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Paralympian Uses Tech to Help People with Disabilities

Rory Cooper and his team on site. Left to right (back) are Juan Vasquez, Garrett Grindle, and Hongwu Wang. In the front are Rory Cooper (left) and Ben Salatin. (Image credit: Rory Cooper, Dept. of Veterans Affairs and University of Pittsburgh)

Editor's Note: ScienceLives is an occasional series that puts scientists under the microscope to find out what makes them tick. The series is a cooperation between the National Science Foundation and LiveScience.

In 1988 Rory Cooper was a bronze medalist in the Paralympic Games in Seoul, Republic of Korea. Now, he is the lead investigator for NSF's Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center, a partnership between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh that brings together researchers, industry, people with disabilities and others to improve quality of life not only for people in need of technological assistance, but also for everyone. In his recent LiveScience Behind the Scenes article, Cooper described his team’s work using computer modeling, rapid-prototyping and robotics to create electric mobility and manipulation devices that help people with limited strength and motion gain greater control of their environments. Below, Cooper answers the ScienceLives 10 questions and shares the motivations behind his work.

Name: Rory A. Cooper Age: 49 Institution: Department of Veterans Affairs & University of Pittsburgh Field of Study: Rehabilitation Engineering

What inspired you to choose this field of study? I was inspired by my personal experiences with a spinal cord injury and the many friends with disabilities that I made who were motivated to fully participate in society despite the technical, societal and cultural barriers that they faced.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? The best piece of advice that I ever received was that if I could motivate other people with disabilities to pursue engineering and technical careers, they could transform the lives of people with disabilities and the world.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? As a child, I was very interested in working in my parent's automotive shop to make new devices. One of the most memorable experiences was transforming my Schwinn Stingray into a mono-shock off-road bicycle.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or engineer? My favorite thing about being an engineer is seeing something work for the first time and sharing the experience with the research team.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist or engineer must demonstrate in order to be effective? In order to be effective as an engineer, the most important characteristic is the ability to be intellectually critical of one's own work. Engineers need to be able to see the flaws in their ideas, methodologies, and take that information to advance forward without losing confidence in themselves or their team.

What are the societal benefits of your research? My research is of direct benefit to society, as I work to create new technologies and techniques to improve the lives of people with disabilities and their families, so that they can enjoy full lives and fully participate in society.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? My thinking as a researcher has been most shaped by my personal experience with spinal cord injury, and the multitude of people with disabilities with whom I have had the privilege of knowing and confiding in me.

What about your field or being an engineer do you think would surprise people the most? The thing about my field that would surprise most people is that people with disabilities have the same goals and aspirations as everyone else, and that despite some tremendous hurdles many people make remarkable accomplishments.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? This is a difficult question; the obvious answer is me and anybody else in the office with me. After that, I would have to say my photographs of friends and colleagues.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? In the lab, I mostly listen to NPR; in my car it is a mix of classic-rock and country. As I grow older, my taste in music has expanded, so I like a variety of music.