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President Biden gave the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Pitt’s Rory Cooper

Cooper, wearing a medal, poses with President Biden

Today at the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden awarded Rory Cooper with the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, in honor of Cooper’s careerlong crusade to improve assistive technology for those with disabilities.

Cooper, a distinguished professor in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, joins a list of laureates that began with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1985 and includes the country’s foremost inventors in computer technology, biotechnology and more.

“I have had the privilege of working with many remarkable scientists and scholars in my 40 years in academia and the technology world,” Pitt Senior Vice Chancellor for Research Rob Rutenbar wrote in his nomination letter. “Few manifest with impacts across as many areas of vital national interest as Rory — with contributions ranging from fundamental science to unique, commercialized assistive technologies.”

The U.S. president awards the medal to individuals or teams for their “outstanding contributions to America’s economic, environmental and social well-being.” Past Pitt-affiliated recipients of the medal include alumni Herbert Boyer and Paul Lauterbur, pioneers in gene splicing and MRI technology respectively.

Cooper has dedicated his career to increasing the mobility and function of people with disabilities through assistive technology, especially advances in wheelchairs. Since founding the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, or HERL, in 1994, he and his team developed a number of innovations, including the first smart wheelchairs and the first ergonomic rims.

Cooper recently took on a role as Pitt’s first assistant vice chancellor for research for STEM-health sciences collaborations. He has received 25 U.S. patents and, according to metrics on Google Scholar, is the world’s most cited rehabilitation engineer.

This award is only the latest in a consistent stream of accolades for Cooper, which include the John P. McGovern Science and Society Award, a Distinguished Eagle Scout award from the Boy Scouts of America and the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, among others.

Cooper is also a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Dean Anthony Delitto said, “In thinking about Rory in all of his accomplishments, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more effective advocate for people with disabilities. Nothing speaks more loudly about the effectiveness of his advocacy than the inventions and patents that are celebrated with this award, all of which are designed to reduce or eliminate barriers for people with disabilities.” 

It’s not the end of his awards, either. On Thursday, Oct. 26, Cooper will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame at a D.C. gala.

— Patrick Monahan, photography by Ryan K. Morris and the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation

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