Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2001
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Grad's work a sign of success
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Move-in day

Nikki Kissane Grad's work a sign of success

By Ida Lee Wootten

Nikki Kissane, who earned a psychology degree from U.Va. in May, donned a physician’s white coat and solemnly recited the Hippocratic oath as she started the Medical College of Virginia this month. Although determined to be a surgeon, Kissane has already helped thousands of people through an undergraduate project that has gained widespread recognition.

Working with U.Va. psychology professor John Bonvillian, Kissane developed a 500-word lexicon in a simplified sign system designed to facilitate communication with stroke victims, children with autism or mental retardation and people with cerebral palsy. In April, she posted drawings of the signs that can be easily understood and replicated on a Web site, After her work was featured in Inside U.Va. and a University press release, word about the project started spreading in the media and on the Internet. The Washington Post ran an article with color photo. NBC’s “Today Show” aired a lengthy segment on the project; Paul Harvey’s radio show described it, and articles were distributed nationally by the Associated Press and the Catholic News Service. The “Today Show” segment continues to run as part of a news package on United Airlines cross-country flights. Bonvillian had the unusual experience of seeing himself on the screen last week while flying from Montana.

Kissane has been chosen a “Cosmo Girl of the Year”; a feature describing her work will appear in the December/January issue of CosmoGIRL! magazine. She flew to New York City for a photo shoot for the article and will return for a November ceremony. Exceptional Parent magazine ran an article on the project in July; Good Housekeeping is expected to run one in December, and other national magazines have contacted Kissane for possible stories. Her work will be included in the forthcoming “Exceptional Learners” textbook co-authored by U.Va. education professors Daniel Hallahan and James Kauffman.

As a result of such attention, the simplified signs Web site has received about 50,000 visits. Kissane’s e-mail address and the U.Va. psychology and news offices continue to receive dozens of requests for information. Some inquiries about supporting the project have also been received.

“I’m really encouraged by the response to the project,” said Kissane, who is surprised that the project has also been recognized at MCV. The school gave Kissane the Aesculapian Award from MCV Hospitals and Physicians, which will cover a good portion of her tuition. School representatives have also offered meetings with physicians who can advance her work by providing a medical understanding of child neurology and autism.

Kissane, Bonvillian and Filip Loncke, a psycholinguist affiliated with U.Va.’s psychology department, spent considerable time this summer refining the simplified signs project. For a forthcoming sign dictionary the three wrote detailed descriptions of how the signs are formed. The descriptions will allow users to execute signs without seeing the pictures. They also created memory aids, or cues, for each sign. Kissane developed a table showing the signs and their definitions, which Bonvillian and Loncke will incorporate into a teaching manual that likely will be used in pilot studies soon. Kissane also redrew about 100 signs and removed some that had overlapping meanings.

“Both the drawings and the descriptions in the lexicon are clearer. That helps both visual learners and text readers,” Kissane said, who has her thesis.


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