October 8, 2019
Rory Cooper and his team at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories have developed over 100 inventions related to wheelchairs, robotics, and wearable instruments designed to improve the lives of people with disabilities and military veterans. Cooper grew up being around mechanics and machines; however, before becoming an engineer and prolific innovator, Rory became an Eagle Scout and at age 17 decided to serve his country by joining the Army.
Rory Cooper, PhD is the Founding Director and VA Senior Research Career Scientist of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, Associate Dean for Inclusion, FISA & Paralyzed Veterans of America Professor, and Distinguished Professor of the Department of Rehabilitation Science & Technology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Rory: I look at awards as really more of an opportunity to raise recognition for what people with disabilities can do and also trying to gain recognition for the field of rehabilitation.
Mike: From CTSI, this is the Products of Pittsburgh. A show about the people in Pittsburgh – innovators, scientists, community leaders – and the remarkable stories behind how they came to be and the work they’ve produced. I’m Mike Flock. On the show today, we head over to the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories in Bakery Square to meet with its founder and director, Dr. Rory Cooper.
Mike: Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories, commonly as known as HERL, has become the capital for wheelchair research and innovation thanks in part to Rory and his team, who has developed over 100 inventions related to wheelchairs, robotics, and wearable instruments designed to improve the lives of people with disabilities and military veterans. Rory’s path to Pittsburgh though began in California. Born in Los Angeles, he moved to San Luis Obispo at age 10, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Rory grew up being around mechanics and machines, which influenced his own career path as well as his brother and sister who all went on to become engineers. However, before becoming an engineer and prolific innovator, Rory became an Eagle Scout and at age 17 decided to serve his country by joining the Army.
Mike: So what did your parents do? Have kids that are all engineers going on and doing all of remarkable things?
Rory: My mother was automobile mechanic.
Mike: Your mother was an automobile mechanic? Mom, not your dad?
Rory: My mother. Yes. My grandfather had a small business called Cooper and Sons Automotive Repair and Machining and they had one of the shops. That business was in Orville, California and my parents had one of the offices in San Luis Obispo, California. My father was originally a machinist and model maker and a soldier in the Army Reserves. He went on to college to study biology and became a biology and agriculture professor at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Although, still often on the weekends work with my mother in the shop.
Mike: So when you were growing up as a kid did you also have an interest in following in your parents’ footsteps and doing some things in automobiles, machine work, or was there other interests that you had?
Rory: I'm not a car person maybe it's these are those are the opposite effect. I learned a lot about the creativity and the practical mechanical skills because of having the shop in the house, basically attached to the house. I also learned that I wanted to do something else as well and so engineering was a nice outlet. Also, through my own, the need to develop better technology because I actually went the Army first and then I went to college.
Mike: What made you decide to enlist?
Rory: So San Luis Obispo is a small town and our family didn't have a lot of money and so I was an opportunity to serve my country. I also served in the Boy Scouts and an Eagle Scout and had a lot of exposure to World War II veterans who are leading in the Boy Scouts and actually some of the Vietnam Veterans as well. Mr. Henry was a great Vietnam Veteran and Boy Scout Troop leader for us for a while. He was a big influence on my life. I had an uncle who served in the Army and several tours in Vietnam, Germany, Thailand, and Japan. So I thought it would be a great way to serve and launch my career. See what I wanted to do. I graduated from high school 17. So also a little bit of an opportunity to mature and also maybe travel. So when I enlisted I had insisted on going overseas and wound up going to Germany where I met my future wife.
Mike: While you were in Germany is when the accident occurred. How was that response for you initially? How did you handle that?
Rory: Well initially I was laying on the street and I realize that I couldn't walk and things were pretty serious. In the ambulance the driver asked me several times if I exercise a lot, did a lot of sports. They were looking at my heart rate, blood pressure, and then at one time I actually lost consciousness and even was pronounce dead at the hospital, but fortunately when the doctor came to check on me again I momentarily regained consciousness and I was immediately evacuated to a trauma clinic a few miles away by helicopter. I had a wonderful doctor who basically lived in my room with me for most of the first three weeks I was there. The left front wheel of a truck ran over my chest and so a lot of internal damage as well as a spinal cord injury and internal bleeding and so he pulled me through. I think afterwards, it was a rough adjustment but still deep down I kind of realized I had to accept it and that life would have to move on. I think it really helped me that my then girlfriend now wife Rosie still believed in me and had faith in me and that I had a lot of support from the other soldiers in my Army unit and in the chain of command all the way up to Sergeant Major Hammond and General McKnight from Fifth Signal Command who were very supportive and visited me regularly and encouraged me to make a full recovery and go on to school and not to not to let this stop me from moving forward.
