Research Lab Relocates

Reprinted from PN February 2012

The Human Engineering Research Laboratories is in a new facility that will enhance the mission of improving the mobility of people with disabilities.

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The Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) of VA Pittsburgh has moved.

After being housed at the Pittsburgh Highland Drive VA campus since its founding in 1993, HERL relocated to new quarters and begins a bold new chapter in the research facility’s ongoing mission to improve the mobility of people with disabilities.

The move, however, could be described as bittersweet for HERL founder and director Dr. Rory Cooper.

“We’ll miss being within an actual VA medical center, and being around veterans every day,” he says. “We’ve just outgrown this space. It’s been useful to us for 17½ years, but it was never designed to be a research space.”

Moving to Bakery Square, Pittsburgh’s new technology hub that’s attracted other high-tech tenants such as Google, has given HERL an unprecedented ability to grow.

From its original plan of 17,000 square feet located on three floors, HERL now encompasses 26,000 square feet, including a brand-new machine shop. The amount of lab space has almost doubled.

HERL's new facility's machine shop allows quick production of high-quality specialty equipment.

“The new space is custom-designed for us,” says Cooper. “All our research equipment will fit.” Equipment that was previously in storage will now be able to be used daily, he adds.

The space was officially opened with a grand gala last August during the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Notable people speaking at the event included the president of Paralyzed Veterans of America, the directors of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and Veterans Integrated Service Network 4, the dean of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, and Dr. Michael Boninger, HERL’s medical director.

What will the increased lab space mean to the researchers?

“More possibilities!” says graduate student and HERL researcher Tanya Liu. “We can perform more real-world experiments.”

Of course, the comfort factor doesn’t hurt, either.

“The old space sometimes made me feel a little stressed,” admits Liu. “The lighting is better here, and it’s more spacious and comfortable.”

HERL faculty member Dr. Alicia Koontz is overseeing a study that will especially benefit from the extra space.

“Our goal is to minimize overuse injuries in wheelchair users,” she says. “The new lab area greatly expands our testing capabilities. People who use wheelchairs need a lot of room to maneuver, which we are now able to provide. It will make our tests much more true-to-life.”

HERL bioengineer Michelle Oyster adds, “We can think bigger with our new space—we’re already adding new experimental systems.” 

The benefits won’t be limited to just testing. Garrett Grindle, a graduate student and robotics researcher, is excited about the production possibilities of HERL’s greatly expanded machine shop.

“The new shop gives us some unique fabrication capabilities,” he says. “It’ll be faster to produce specialized parts, and their quality will be higher.”

Zack Mason, HERL’s shop coordinator, agrees: “We’re entering new territory as designers and fabricators.”

“Moving to new quarters gives HERL an extraordinary chance to grow in every facet of our research,” says Boninger. “We’re working hard to maximize every extra square foot so our research can provide the maximum benefit to the veterans we serve.”


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Research Lab Relocates


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