Office of Research & Development
Office of Research & Development
Dr. Rory Cooper demonstrates a robotic arm developed at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, which he directs. (Photo courtesy of HERL)
VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System
October 2, 2017
Nearly four decades ago, Rory Cooper was forced to take a new direction in life. The Army sergeant was hit by a truck while riding his bicycle in Frankethal, Germany, on July 23, 1980, as part of physical training with the 5th Signal Command, U.S. Army Europe. A spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the waist down. He picked himself up and went on to build a distinguished career, with a focus on creating and refining technologies to improve the lives of Veterans and others with spinal cord injury. Today, Dr. Cooper, an electrical engineer, is the director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), a joint institute of VA and the University of Pittsburgh. HERL is home to the VA Center on Wheelchairs and Associated Rehabilitation Engineering. Cooper is credited with 25 patents that have advanced wheelchair technology and has authored or co-authored more than 300 peer-reviewed journal publications. He also authored the books Rehabilitation Engineering Applied to Mobility and Manipulation and Wheelchair Selection and Configuration. His collection of awards includes the Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Medal and the American Association for the Advancement of Science Mentor Award. He was named a winner in the 2017 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, a prestigious public service award. He also was in the inaugural 2005 class of the Spinal Cord Injury Hall of Fame.
VA Research Communications: What drove you to military service?
Cooper: I joined for many reasons – to serve my country, to start my adult life, to travel and meet new people, to learn, and to obtain benefits to eventually attend college. However, once I was in the Army, I learned it is really about serving your country and making a commitment to something greater than yourself. America is the only country where service members swear and take an oath to protect and defend the constitution, and not a person, country or government. I try to live by the "Army Values."
Cooper (right) explains to retired Marine Gunnery Sgt. James Joseph part of a device that is being made in HERL's Advanced Inclusive Manufacturing Training program. The device is the "PathLoc" Mobile caster. (Photo courtesy of HERL)
What inspired your research career?
My research career was inspired by the desire to help Veterans and people with disabilities. When I first started studying, I recognized there were many challenges facing me, my friends, and a host of other people. I was and am driven to try and help make a positive difference in the world.
Did you have mentors in your youth or at any other time who inspired you in life, the military, and-or in your research career?
I've had several mentors. My high school track coach, Brian Waterbury, was a mentor when I was young. He introduced me to running and encouraged me to explore science. My grandfather, Roy Munn, was my mentor and confidant. He was very gifted with his hands and could make almost anything. He was a stalwart support of me in everything that I did. My running coach in the Army, Julius Young, was amazingly influential both in the Army and life. He made me a better soldier, athlete, and person. Dr. Saul Goldberg, an outstanding engineer, helped me through undergraduate school. He taught me not only the fundamentals of engineering but a problem-solving approach that has helped me ever since. I credit Dr. Peg Giannini with launching and mentoring my research career. She gave me a chance to serve in VA and pursue my dreams. I am constantly inspired by the wounded, injured, and ill Veterans that I encounter. However, my greatest inspiration is my wife, Rosemarie Cooper.
When and where did you serve in the military?
My military service was mostly unremarkable. I enlisted in the Army in 1976. I went to basic training in 1977 at Fort Dix in New Jersey and did advanced individual training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. I spent a few weeks as a hometown recruiter. Afterward, I was assigned to the 3rd Ordnance Battalion, 32nd Air Defense Artillery Command with U.S. Army Europe [USAREUR] as a unit armorer. Later, I went to school to become a linguist in German and a civil affairs specialist. Upon completing school, I was attached to the 5th Signal Command, USAREUR and the U.S. Military Community Activity [USMCA] Worms, 21st Support Command. I was a member of Maj. Gen. C.E. McKnight’s staff, which was a huge learning experience. I credit him for encouraging me to pursue a college degree in electrical engineering despite my injuries. In 1979, I met my future wife, Rosemarie. While I was in the Army, I had the good fortune of competing in the USAREUR track and cross-country championships, winning bronze medals on the track in the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter, and in the 10-kilometer cross country race.
In 1978, Rory Cooper was serving as a unit armorer with the Army's 3rd Ordnance Battalion, 32nd Air Defense Artillery Command, in Europe.
How has your spinal cord injury changed your life?
