The Human Engineering Research Laboratories’ vision began when McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine faculty member Rory Cooper, PhD (pictured), sustained a spinal cord injury after a bicycle accident in 1980 while serving in the Army. An athlete prior to the injury, he redirected his efforts towards wheelchair racing and tried to remain active. But his first wheelchair was heavy, oversized, and limited his mobility. It was then that Dr. Cooper realized the vast need for improvement in wheelchair design and subsequently established the Human Engineering Laboratory (HEL) at California State University at Sacramento.
In the winter of 1993, Dr. Cooper relocated HEL from Sacramento to the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System’s Highland Drive hospital and renamed it the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL). Shortly after HERL opened, Michael Boninger, MD (also a McGowan Institute faculty member), accepted an assignment with Dr. Cooper as the lab’s Medical Director. It was an unplanned pairing that turned into an unbeatable research team. The science of wheelchairs was never the same again and for the people who use them, a bright future began to dawn.
“I started HERL because I thought there needed to be a center—or there was potential to create a model center—go beyond the traditional models of the rehabilitation engineering centers or the rehabilitation engineering research centers. Be involved in clinical practice. Have engineers, clinicians, people with disabilities, social scientists, all working together,” explained Dr. Cooper.
HERL’s beginning was a humble one: A total of 1 VA merit review grant, 1 lab area, 2 graduate students, and 1 staff person. Now, more than 48 active clinical studies thrive in 8 laboratories, staffed by over 10 investigators and a team of engineers, machinists, clinicians, research specialists, and the best and brightest graduate students and medical interns in the rehabilitation field. With experts in bioengineering, exercise physiology, robotics, epidemiology, rehabilitation counseling, and physical and occupational therapy, HERL is eager to find the solutions to problems that exist for veterans and all individuals who use wheelchairs and other forms of assistive technology.
One of the laboratories within HERL is the Assistive Technology Evaluation Laboratory. Here standards are developed for assistive technology, and assistive devices are tested for compliance with existing standards. This laboratory contains a full complement of testing equipment for wheelchair standards, and limited equipment for other types of assistive devices. Major equipment includes double-drum testers, curbdrop testers, a treadmill, static testing machine, and an environmental chamber. This is one of the most comprehensive laboratories in the United States equipped to provide testing of manual and power wheelchairs to ANSI/RESNA and ISO wheelchair standards. Laboratory personnel are actively involved in developing wheelchair standards and they have critical roles in the development of several national and international standards. This laboratory also provides testing and design services to industry, consumer groups, insurance agencies, and government agencies.
“The overall mission of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories is to promote increased mobility and community participation of function of people with disabilities through advanced engineering research, clinical research, and medical rehabilitation,” said Dr. Cooper. “My overall goal with HERL is to try to improve quality of life and participation for people with disabilities.”
Illustration: Rebecca Droke, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette video (09/09/08)
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (09/30/08)
Human Engineering Research Laboratories
Bio: Rory Cooper, PhD
Bio: Michael Boninger, MD