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From emergency response to sitting at a desk from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., we all face workplace challenges. Dr. Ranjana Mehta, associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, shares her research in the emerging field of neuro ergonomics, where she seeks to combine the study of brain function with human factors and behaviors  on the job site to help engineer better tools and technologies.

Episode Transcript

Hannah: Hi there, and welcome to Texas A&M Engineering presents SoundBytes, the podcast where faculty, students and staff share their passions, experience and expertise. Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Engineer This! Jenn always does a little shoulder shake at that point, so I tried it. Wasn't as good as hers. On this episode, you have me. Hello, it's Hannah. And of course, as always, you have my co-host, Steve.

Steve: Howdy.

Hannah: Today's an interesting episode.

Steve: Yes, it is. We have so many fun tips and tricks that are actually applicable in your real life. So let me just start with a question.

Hannah: Alright. 

Steve: Have you ever felt fatigued, maybe burned out?

Hannah: Like in senior year?

Steve: Exactly like senior year. Well, today we have Dr. Ranjana Mehta. She is an associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. She's also the director of the Neuro Ergonomics lab. Dr. Mehta shared several useful pieces of advice for everyone from students to emergency responders who are on the forefront of brand new technologies out in the field.

Hannah: And then after that, you get to see how well Steve and I do answering an engineering question in Ask an Engineer.

Steve: Hint, one of us does well, the other does not.

Hannah: Keep listening to figure out who's who.

Steve: Alright. Enjoy the episode. Alright. Well, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us today.

Dr. Mehta: Thank you for having me, Steve and Hannah.

Hannah: When most people think about engineering, or at least when I think about engineering, I think, you know, mechanics. I think oil fields and things like that. I don't normally associate it with public health. How did you get into this?

Dr. Mehta: One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that what we know right now doesn't hold true even a few seconds after. Our research has to evolve as we evolve with it. So when I started in public health a couple of years ago, I learned how to use engineering as a tool to develop public health solutions to address a lot of health challenges in the country and in the world, like obesity, sedentary behavior. Right now my research is focusing on how do we address these issues from a systemic perspective? Do we look at just a person neck down, which is understanding, you know, how a person sits, stands, conducts their work? Or do we look at the holy grail of a human being which is the brain, so how does, you know, your mind and your body work together and understanding what's really happening so that better machines and technologies can be developed that really intuitively senses and adapts to, you know, human behavior that looks at both from the mind and body perspective?

Hannah: What kind of situations would that be applied in? Is that just labor work? Or is that, you know, sitting at a podcast table?

Dr. Mehta: Well, you can never disassociate the two, right? Can you imagine us walking without our brains? And can you imagine just brains doing things for us without, you know, technology or our motor system, which is our hands and legs. So we really need for them to work together, and we have applied neural ergonomics, which is what this field is called, in various settings. We have looked at it in oil and gas. We have looked at it in health care. We have looked at it in modern offices. We are looking at in emergency response fields. So you can imagine a firefighter who's out there to extinguish fires, but they're also cognitively and mentally stressed. So how does that affect their motor actions is what we are trying to understand and then modulate in order to improve their safety and improve the economic consequences of any disasters.

Steve: Real quick, can we define neuro ergonomics?

Dr. Mehta: Neuro ergonomics has been coined as a new area in human factors and ergonomics. It is the study of the brain and behavior at work. So you know, we have all of these amazing neuro scientists from the psychology domain who really understand the brain, who understand function based on, you know, brain structure, brain function. And the best way to do it is in a scanner. However, when we look at workers, someone who is in an oil field in the Gulf, or someone who is up in space, they are not sitting, they are not sleeping. They have to keep moving, and sometimes they have to move in very different and awkward ways. So we need to develop technologies, neural technologies that can help us look into the brain in these scenarios. So neuro ergonomics is translation of these basic technologies that neuroscientists use, and then provide these technologies to engineers who can then refine them to understand how humans think in actual work settings. One of my focus has been in translating this to the physical ergonomics domain. So looking at how we look at the brain when a worker is lifting heavy boxes, or when a firefighter has to hold a hose, which is really heavy and the effect it has on their backs. You know, the world is now focusing on the backs and the brains, and we really need this integrative method, and this is something that we are doing with neuro ergonomics.

Steve: That’s fascinating.

Hannah: From your research, what's the biggest challenges that workers face?