Mike: In 1980, Sergeant Rory Cooper was hit by a truck while riding a bike. A spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the waist down, but he remained focused on moving forward. After completing rehab and moving back to California, Rory and a young Marine who had lost both legs in the Vietnam War started a wheelchair basketball team. And not long thereafter, Rory began competing in national races, world championships, and then the Paralympic games in 1988. In-between competitions, Rory was studying electrical engineering at Cal Poly, earning his bachelor’s degree and then master’s while working a job at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. He was becoming more aware of the challenges facing people with disabilities and ultimately decided to make a career out of solving them. In 1989, Rory earned his PhD in electrical and computer engineering with a concentration in bioengineering and then moved with his wife Rosemarie to Sacramento where he began his research career at California State University as director of the school’s human engineering lab. It didn’t take long for his work to be noticed, because after a few years, Rory had gotten recruited to join the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. And so in January of 1994, Rory, Rosemarie, and a convoy of moving trucks driven by a couple graduate students arrived at the Highland Drive VA Medical Center in Pittsburgh and unloaded their equipment into a vacant locker room and storage area until space became available. Soon, it would be transformed into one of the world’s premier rehabilitation engineering research, development, and training organizations.
Mike: Human Engineering Research Lab. What was that like, 1994, 25 years ago, what was it like in the beginning here at Pitt?
Rory: It’s called the Human Engineering Research Laboratories. Plural like Bell Laboratories because that was the dream I had. It actually started as a graduate student. I noticed that because I had worked in the industry and I'd been in the Army that the labs were very siloed they were all very faculty focused and there was each faculty member had a lab and they had a couple of graduate students and there wasn't as much interaction and really the interaction appeared through graduate students who had been taking classes together as a cohort yet doing the research independently and I thought if I get the opportunity I'd like to create a lab where people share resources and graduate students work on various projects in and not only get the depth of education but also get broader exposure to different philosophies and disciplines and also to increase the diversity not only academic diversity so professional diversity but get more women and people from different countries and color and people with disabilities engaged in science and engineering. And so the Laboratories was kind of that idea that can we be like a Bell Labs or IBM Labs or something like that. It was a pretty bold idea when you think it was really just me and two graduate students David Van Sickle and Steve Albright and my wife Rosemarie who had graduated from California State University of Sacramento on a business degree and actually was part of our original research team and then Michael Bollinger had been recruited to Pitt about the same time. And I think we just had the right people together. David is now a neurosurgeon and bioengineer in Colorado and Steve Albright married a local woman and works for Phillips here in the Pittsburgh area. Of course, Michael and I oddly enough are still both it at Pitt and I think we just had that right core and were able to build upon that.
Mike - So very collaborative it sounds even from the beginning and intentionally collaborative.
Rory: It’s intentionally collaborative. One of my thoughts was the field of Rehabilitation when best practiced is practiced as multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary teams all of them focusing on meeting the individuals needs with the individual actually hopefully driving the process or at least being educated to drive the process as they transition through their recovery. In addition, engineering has done this as teamwork, in the military it's all about teamwork. I thought that was actually missing from the research.
Mike: And even in the building you’re at today and on different floors you have Google on one floor you have HERL on one floor you have UPMC Enterprise on another floor. So it's diverse even the building you're at in the space at Bakery Square. Integrating industry, academia, and healthcare. Has that impacted any of the work that you're doing here?
