|The magazine of University of Houston-Clear Lake
spring 2010 | volume 16 | number 2
In a world of supercomputers and other quickly changing technology, UHCL uses its superpowers – faculty – to keep up or, often, to make things better. Teaming up with industry and government allows professors to propel students and programs into the world beyond academic theory into application.
“The beauty of the industry and university relationship is that the benefits are really only limited by the imaginations of the individuals involved,” says UHCL Assistant Professor of Psychology Camille Peres.
She and Assistant Professor of Industrial Hygiene and Safety Magdy Akladios have been working with one such partner, Schlumberger Inc., a technology supplier for the oil and gas industry. The interdisciplinary team – Peres is in the School of Human Sciences and Humanities while Akladios is in the School of Science and Computer Engineering – received a $100,000 one-year continuing award from Schlumberger for their project “Software Ergonomics Assessment Tools.” The initiative is an example of how a company’s need to overcome a real-life obstacle can lead to research and advancements in the larger field.
“I’m trained to answer questions” says Peres. “Industry is focused on solving problems. They rely on academia to give them a deeper understanding of the issue so we can have a more reliable solution to the problem.”
As principal investigator, Peres looks at the ways “human factors” contribute to people’s experience with computers. Her research is focused on improving humans’ experiences with technology, which is what attracted the interest of the software development group at Schlumberger. They were curious about how to assess the potential ergonomic impacts of different software.
In his role as co-principal investigator, Akladios, whose research focus is the field of ergonomics, provides expertise on the mechanical aspects of the human body. In combining their investigative interests, Peres and Akladios hope to improve the working conditions of high-end computer users by making the software they use and how they use it less likely to cause repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. As Akladios points out, the benefits to both the company and university are numerous.
“Working with universities shows responsibility and keenness on the part of the company for the advancement of knowledge, genuine care for their employees and sends a good message to the community that they are team players,” he says.
And for universities, the opportunity to apply theories in a real-world setting is invaluable.
“Universities are the source of information while industry is the test bed for this information. So, hand-in-hand, the advancement of knowledge takes place,” Akladios says.
Since its inception as an educational facility in support of NASA and the growing technological community of the Clear Lake area, UHCL has pursued partners in industry and government. Blending theory with application is part of a mission to enhance students’ educational experiences as well as results for partners in chemical, environmental, aerospace, biotechnology and medical industries.
The benefits of working with university partners are well-known to Schlumberger. Partnerships with academia not only enhance the company’s products and services, but also prepare future employees by providing access to the latest research tools in their industry. The company’s Ocean for Academia program, to which the Peres and Akladios project is tangentially related, is a model of university and industry collaboration.
“Successfully collaborating with universities is critical to the future of the oil and gas industry,” said Meyer Bengio, vice president of technology for Schlumberger Information Solutions, in a press release posted on the company’s Web site when the program opened. “The Ocean for Academia program establishes a collaborative innovation network leveraging the Ocean platform to achieve greater efficiency in bringing research from concept to market. This network includes academia, oil companies and independent software providers.”
A special feature of the research Peres and Akladios are doing with Schlumberger is the combination of both laboratory and field studies so the findings can be applied directly to those who need it most. Both studies involve people being connected to electrodes while they complete tasks on a computer and then they fill out surveys. Approximately 50 students will participate in the laboratory studies and 20 to 30 Schlumberger and ExxonMobil geoscientists will be “hooked up” for the field studies.
That several UHCL students have been involved and funded by this grant is an additional bonus. April Amos, a UHCL graduate student in applied cognitive psychology who has worked in the lab with Peres for about two years and Akladios for close to a year, says the work is challenging but the benefits pay off.
“They have a nickname: ‘The Muscle and The Brain.’ Dr. Akladios is the muscle and Dr. Peres is the brain. They are very tough professors, and they expect a lot from you. But, in the end, the results are astonishing,” she says. “I can look back from where I was when I came to UHCL when I first entered the RIHM [Research on the Interaction between Humans and Machines] Lab and where I am now, I can truly say that anyone who comes into this lab will leave with skills that most people would not have the opportunity to gain.”
As a research assistant for the Schlumberger project, Amos collects data from Schlumberger and ExxonMobil employees. In addition, she contributes to the project’s data management.
“Working on an industry-related project is beneficial to me, the industry and to the school in many ways,” she says. “I obtained a part-time position with ExxonMobil because of this project. The experience that I have gained from this project has given me a better understanding of what direction I want to continue my studies. It is one thing to collect data and return to the lab and analyze the data, but it is another to actually see what the user, our focus group, really needs. That alone improves the research.”
After graduation, Amos intends to pursue a doctoral degree. Although she’s still identifying her primary research focus, she is glad she had the opportunity to take educational theory and put it in practice.
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