Dr. Mehta: That's a really good question, and it doesn't have one single answer. There are multiple challenges that workers face. When we look at a work system and we design a work system, we design it assuming that the person who's going to be using the system has all of their functions intact. And that's usually not the case. Unfortunately, most of the tools that we have to assess or design these work systems are based on healthy adult data. And even more unfortunate is that these data was created long time back when our workforce looked largely younger males, very few women, and very few older adults and individuals with let's say, chronic conditions, mental and physical chronic conditions. So one of my research thrusts is looking at the changing workforce demographics. Our workforce is two-thirds overweight and obese. Sixty percent of our workforce also say that they have expressed or reported some sort of depressive symptomology during the course of their work. And from basic research, we know these very different chronic conditions can impact how you think and can impact how you respond and react to technologies or scenarios. But we don't integrate the two. So what is really challenging for workers is that researchers and practitioners are not talking about these emerging conditions, workforce conditions. It's not translating into better engineering solutions. So human factors and ergonomics looks at the human component of things.

Steve: In your lab, how are you working to address these? What are y'all doing?

Dr. Mehta: The first thing that we do in our labs is look at why is it that different groups of people behave differently? And we look at it from the brain perspective, and we look at it from the body perspective. We get a lot of participants in the lab ranging in various demographic factors like age, obesity level, experience of the tasks that they are doing, and we have them go through simulated tasks and we image their brain while they're sitting, standing, moving, and we image the portions of their body that they are doing the tasks. So for example, we are looking at the muscles when someone is lifting heavy weights, and we're looking at the brain while they're doing the same. We even take a lab outside to the field. So we have gone to RELLIS, we have imaged a person's brain while they are flying a drone. This is one of the projects that is funded by NSF, where we are looking at first responders who fly small UAS or drones in disaster response scenarios.

Steve: Wow.

Dr. Mehta: And we want to look at how is the technology design and the process, the work system, interacting with this particular person who's highly fatigued, because they have been up there for long periods of time, and they're flying these systems that are in the air that they don't have proper visuals. And what does their brain activation patterns look like? We have also imaged stroke patients as they learn how to use wearable robotics in order to walk properly. And in doing so we're looking at what is happening in the brain, the neuro plasticity that is happening in the brain and can that be fed back to the robotics in order to create a more adaptive robot that thinks like the person and the interaction between the human and the robot that he's wearing is very fluent and harmonious.

Steve: One thing that's really big, especially in engineering right now, is interdisciplinary work, and this seems like an amazing example of bringing together two completely different disciplines to really make an impact. What does it mean to you to be able to work on a project that has real world potential to impact people's daily lives?

Dr. Mehta: It's very personal to me, and also it's very exciting, you know. You have to satisfy the curiosity of a scientist by taking up challenging problems, and this is what it provides me on the intellectual side. I've had students from public health, I've had students from kinesiology, from psychology, from engineering. One of my students, undergrad, was in chemical engineering. And because of their amazing skills that they learned from the chemical engineering portion, they can apply it to utilize a new emerging technology that they understand the chemistry in the human brain and apply it in an engineering way. Of course they learn the human aspects of things as they come with me. So for me, the intellectual curiosity of bringing in different disciplines, converging them together to solve a problem is amazing. For us as human factors and ergonomics engineers in industrial engineering, we think about how best to engineer human responses, because that's the language engineers think. So if we are working with mechanical engineers, they are going to be thinking about controls theory and how to actuate, you know, a certain robot, but they need to understand who the robot is being attached to, or who the robot is interacting with. So it's our responsibility to make sure that we do our best in terms of understanding the human as a whole. And that is why, you know, my focus is not just looking at the body, not just looking at the brain, but both. And there are not a lot of researchers who do this because it's very, very difficult.

Hannah: You mentioned engineers needing to keep in mind who the technology is being used for and used on. One piece of technology that we read a few articles covering your research included was the standing desk. And I think in the past few years, it's been a piece of technology that's kind of garnered a lot of attention and has become very widespread in the workforce with a lot of questions about how effective it is. How effective is it?

Dr. Mehta: Oh, you're putting me on the spot over here. You know, just today, an article came out that says sitting is not good, standing is not good, movement is key. And that is what most people who do standing desk research also believe in. However it doesn't come across. So when we say standing desk, we actually force ourselves to say active workstations. Think about it, we are sitting right now. How often would we stand up if we just had an environment where there were chairs and the desks were not raised?

Steve: Sure.

Dr. Mehta: I have a standing desk in my office. What it does for me is it allows me to move, which a chair doesn’t, and it allows me to adopt fidgety motions, rhythmic motions of my body. Growing up, you know, my mom always is telling me don't, don't fidget, stop, stop moving. And we need to move away from that. Standing desks allow us a little bit of freedom, right? So, so it helps us to move freely in a space. And it also socially guilts the person who's visiting you in the room to keep standing. It's facilitating movement. What we have found in some of our research is that when people have these transitions from sit to stand, stand from sit a lot of times during the day, that actually is beneficial. What we refrain from saying is standing is better than sitting. So far, it's been standing desks, you know. There have been a lot, general fad around treadmill desks, there's a cycling desk. So all of these are, you know, important, but the key is to keep moving. And in fact, there is evidence of physical activity improves brain health and cognition. And we did a study with high school students where we found that it actually improved their cognitive abilities over the course of a semester, and it improved their brain function over the course of a semester.

