research at pitt
Featured Faculty Researcher
Rory Cooper, PhD, FISA/PVA
FISA-Paralyzed Veterans of America Chair
School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences
Here’s the situation. You’re a guest at the residence of the President of Turkey. Kind of like the White House, except it’s known to Turks as the Pink Villa. Though you’ve had quite a friendly visit with President Suleyman Demirel, it’s been a rather formal event. Now that it’s time for farewells, you head for the exit, accompanied by the head of state and his bodyguards. You stop at the top of a flight of stairs.
Did we mention that you are in a wheelchair? The Pink Villa, which was designed and built in the 1930s, is not exactly a model of accessibility. You could ask the bodyguards to give you a lift, but do they speak English? Not sure. They might grab the wrong handhold and send you careening to the bottom on your own. Stranger things have happened.
What do you do?
Well, if you’re Rory Cooper, PhD, you pop a wheelie and take the steps on your own, one at a time. Don’t mind the stunned look on the faces of the bodyguards as they try to determine whether this is the start of an international incident. It’s just another day in the global health arena.
Cooper, a Distinguished Professor in Pitt’s Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, was in Turkey as part of a University of Pittsburgh delegation consulting with its president on several health care initiatives. He never set out to work in global health; that’s just one of the places that his work has taken him. Injured in a bicycling accident while serving in the army, Cooper studied engineering as an undergrad. In order to continue as a competitive athlete, he modified his own chair and designed a racing chair, but he didn’t see the career potential in this work until he started to pursue a PhD in electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Back then, Cooper says, there was very little academic research on wheelchairs or assistive technologies (AT), as the field is known. After being recruited by the University of Pittsburgh in 1994, he founded its Human Engineering and Research Lab, which is now one of the leaders in the field. Today, there are 20–30 AT labs around the world, and Cooper has had a direct hand in staffing them. After training around 100 doctoral and masters students over the past 16 years, several of those labs are run by his former students. And nearly every major wheelchair manufacturer employs one or more of his former students.
In the global health arena, Cooper has a 10-year history of helping to address important health needs in India. Working with colleagues at Pitt and in India, he has helped to establish an assistive technology clinic for people with spinal injuries in New Dehli. Modeled after the clinic at the University of Pittsburgh, the Indian clinic supports patients in need of wheelchairs and other assistive technology. Cooper and others have collaborated on clinical research in India, looking at, for example, the health effects of different types of wheelchairs. In the clinic, they have documented extensive quality-of-life improvements with the use of better wheelchairs, such as increased mobility, community participation, and lowered incidence of pressure ulcers and falls. In addition, Cooper has worked with the Artificial Limb Manufacturing Company of India on the design of prototype wheelchairs, as well as the manufacturing processes for large-scale production.
Very few wheelchair experts can put their machines to the test quite like Cooper can. In 1988, he was a bronze medalist in the Paralympic Games in Seoul, Republic of Korea. He’s an annual participant in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which will be held in Pittsburgh in August 2011; and he won the Pittsburgh Marathon in 2009, racing a handcycle that uses gears turned by hand.
At the University of Pittsburgh, Cooper is the FISA & Paralyzed Veterans of America Professor. He’s also director of Pitt’s center for excellence for wheelchair and related technologies. His primary appointment is in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, but he holds secondary appointments in the School of Medicine’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and in the Swanson School of Engineering’s Departments of Bioengineering and of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science.
In addition to seeing him on the course of the Pittsburgh Marathon, you may have spotted Cooper on the box of your breakfast cereal. He was one of 12 veterans to be pictured on a special edition Cheerios box after winning four gold medals and one silver at the 2009 National Veterans Wheelchair Games.