband—reminiscent of a Fitbit—or as a chest band.

“We know these are lifelong problems, and we cannot ask people to wear research devices all the time, so we are looking into Fitbit and other lightweight options,” Sharmin said.

The devices would measure respiration and heart rate, indicators of stress, and it would also determine a person’s location. If the user is near a spot where they have smoked before, the app will recommend an alternate route, Sharmin said.

“Whenever you feel the strong urge of smoking, we will detect that in real time and provide some kind of intervention,” Sharmin said. “Subtle distractions can help them to pass through that strong urge, that moment of vulnerability.”

These distractions may include a phone call to a close family member or friend, Sharmin said.

Sharmin considers the app a cost-effective way to manage and reduce stress without the help of physicians, because it addresses behavioral problems.

“Now we have the technology available to help people manage their own problems—at least people who are not critically ill,” Sharmin said.

Senior Theodore Weber, one of Sharmin’s students, meets with her each week to discuss research regarding the app.

“Originally, I was very interested in smoking prevention and addiction,” Weber said. “It’s still a pretty serious problem, even at a personal level.”

He said the encouragement will be different for every user of the app.

“Some people wouldn’t be as adept to certain intervention techniques versus others. Some people might need more aggressive intervention, some people might be turned off by that,” Weber said.

Sharmin realizes there won’t be one versatile solution.

“We don’t think there will be one technique or one intervention that will work on everyone. But we can still create a set of interventions that may help different types of people in their own situation,” Sharmin said.

On a Friday afternoon in a room on the top floor of the Communications Facility, Sharmin meets with a group of her students whose involvement with the app’s creation has helped it become closer to a reality.

Seniors Zellie Macabata and Blen Desta, two of Sharmin’s students, are currently responsible for the web application of the project.

“I got involved because I’m doing [my] senior project for the computer science department,” Macabata said.

She is currently on her second quarter of the senior project, a three-quarter series.

Like Macabata, Desta also chose the research option for her computer science senior project.

“I think it’s really interesting because it’s programming to help people,” Desta said. “The project is meant to help people quit smoking.”

Desta said the two are starting studies this quarter on people with the app to test its effectiveness. She said people who use other methods, such as the patch, may still be unsuccessful in giving up nicotine entirely.

“It is kind of interesting how people stop smoking and then start smoking and stop again. They go through these cycles,” Macabata said. “We’re trying to see what actually causes the lapses.”

Sharmin said her father struggled to quit smoking.

“If something bad happened, something stressful in work or on a personal level, he would start again. So it was kind of this idea that people want to do it, but they cannot,” she said.

Her goal is to provide a convenient way to help with quitting.

“That means, people need help. Help that does not require them to drastically change their lifestyle, or spend lots and lots of money, because that won’t be feasible for many people,” Sharmin said.

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