Steve: I have a standing desk in my office and typically I feel guilty when I raise it up and just end up pacing around the room in between emails.

Dr. Mehta: Oh that’s amazing. You should do that.

Steve: Well, that, that's good to know. I won't try and stop myself every time I start walking around. 

Hannah: You thought you were just being annoying.

Steve: Exactly.

Dr. Mehta: Well, that could be true too.

Steve: Well, we can't count that out. With more people being familiar with standing desks, what do you think the next piece of technology or office equipment that people are going to become more familiar with? Or what do you think they should be more familiar with?

Dr. Mehta: I think any technology that helps in positive behavior change, for example, you know, you're looking at smartphones. We are trying to create mobile workstations. I have been traveling for the past four weeks, and it is tiring. I'm sitting in these cramped airplane seats and I have my laptop in front of me. It's the worst possible position that an ergonomist would tell you that you are in. And as an ergonomist, I still do it. People are moving towards these smart technologies, tablets, iPhones. We have these initiatives in university on using tablets for education. We have these initiatives in using these emerging technologies like virtual reality. We need to be careful about the implication that has on the user’s health. They are great technologies for engaging the person. But when you think about a wearable head-up display, like a virtual reality system. Think about the load it's placing on your neck, cervical spine. And we know that when we are upright versus when we are just a little bent, our neck is bent, it adds a lot of load to your spine. And spine problems are one of the worst that anyone can have. They never go away. We have this in schools, K through 12. We have this, these emerging technologies influx in higher education. So we need to be careful as engineers to know how humans or users interact with these technologies. Virtual reality is amazing. It's an amazing tool for education. It's an amazing tool for, for interventions for pain management and anxiety management. We need to be careful of how often we ask users to use them. Maybe structural engineers or, you know, materials scientists could be working with people who develop virtual reality in order to design lighter systems, systems that don't load the spine in ways that is detrimental and can offset some of the loading. So those are the kinds of things that I think we need to be careful about. And we need to do more research in.

Jenn: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. This is Jenn the producer here with a public health note. I had to cut about six different coughs during the editing of this episode. And while those were likely just allergies, flu season is upon us. No one likes getting sick, so please take care of your health for your sake and the health of those around you. If you stick around to the end of the episode, Dr. Mehta offers some good tips, but you won't get any spoilers out of me. So you'll have to keep listening. Talk to you later.

Hannah: You talked earlier about office and work fatigue, just kind of briefly with the drones flying in the rescue situations. What does fatigue mean? Like is it the same thing as like burnout? 

Dr. Mehta: That's a very good question. No, fatigue is not burnout. They're very different in the sources that caused them, in the processes that lead to their manifestation, and in the outcomes that you see. So burnout is more psychological, emotional, as well as physiological whereas fatigue is largely physiological. You can get fatigued at the end of this podcast. You have been mentally straining because you are listening to me or you're sitting in these chairs and you should be up standing and walking. So you can get fatigued quickly. Burnout happens gradually. Fatigue can also happen gradually depending on the sources, but they're very different in their origin. Similarly, stress is also very different. We tend to say fatigue and stress are the same way, but they’re very, very different based on how they happen. So their solutions need to be very different. And that is why most solutions for burnout is very different than most solutions for fatigue and is very different for resolving stress-related issues.

Steve: I imagine that this doesn't apply just to professionals who are out in the variety of fields that you've already mentioned, but also to students like the ones here during finals week, mid-terms. How does that kind of apply to a younger subset that experience it on a different, I guess, level than professionals would?

Dr. Mehta: I'm glad you raised this point, because that's true. A lot of work that has initially been done on the effect of stress on academic performance, the, the effect of sleep deprivation on academic performance, have created the foundation for solutions throughout campuses in this country. A lot of them choke on the pressure of the exams. The week before the finals, it's one of the most tense. Studies have documented that. We are actually utilizing that foundation to a lot of work scenarios. I go back to work because a lot of our focus is on work. We're looking at how people learn under states of stress. The state that you learn information is the best state that you retain it in. So when you think about students not being able to perform well, that’s because they are pretty well rested throughout the semester, and then they are very stressed during exams. Now we’re not saying that we need to stress them out throughout the semester, but what we are trying to say is we need to make sure that the examination, they're not as stressful because then you will see how well they perform. Because it's all about knowing how well your students have actually learned the material. What we need to do is figure out best educational and pedagogical practices that can link back assessment during exams to how we actually train them during the regular semester. 

