“Virtual reality has long been a dream. Finally, it is a reality,” says Greg Welch, AdventHealth Endowed Chair in Healthcare Simulation at UCF’s College of Nursing
Welch is not a nurse, he is a computer scientist and engineer. So why is he in the College of Nursing? Dean Mary Lou Sole has called his appointment an “experiment.”
“He was our first faculty to be a non-nurse,” Sole says. “What would a computer scientist bring to us? He brought us his computer science knowledge to help us address clinical questions related to healthcare.”
One of those needs was how students practice on patients. It’s important for students, whether they are studying to become nurses or physicians, to learn how to interact with patients, and to diagnose things such as a stroke. Welch and his team developed the very first physical-virtual patient.
“It looks a little bit like a department-store mannequin, but it has dynamic imagery of the patient on it,” Welch says. “The patient will look at the provider, talk and exhibit various emotions. The provider can diagnose the simulated patient much like a real patient by taking their pulse, checking their forehead for an elevated temperature, pulling down on an eyelid, or palpating the abdomen. It’s something really exciting that could be readily manufactured by a company from readily available components. The technology isn’t highly complex — it’s the idea and the combination of things that have a powerful effect.”
Welch is also co-director of the UCF Synthetic Reality Laboratory — and holds faculty appointments in the Department of Computer Science and UCF Institute for Simulation and Training. The past couple of years have been exceptionally accomplished for him. In 2020, he was named a Pegasus Professor, the highest honor bestowed to faculty at UCF.
Holding 22 patents, he was recently inducted into the National Academy of Inventors and honored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Welch is also working on a new $5 million U.S. National Science Foundation project to facilitate human subjects research to improve extended reality technologies for the general population. This work will help make these technologies more inclusive to groups such as older adults or people with disabilities.
Seemingly distant from his current work, Welch started out his career in the music field as an audio engineer in Brooklyn. When he realized he wasn’t happy, he quit and wound up with a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on the Voyager project.
“My mother was a mathematician and a computer programmer in the 1960s at the Argonne National Laboratory,” he says. “I always admired her analytical thinking and perseverance. My father was a professional musician who studied with Aaron Copland, and both managed and played in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was very gregarious — I saw how he interacted with people and how they would light up. My parents have shaped me in so many ways.”
Welch brings his love of big ideas and his down-to-earth personality into the laboratory and the classroom. Sole describes Welch as the Energizer Bunny, constantly seeking new ideas and finding ways to achieve them.
“I hope my students leave UCF with the excitement to carry out research, and the skills to investigate and communicate,” Welch says. “Professors are fortunate in that we have full-time jobs that allow us to think broadly and deeply about a variety of societal challenges. I do not take this for granted — like many I work very hard to make the best use of this privilege.”