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catalyst

The Magazine of The College of Sciences

Trio of researchers tackles combat cognition


Imagine the daily work environment of U.S. Army soldiers. Seated in windowless tanks, they travel over bumpy roads bouncing wildly up and down over rugged terrain. Their tanks’ audio and video monitors are the only connection to the outside world, but they know their environment is dangerous. As the situation becomes more intense, they try to respond to an array of informational cues, but soon it becomes hard to focus. When will their attention waver? When will fatigue set in? What is happening in their brains?

UTSA researchers Kay Robbins, professor of computer science in the College of Sciences; Nandini Kannan, professor of management science and statistics in the College of Business; and Yufei Huang, associate professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering, hope to answer those questions soon. Led by Robbins, the study’s principal investigator, the interdisciplinary trio received a five-year, $2.4 million award from the Army Research Laboratory. Their research project is part of a $25 million initiative to improve human-system interactions.

“Traditionally, cognitive monitoring has been conducted in simple lab settings under controlled conditions,” said Robbins. “This study takes that concept to the next level by developing adaptive tools researchers can use to collect, manage and interpret neurological and sensory data in real time. It is our hope that the tools will help individuals focus on their critical needs so they can quickly process information and make decisions in a variety of stressful situations.”

To date, cognitive monitoring tools have been limited, mainly allowing researchers to collect data in a laboratory environment and interpret it long after the monitoring session. Over the next five years, however, the UTSA researchers will develop methods to monitor the brain and interpret the massive amounts of data collected in real time.

Kay Robbins earned her doctorate in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She joined UTSA in 1975 and researches visualization, computational biology and scientific applications. Robbins has received numerous accolades for her teaching of undergraduate students, including nomination for the UT Regents Outstanding Teaching Award.

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