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Faculty Launch Research Lab Exploring Human Performance Engineering

Through a $350,000 STAR grant awarded by the State of Texas, professors at The University of Texas at El Paso have launched a new industrial engineering lab focused on supporting human performance and behavior in a wide range of application areas.

UTEP students Gloria Chavez, Laura Tovar, Carla Irigoyen, Karen Gonzalez, Alejandra Martinez, Valeria Velarde, Prajina Edayath along with UTEP professors and researchers Priyadarshini Pennathur, Ph.D., and Arunkumar Pennathur, Ph.D., are conducting a wide range of industrial engineering and health research in one of UTEP's newest labs: Physical, Information and Cognitive Human Factors Engineering Research Lab, housed in the College of Engineering.
UTEP students Gloria Chavez, Laura Tovar, Carla Irigoyen, Karen Gonzalez, Alejandra Martinez, Valeria Velarde, Prajina Edayath along with UTEP professors and researchers Priyadarshini Pennathur, Ph.D., and Arunkumar Pennathur, Ph.D., are conducting a wide range of industrial engineering and health research in one of UTEP's newest labs: Physical, Information and Cognitive Human Factors Engineering Research Lab, housed in the College of Engineering.

The lab’s primary research focuses on supporting workers in high-stress occupations, such as construction or health care, that not only cause physical injuries in the workplace, but also have high cognitive impacts such as workload, stress and burnout. Students in the laboratory are tackling these challenges through human factors engineering research.

Priyadarshini Pennathur, Ph.D., and Arunkumar Pennathur, Ph.D., researchers in UTEP’s College of Engineering, have led the Physical, Information and Cognitive Human Factors Engineering (PIC-HFE) Research Lab since it opened its doors in summer 2023, supporting the multidisciplinary projects of undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students. 

Supportive Exoskeletons for High-Strain Occupations

While occasionally lifting heavy objects or standing on our feet for extended periods of time may not have an immediate impact on our health, individuals who work in occupations that require these actions daily may experience pain, joint problems and other health issues in the future. Arunkumar Pennathur’s research with exoskeletons, or supportive braces, is working to alleviate these issues by analyzing how certain mechanisms – such as a device worn on the lower half of the body to provide back support – can provide an extra layer of support to individuals who frequently strain their joints in their occupations.

“Your entire body can be thought of as being made up of links and joints,” Pennathur said. “Mechanically speaking, we’re able to calculate all the forces on your joints and monitor the muscle activity when you’re actually moving, and so each exoskeleton will be specific to relieving stress for certain joints.”

From lifting heavy boxes in a warehouse to working in disaster relief, many people have jobs that strain their elbows, shoulders, knees and backs. Some of the exoskeletons Pennathur is studying support wrist strain, back strain and shoulder strain, specifically for those working in healthcare, disaster relief, construction, maintenance and manufacturing who may find themselves working in awkward postures for extended periods of time.

Pennathur is working to pilot these exoskeletons with construction workers, nurses and physical therapists. He hopes to see how individuals respond to wearing these exoskeletons, particularly the effectiveness of these devices in alleviating workplace injuries.

“Imagine a worker wearing something like this for eight hours during a typical work shift,” Pennathur said. “We want to see how they adapt to it, having a wearable device like this. The idea then is to try to test these devices with real workers and see if they can be made more usable.” 

Pennathur and his team are also tracking just how these devices can support workers’ bodies and the long-term positive effects they may have in the future.

“Our work shows that they do help with muscle activity, and we’re able to track all of it,” Pennathur said. “We have markers that we can place on your anatomically correct joints, and then as you move, we’re able to see what you’re doing. [We’ve seen that] these devices can take load off and dampen some of the tasks [performed by these employees].”

In the future, Pennathur hopes to use 3D printing to manufacture and produce lighter, more comfortable appendages for people to use.

Virtual Reality and Physiological Monitoring

Inside the new lab, located in the Engineering Building on UTEP’s campus, computer scientist and industrial engineer Priyadarshini Pennathur utilizes wall-to-wall immersive virtual reality to simulate high stress work environments, such as an emergency room, a disaster zone, a warehouse, and greenspaces, among others.

To accomplish this, projectors are strategically hung from the ceiling. Users wear goggles that create a 3D rendition of the simulation projected onto the wall while allowing them to view and interact with different areas of the simulated space simply by looking and moving in the space. Using a wand, much like a video game controller, and other interactive devices, users can interact directly with the virtual reality, picking up boxes in a warehouse, interacting with patients, rescuing people from a disaster zone or interacting with other avatars students in the lab can create.

“People can put the VR glasses on and we can simulate real-world scenarios and tasks in a lab setting,” Priyadarshini Pennathur said. “Using a separate device, we can monitor what are called blood oxygenation levels with fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy), we can track their eye movements with eye trackers, we can track their brain activity with electroencephalograms (EEG), and we can use facereader technology we have in the lab to track facial muscle movements.”

Priyadarshini Pennathur also hopes to use virtual reality to assess and improve the health and well-being of workers from different industries. This involves using artificial intelligence, FNIRS, and EEG to track facial expressions and responses to external stimuli.

“There have been studies on green spaces and how they influence well-being,” Priyadarshini Pennathur said. “But more and more green spaces are going away as more urban infrastructure is coming up. So, coming up with virtual means to simulate that and assess stress is on our radar.”

Student Research

Students of all degree levels also have the opportunity to conduct research in the lab. Currently, seven students are working on diverse research projects in areas such as scientometrics (metrics and projections based on recent research publications), dementia, accessibility, burnout, empathy, exoskeletons, virtual reality, and more.

  • Scientometrics – Valeria Velarde, a master’s student in the industrial engineering program, is studying the scientometrics of exoskeletons, examining recent research published and exploring projections for the use of exoskeletons in the field. In the next five years, researchers predict that the exoskeleton market will skyrocket to $20 billion. Her research will soon be reviewed in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics.
  • Dementia – Laura Tovar’s research focuses on caregiving in dementia. As a graduate student in UTEP’s industrial engineering program, she is working on a care process model to help caregivers of individuals with dementia cope, manage and provide care.
  • Empathy – Graduate industrial engineering major and a 2023 Magna Cum Laude from the IE program Alejandra Martinez is exploring engineering and design empathy in her research; she hopes to use facial EMG to analyze emotions in response to certain scenarios. Using this technology, she can judge if certain scenarios make individuals more or less empathetic and can quantify facial reactions for further research.
  • Burnout – Carla Irigoyen and Gloria Chavez, junior industrial engineering majors, and Karen Gonzalez, who is earning her master’s in industrial engineering, are conducting a study on burnout through an interview and survey study with local community health workers. They are also using bibliometric analysis, which involves statistical analysis of published scientific texts, to assess the well-being of community health workers and how their work contributes to burnout.
  • Accessibility – Gonzalez and Martinez are also conducting research on accessibility for individuals with disabilities. Their work is examining how an environment can be built to support those with visible and invisible disabilities, including cognitive and physical disabilities.
  • Maternal health and well-being – Prajina Edayath, a doctoral candidate in Interdisciplinary Health Sciences, is studying maternal health and well-being with a focus on developing work system models that support pregnant individuals.

As a lab focused on engineering and designing systems that work to support humans of all backgrounds, the possibilities are endless.

“We’re just getting started,” the Pennathurs say. Their tagline for the research laboratory is Where Human Potential Meets Design Possibilities.

To learn more about their research in UTEP’s industrial engineering program, visit

Last Updated on March 14, 2024 at 12:00 AM | Originally published March 14, 2024

By Julia Hettiger UTEP Marketing and Communications