Rory: Well certainly. So let me tell you a funny story. We’re the first tenants in a Bakery Square. Greg Pearlman and Todd Reidborg who are the two of the principals at Walnut Capital that created Bakery Square are Pitt alums. They had Mark Nordenberg as a professor and he had of course become the Chancellor and they had put a white paper together to acquire this old Nabisco cookie factory where Bakery Square exists today. At the time we had the ERC and the VA Center in a couple of other centers as well and we're looking for space. We were originally housed in the VA up in Highland Drive and it was being slated to be closed and has subsequently has been closed and even been used as a set for a Netflix horror series. So he passed that proposal on to me and asked me to meet with them so we did a tour. They actually had to get an electrician to get the freight elevator where my office is now located in the old freight elevator in Bakery Square and so I could view the space. I saw the promise in the idea and the changing demographics of Oakland to Shadyside coming out to this area. Basically this Corridor along Fifth Avenue. The original proposal was to set up a series of incubators so small business incubators and startups, which they've done in spaces across the street Bakery Square 2.0. I advised them to look at setting up as a research park because one, self-servingly we were looking for space and this look like it had potential. I knew that Google was located on Carnegie Mellon’s campus was looking to expand and would be looking for space near campus but there wasn't adequate space on campus. Intel at that time was also looking for space but unfortunately they wound up moving to Oregon. Carnegie Mellon was going to be looking for space and then I've been collaborating with UPMC as well and that they would eventually grow out of the space that they were looking for as well for their Enterprise Institute. As our space was renovated and built out then of course they used us to show the space off in the potential off to Google and to UPMC and eventually to Carnegie Mellon. So interestingly enough it now has Pitt, VA, UPMC, Carnegie Mellon, Google in this space and when the new building is finished we’ll have Philips research here as well. I think it's been very successful for two Pitt alums for the region who comes through Bakery Square from President Obama has come through cabinet members of both the Obama and the Trump Administration, the governor, several governors of come through State leadership business leadership Mayors from other cities looking at you know how Bakery Square in some ways can transform the scientific and scientific-based business community in Pittsburgh.
Mike: Some problems can’t be solved in an isolated lab. Bringing together resources and expertise from diverse sources is needed to tackle some of today’s most pressing challenges. Government entities such as the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, and National Institutes of Health all sponsor research that promote collaboration and partnership between industry, academia, and federal labs. Rory has had tremendous success in not only obtaining these types of awards, but also translating his ideas into real world solutions as demonstrated by hundreds of publications, hundreds of inventions, and dozens of patents. And he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Mike: One thing I noticed walking in is the number of awards, recognitions, and even sitting your office now and seeing the variety of recognitions that you've received rightfully so. Is there anything in particular that stand out to you like this is the one award that you cherish more than others?
Rory: I look at awards as really more of an opportunity to raise recognition for what people with disabilities can do and also trying to gain recognition for the field of rehabilitation and how engineering can help promote a full inclusion and greater quality of life and participation in health for people with disabilities and older adults. It's nice when we can get more mainstream recognition for the discipline and for the capabilities of people with disabilities. Along those lines I mean I think one of the some of the more fun ones or the ones that have provided me more opportunity to speak to a broader audience either to a scientific audience or a public audience have been the Cheerios box in 2009.
Mike: How did that happen? How did you get on the Cheerios box?
Rory: I was like on the Cheerios box because General Mills approached the VA and Paralyzed Veterans of America and disabled American veterans and asked if there are some veterans who are athletes but also doing good things in their community and I was nominated. When they first contacted me I thought it was a joke. I just thought it was a spam email. Eventually, they had to call and convince me that it was not a joke and then they went through a pretty extensive interview and vetting process as well. Now in retrospect it’s understandable. If they're going to put your likeness on a Cheerios box that's going to be seen by lots and lots of people and they want to make sure that they're not going to be embarrassed by doing that and then just this year the US Patent and Trademark Office of the Department of Commerce selected me to be part of their collectible trading card series.
Mike: That’s cool
Rory: Yea, it is interesting. Of course, I knew about trading cards. Baseball cards as a kid, the bubble gum. I was not a collector. I had lost touch with those. I didn't realize there's a whole of culture of collectible cards and it's been pretty exciting that just happened in May and that's afforded me opportunities to speak at their teachers conference and a number of other speaking opportunities. And what’s exciting about that is that they're speaking opportunities to other more mainstream engineering professional societies or to teacher organizations or to civic groups. So it brings it back to my original comment about it takes it outside of the small world of rehabilitation and starts to make our field more mainstream and bring more mainstream attention to the capabilities of individuals with disabilities. There's only 28 people that have a trading card, that’s been pretty exciting as well.
Mike: How do you get a trading card? Can you purchase them through the patent office can you find them somewhere or how does that work Is it like baseball cards, buy at the store, and have you sign one for me?
