Rural Institute project seeking volunteers with SCI for online intervention study

May 18, 2020


Social distancing during COVID-19 can leave many people feeling isolated and disconnected from their communities, which can have negative impacts on their psychological health. For those who have high-speed internet connections and devices that allow them to get online, virtual groups offer one way to stay connected.

Researchers at the Rural Institute are partnering with researchers at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston, Texas, to test ZEST, an online psychological health promotion intervention for women with spinal cord injury (SCI). ZEST is a group program held in Second Life, an online virtual world.  

Volunteers may be eligible if they: 

  • Are a woman at least 18 years of age
  • Have had a spinal cord injury
  • Have had their injury for at least 1 year
  • Have access to a computer with high speed internet
  • Are able to use a computer and communicate in online group conversations in English

A small payment is offered for participation.

Volunteers are being recruited now through August 2020.


Contact information

To learn more, contact the researchers by email or phone:

  • Email —
  • Phone — (713) 797-7572


What is the ZEST study?

In this study, researchers are testing the effectiveness of the ZEST program among women with SCI who are randomly assigned to either the ZEST program or a control group that does not receive the intervention.

ZEST is an online small group intervention program that:

  • Connects women with SCI who have similar life experiences
  • Uses an online virtual world where volunteers can learn and socialize from the safety and security of their own homes
  • Aims to increase self-confidence, stress management skills, and social connections
  • Covers topics like goal setting, relaxation practice, and overall psychological health

What is a virtual world?

A virtual world is a computer-based simulated world for people to connect online instead of in-person. ZEST uses a virtual world called “Second Life,” which is a free 3D virtual world where users can create, connect, and chat with others from around the world. Zest takes place on a private and secure island in the Second Life virtual world.


Learn more

You can also read about ZEST in these blog posts:

  • (April 2, 2020) New Mobility: “Finding my way to ZEST.”
    • Linda Norah-Davis shares her experiences as a peer facilitator with the ZEST project. She says, “In co-facilitating ZEST groups, I’ve observed an abundance of resilience and growth throughout the sessions. I’ve seen participants develop new friendships and learn skills to help maintain or establish good psychological health as a result of their participation in ZEST. The group members are supportive of one another, and their overall satisfaction with the program has been very good.”
  • (May 2, 2020) Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation: “Volunteers Needed for an Online Research Study by the Zest Research Study Team
    • From the post: “The Zest program incorporates information about psychological health, skill development, relaxation practice, goal setting, and opportunities for women with SCI to connect with one another. Group members appreciate the rich group discussions with other women with similar life experience. One past participant commented, ‘I loved being able to connect from the comfort and convenience of my own home. The fact that we were able to choose an avatar and go to Second Life was a fun bonus!’”

This study is funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).