About

Our Vision Statement:

We will be a worldwide leader of research and development that increases the mobility and function of people with disabilities

Our Mission Statement:

To continuously improve the mobility and function of people with disabilities through advanced engineering in clinical research and medical rehabilitation

The Human Engineering Research Laboratories’ vision all began when Rory Cooper 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.  Cooper realized the vast need for improvement in wheelchair design. He returned to college, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering and establishing the Human Engineering Laboratory (HEL) at California State University at Sacramento, where he first began to research wheelchair design and use.

In the winter of 1993, Dr. Cooper was recruited to join the faculty at the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. He 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, Dr. Michael Boninger 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.

HERL began with only one VA merit review grant, one lab area, two graduate students, and one staff person. Now, more than 48 active clinical studies thrive in eight laboratories, staffed by over ten 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.