Rory: No, their very clever. The people at the patent office and office in the education division. They understand how collectible cards work very well. So you cannot buy them, you can’t order them. You can get them at the various professional conferences and inventor fairs and things like that where the US patent office has exhibits or presents and typically they only bring a selection of the cards. So you can't like just go to one show and get all 28 cards. They also do teachers training, so teachers can order some of the cards and use for their classrooms as well if they use a portion of the curriculum that the US Patent and Trademark Office has put together. And some of the teachers I’ve talked to, what they do is they talk about invention and innovation and why it's important and the processes and a little bit about intellectual property, what's a patent, what's a trademark, and what type of patents there are. Then they use, a lot of times, they use the cards as an assignment. So they'll assign a kid or a group of kids they’ll give them a card and then ask them to investigate that inventor and need to do or oral report a written report about that inventor. So they can use the cards as that kind of motivation. You can learn more about the program at the US Patent and Trademark Office website it's just www.uspto.gov/kids and there's a tile. Click on the collectibles tile then it'll tell you all about the card program as well and give an online version of the cards but if you want an actual paper card you need to either meet the inventor while we're given a set of cards to give out or go to one of these activities.
Mike: Rory is the first person from the University of Pittsburgh and currently the only Army veteran with a US Patent and Trademark office trading card. It’s one of the many honors that he’s received and certainly won’t be the last as he continues to push the field forward. And despite being known around the world, Rory takes the time to work with students one-on-one and help other investigators succeed. It’s always been and continues to be about the team. Even at home.
Mike: In terms of your wife and your family. What do they think of all the awards and all the work you've done the research and advocacy and athletics. Are there certain feedback if you've gotten?
Rory: Yeah well so I'm lucky my wife was a national class gymnast as a child in Germany and her brother was a world-class swimmer. So she understood the sports, she understand the sports and athletics side the commitment and dedication it takes to that and she enjoys sports as well. She changed, moved out of the business field when we went to Pittsburgh and study physical therapy at the University of Pittsburgh and is also on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and is also the Director of the UPMC Center for Assistive Technology. We collaborate, research together and we publish a lot together, write grants together, have mentored students together. She has that clinical insight that's important and sees individuals with disabilities pretty much all day everyday providing assistive technology services. So Pitt and VA arguably enhanced a both of our academic careers and actually brought Rosie into academia and she I think she shares my philosophy, won’t hesitate remind me or others that her job is to keep me grounded and to make sure that the awards are really recognition of what people of disabilities can accomplish and the power of medical rehabilitation.
Mike: One question that we always ask folks is if there's one word to describe yourself what word would you choose?
Rory: Oh that's a great question. I don't know if there's a word I would use. I know a word that’s used for me quite often. One of them is tenacious or the other word is unstoppable. And you mentioned, you saw the awards in my office and you read about me. There's something going to come back and say like I have for the three lives. I am an athlete. I compete. I competed all the way in the Paralympics and former world record holder, world champion. And then, of course I’m a scientist, an inventor, and I also try to be an advocate for individuals and for inclusion.
Mike: Do you have folks come up to you, the number of patents you’ve produced and then even product. Do you have people who've used them come up to you and make comments?
Rory: The best part about the work that we do is really two things. When we create something new and we get it to the point where we can let people try it, especially in their own home, you could just see the light in their eyes, smiles, or the tears and about how that's going to affect them. And then the other one is when I travel anywhere in the world it's been amazing I've seen people using one of our devices that we've created as it's come on the market . One of the fun things that I like to do is go up to people and start talking to them about it and see what they think and then without them knowing who I am and hearing them tell me how it's affected their life or how much they like it and then telling them that thank you for contributing a portion of my retirement.
Mike: And then they make the connection?
Rory: They make the connection and then they're all excited. Then they want to open up even more and tell me this was probably like about it he can create something like this that would be awesome and what other things are you working on now and a lot of times will say well I checked out your website or follow you on social media and so that's also pretty exciting to see that the work that we do it changes people's lives.
Mike: Rory Cooper, PhD – Founding Director and VA Senior Research Career Scientist of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories and Distinguished Professor of the Department of Rehabilitation Science & Technology at the University of Pittsburgh. And by the way, Rory’s trading card….it’s a hot commodity right now among government officials. He’s had governors, congressmen, and other federal officials contact him about getting one of his cards. Perhaps a visit to HERL is in order…..
Mike: That’s our show. Thank you for listening to the Products of Pittsburgh. If you know an extraordinary individual, someone who is having a positive impact on the Pittsburgh community, let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And be sure to check out our website www.ctsi.pitt.edu to learn more. I’m Mike Flock along with Bee Schindler and Zach Ferguson, until next time on the Products of Pittsburgh.