USAARL researcher's sensory science efforts make a difference
June 27, 2014
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (June 27, 2014) -- The Army uses all types of technology to better the Soldier, but that technology must start from somewhere, and one researcher at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory is making it his mission to make a difference.
Dr. Ben Lawson, research psychologist at USAARL with a Ph.D in psychology, mainly studies in an area of physiological psychology that is known as sensory science, with a specific focus on human spatial orientation.
The California native's morning routine is mostly typical, starting with a handful of cashews for breakfast and listening to his audiobooks on his commute to work where he gets his coffee, checks his email and goes through his to-do list before deciding where he should really start his day. After that is when his day gets far from typical, he said.
"There really is not a 'typical day' for a researcher because the job changes continually in terms of what topics you study and what phase of work you are in with any research project," said Lawson. "That's the part of the job I love."
As a researcher, he said he does have a typical multi-year cycle that that most researchers go through for their work, which includes many steps.
First, a researcher must get an idea, and from there, write a proposal for the idea until funding is provided to make evaluations. After that, protocols must be written for how to go about the research, and approval must be had from science review and human use committees.
From there, the researcher has to set up the experiment, collect data from research volunteers, interpret the data, present the preliminary findings and then write a summary report on the final results.
"A science project can have a 'long tail,' in that you may write more than one report concerning your findings, and that effort may take you well beyond the period of the original funding and first report," said the USAARL researcher.
Lawson, who was born in San Francisco, Calif., described the cycle as one that is idealized, and said multiple projects can be at various stages of the cycle at the same time, he said.
"Right now I'm involved in about six efforts, however, I am mainly in the latter stages of the cycle on each effort," said Lawson. "This means I am mainly interpreting the findings and writing the reports on efforts where the data has already been collected."
Currently he is working with his colleagues' research projects at the research laboratory, including developing touch displays for warning when something is approaching even when visual confirmation can't be seen; developing mathematical modeling of human orientation perception as a way of explaining spatial disorientation mishaps in Aviation; identifying the military occupational specialties most affected by traumatic brain injury; and using tactile feedback to improve balance rehabilitation in people with vestibular balance issues.
"Your visual, tactile and vestibular senses help to keep you from falling as you move through the world, but your tactile and vestibular senses can give you false information when you are a pilot undergoing bizarre accelerations in a degraded visual environment," Lawson explained. "I mainly focus on vestibular functions.
"The vestibular organs in the inner ear, and their associated brain structures, help to coordinate balance during standing and walking, to keep your eyes properly focused when your head is moving and to help you perceive how you're moving or oriented in the world" he continued. "They help answer the questions like 'where is the ground?'"
Lawson and his colleagues' research at USAARL tie directly into those sensory perceptions.
Much of Lawson's inspiration comes from his colleagues, including his senior colleague, Angus Rupert, USAARL researcher with an M.D. and Ph.D.
"(He) inspires me regularly by thinking big and swinging for the fences," he said. "He is always moving forward no matter what, and he always sees the glass as 75-percent full."
It's with Rupert that Lawson is writing a proposal related to balance rehabilitation following vestibular balance issues, to which he credits his senior colleague for spearheading the project.
It's not only his professional life that Lawson has garnered inspiration from, however. His Family -- including his father, his wife and three children -- has provided motivation to do what he loves.
"My father's example reminds me that no matter what you do in life, you should strive to be a good communicator," he said. "My wife reminds me to look at the big picture and not disappear completely down the rabbit hole of 'left-brain' science, and my three sons remind me that each morning when I leave the Family cave with my spear in hand, I must 'bring home the bacon' at the end of the day. Being a Family man sharpens one's focus."