I'm not sure that there's an answer to this question. I don't know what my life would have been like otherwise. After my injury, I had to plot a new course in life. I don't think that it matters anymore. I've found my calling, and I have a rewarding life that is filled with the love of family and friends and is professionally fulfilling. I hope that my professional and volunteer work has and is making a positive difference in the lives of Veterans and people with disabilities. I see the promise in the students that I have trained to carry on the important work that I began. With a little luck, perhaps, I’ve inspired a few Veterans and people with disabilities to pursue their dreams.
What type of research are you involved in? What are your specialties? What are your goals? Are you working to transform the lives of people with spinal cord injury?
I'm part of the team at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL). We are conducting research to create and evaluate technologies to improve the lives of Veterans and others with disabilities, and to promote their participation in their communities and life in general. My training is as an engineer, and my work is focused on technologies that include powered wheelchairs, robotics, virtual coaches, and wearable devices. My goals are aligned with HERL's to help create a world where Veterans and people with disabilities have unencumbered mobility and function and the opportunity for full participation in society. I hope that our work has and continues to transform the lives of people with spinal cord injury and other impairments. It is pretty exciting to see the products of our research and development benefit people through new technologies and improvements in clinical practice. Of course, the people that HERL has trained are probably our greatest contribution. My philosophy is to engage Veterans and people with disabilities in every aspect of our research and development efforts. I especially want to encourage them to become scientists, engineers, or clinicians.
Did your military experience inspire you to pursue a career as a VA researcher? Is your military experience connected in some way to your VA research?
My military experience and the care and support that I received from VA motivated me to pursue a career with VA. I think it is ideal to combine an academic career, in my case at the University of Pittsburgh, and a VA career. It’s the best of both organizations. Working with Veterans and active-duty service-members helps me to maintain some of the camaraderie and kinship of military service. I especially enjoy mentoring younger Veterans to help them achieve their career goals. At the university, I enjoy working with students and especially mentoring students with disabilities.
How do you feel about the possibility of making life better for Veterans through your research?
It is tremendously rewarding to help make life better for Veterans. I get a great feeling to see a Veteran using something that HERL invented or to hear a VA clinician talk about how our research has helped his or her Veteran patients. It is the basis for my work. How can anything be better than a Veteran’s spouse thanking you for helping to create the technology that allowed her to take her husband home from a long-term care facility; or seeing a Veteran with spinal cord injury compete in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games with a technology that allowed her to reach that level of achievement; or seeing a Veteran play in a splash park with his children in our PneuChair. Enabling their lives is my reward.
Do you believe being a Veteran gives you a greater emotional tie to the work you are doing? Does being a Vet give you more insight into Veterans’ needs?
Being a Veteran with a disability helps me build a rapport with other Veterans. It helps to have the empathy and shared experiences. Veterans frequently share their ideas with me both casually and formally. I really enjoy their insight. Life is difficult with a disability. It’s nice to be able to make their lives a bit easier. The frank and honest give and take has helped me to develop some of my best ideas.
You have overcome a serious injury to achieve so much in life. What are the keys to rebounding from such a traumatic experience? What motivational tips would you share?
There are many pathways to resiliency. Everyone needs to find their own path. The support of family and friends has been critical to me. I have a truly wonderful wife who is loving, encouraging, and very tolerant. Remaining connected to the military and VA is important. Being around other wounded, injured, and ill Veterans and service-members is a real pleasure and tremendous honor. Plus, I have colleagues who I enjoy working with and who have a shared vision. It’s good having a career that serves others and to be able to witness the difference that our work makes in peoples’ lives. I like helping young Veterans. I also believe it is important to stay as healthy as possible and to have hobbies. I enjoy hand-cycling and swimming. I am an enthusiastic participant in marathons and the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. It is awesome to compete with and to mentor other Veterans.
What's the next step for you in your VA career?
My immediate goal is to renew our VA Rehab R&D Center and to continue to create innovations. I would like to see more inventions transferred to products and services and more research findings translated into improved practices. I'm also focused on training the next generation of scientists and engineers to help people with disabilities. I'm especially interested in training Veterans and people with disabilities. I enjoy working with my friends in HERL, academia, and VA, with our colleagues at DoD and other federal agencies, and with Veteran and military service organizations. I’m also excited by our growing global collaborations, especially with the Paralympics, World Health Organizations, and other international groups. I would like to build a more robust network of collaborators from academia, government, business, and the non-profit sector. I look forward to even greater opportunities to contribute.