Clifford E. Brubaker, PhD
Born: December 23, 1938 - Muncie, IN
Entry into the AT field: 1976
How I got into the field
My academic degrees are in Physical Education (BA, MA) and Exercise Physiology (PhD). I was an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia working in the area of biomechanics and was recruited to participate in an RERC that had been awarded to the Department of Orthopedics.
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
My initial association was to conduct research on the biomechanics of wheelchair propulsion at the RERC. The watershed event that led to my career change was the recruitment of Colin McLaurin as the director of the REC.
Why I chose the AT field
As I have noted above, my association with the field of assistive technology began largely by chance, but as I became more engaged and gained an appreciation of the importance of research and development of assistive technology it rather quickly became the mainstream concern for my academic and professional career.
My inspiration and mentor
The most important and most inspirational mentor was clearly Colin McLaurin. Colin joined the University of Virginia RERC in May, 1977. He was my mentor and compass for issues relating to disability and technology until I left UVa for the University of Pittsburgh in 1991. I continue to rely on the lessons I learned from working with Colin as both friend and mentor. I should note also that he provided me with a sense of direction for life in general. I succeeded Colin as Director of the Wheeled Mobility RERC in 1987. My first act in the capacity of director was to persuade Colin to continue working with us on a part-time basis.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
I continue to view rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology as my professional identity. My career and area of work has evolved considerably over the past 30 years. I have been engaged with rehabilitation engineering now for nearly half of my life. My first engagement was in research and later, design and development. My current role as an academic administrator is more remote but I am no less passionate about this field that has embraced me as much I have embraced it.
My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
I believe I've made important conceptual contributions. This is borne out by the fact that many of the original pilot work I initiated in the late '70s and throughout the '80s has been repeated with the findings confirmed and research expanded. I have since come to realize I was more interested in trying new things but lacked the discipline to carry out the extensive research that is necessary - particularly in this age of HIPAA, protracted institutional review processes and patient registries. When I came to the University of Pittsburgh and accepted my current position as Dean I found that I could hire people who were better than me in every area where I had worked in research and development. I view my most memorable successes in two main areas of accomplishment. One is the establishment of Rehabilitation Science and Technology as a freestanding, academic degree-granting Department (BS, MS, PhD) in a top tier research university. I believe it was the first, and may still be the only fully acknowledged independent academic department for rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology. Our school (Health and Rehabilitation Sciences) started the first PhD program in Rehabilitation Science in a US university. The other area that I view as a success has been the development of a school whose focus and mission is defined in the context of education, service and scholarship in Disability and Rehabilitation. We are heartened by the fact that several other universities have adopted the designation of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences in lieu of "Health Related Professions" and "Allied Health." I attribute the success of the school to the faculty that we have recruited and to the large and growing number of professionals we have educated in the rehabilitation disciplines and, particularly in rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology. By "launching" many bright and creative individuals from our program I believe we greatly increase the probability of seminal contribution to our field.
My most memorable failures
In the early years I made the mistake of believing I could design better devices based on logic and intuition. I began to realize (fairly soon) that I was in no position to judge what would be best for people who used assistive devices. Several of my early efforts produced devices that worked, but these devices (wheelchair designs) suffered from an absence of perspective from people for whom they were intended and also from a naïveté with respect to market dynamics. The obvious (after accepting that the work, despite good intentions was flawed) solution was to engage people who use the technology for insight on what they wanted from assistive technology. It was also necessary to work more closely and effectively with industry and to understand the limitations for reimbursement.
Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it
When I was first introduced to rehabilitation engineering in 1976, every wheelchair looked and performed like every other wheelchair. Most assistive technologies were primitive. Nearly everything required some degree of customization. Many devices were one-off creations by rehabilitation engineers. There were virtually no standards for assistive devices. This has all changed quite dramatically.
Technology has improved in all areas; standards have been developed for most major assistive devices; customization is now largely conducted within the scope of adjustments and configuration options for most assistive devices. There are now well-defined and established programs to train professionals to the extent that rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology are approaching a new level of maturity. The role of a rehabilitation engineer has been substantially redefined.
On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology
The future is always difficult to predict, but I believe that we can expect substantial changes. How we plan, respond and adapt will determine the viability of our field. I believe that advances in tissue and organ regeneration will have a profound influence on all aspects of rehabilitation. We have worked diligently to engage our colleagues in regenerative medicine, and we have jointly adopted the concept of "Regenerative Rehabilitation" as a common concept and goal. I believe that there will be an increase in opportunities over the complete spectrum of rehabilitation. Technical, engineering and computational expertise will be increasingly important to our field.
My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me
I have served in nearly every capacity in RESNA. My RESNA activities include service as a board member and officer continuously from 1986 to 1998. I have also participated extensively in conference activities, standards, special interest groups, retreats and other planning and process activities. It is difficult for me to separate my career from my activities with RESNA. They seem to be fused as I am at a loss to find any obvious seams. I was a founding member and have been an active participant. Virtually all my career decisions since my entry into rehabilitation engineering have been influenced in some manner by my engagement and association with RESNA.
On the future of RESNA
I think we can predict some of the events that will have a substantial impact on RESNA, but unfortunately we will not likely be able to estimate the timing of them with very much accuracy. We should be prepared to respond to events that have the potential to substantially alter our field. Success in regeneration will have substantial consequences for us. Our future will depend on our resiliency and capacity to respond and adapt.
My suggestions for those just entering the field
I would tell those who are entering that they are fortunate as this is a noble and gratifying field of endeavor. They should come to it with both passion and dedication, they should be prepared for continuous learning and development to stay abreast of what is certain to be a dynamic, changing landscape.