Steve: So is there anything that students can try to keep in mind to try to do their part to be in a better frame of mind for those stressful times?

Dr. Mehta: Sleep. Sleep is one of the biggest predictors of learning and it impairs learning when someone is sleep deprived, and it enhances learning, because it helps in memory consolidation, when someone has learned new information. So sleep is a big deal. I never used to understand why my mom would tell me to sleep, you know, before my examination, because like most people, they have a lot of cramming up, you know, the day before the finals, and then you wouldn't sleep. So that information has not been consolidated. And of course, during the exam, you're not able to retrieve those information. So it's important to sleep. Sleep and physical activity. Those are the two things that are very, very important.

Hannah: Where do you see your research going next?

Dr. Mehta: Hopefully, we are getting to a point where we can create wearable devices that can look into the brain. And not only do we just want to look into the brain, we want to augment brain function. The thrust of our lab right now is neuro ergonomics in the wild. What we want to do is how best can we collect data from a person's head? Can we rely on that data? And how can we use it to harness solutions? So what sort of solutions would be helpful? Could we provide an augmented reality solution in front of them? Is that something that would be feasible in the wild, which is when they are off in a hurricane for disaster response or if they are in space. So that's the area that we are going into, we're going into adaptive brain control or brain computer interfaces.

Steve: So whenever you meet someone for the first time and you're explaining what you do, what is it that you try to emphasize?

Dr. Mehta: The one thing I tell people is the whole is greater than the sum of its part. One plus two is not three, it's five. When you look at different subsystems together, you learn more about the entire system than if you look at them separately, and that's what I do. It's actually a Gestalt principle that says the whole is different than the sum of its part. And then that is what I tried to do in my research, where we look at the connections of the mind, the motor system, and its interaction with machines. 

Steve: Can I just say, some of these work examples are the most fascinating work examples that I could imagine, ranging from emergency responders who are literally out there putting their lives on the line, to astronauts exploring new places off planet. What is it like even just considering all the different places where your research could go? 

Dr. Mehta: It is very exciting. I would never trade my job for anything else. I've been very blessed to have found what I really want, and I hope that every student that goes through our college and that goes through our university is able to find that because it's very difficult finding your passion. And it's very difficult linking that passion to survival, right? You need to pay your bills. And when you find that, that's an amazing combination. That is why I keep telling my students use the four years of undergrad that you have, because you're paying for those four years, to get the best that you can, especially at A&M. You have one of the premier engineering schools. We have all sorts of facilities. Get into undergrad research, you know, participate in Aggies Invent, participate in the Aggie Challenges, volunteer with professors because you never know where that will take you. I never thought I wanted to be a professor until the third year of my Ph.D. I never thought I could do it. But then when I took a leap of faith and I taught a course, like, “Okay, yeah, I like it.” You know, this is something that's really interesting to me, and, and thankfully, over the next 10 years, I am still loving it. So I'm hoping that it continues. It's very exciting. It's very scary because at any moment, I could falter and fail. And I have failed before, but it has always been towards building something better and something more robust. So I'm really grateful and excited for the opportunity to be at A&M engineering.

Jenn: Hey, it's your producer Jenn and I'm here to introduce our next segment where our non-engineering co-hosts try their best to answer engineering questions. It's Ask an Engineer. Steve and Hannah will have 30 seconds to search online to answer the question, and then our guest will tell them how they're wrong. We'll fast forward through the searching part.

Steve: Alright, Jenn, we're ready. What's the question?

Jenn: Your question is, “What are some of the best ways to stay healthy in the workplace?” All right, time's up. You both now have 15 seconds to answer. Alright, your 15 seconds starts now. 

Hannah: Cool. Well, I have a few tips for you guys, maybe, about staying healthy in the workplace. Other than the first bullet on mine which was don't talk to sick employees. Make sure you take breaks, kind of move around during the day. 

Jenn: You're out of time.

Hannah: Water.

Jenn: Alright, alright, I like it.

Hannah: Do you want mine Steve?

Steve: Yeah.

Jenn: We're passing around microphones. It's very exciting. All right. Your 15 seconds Steves. Steves? Steve.

Steve: Just one of me.

Jenn: Starts now.

Steve: Alright. Well, I think that I saw some similar tips to Hannah, less about ergonomics and more about general health, but trying to limit your computer time so that you're not staring at the computer for too long, getting up and walking.

Jenn: There you go.

Steve: And that's all we got.

Jenn: All we got. 15 seconds is not a lot of time.

Steve: It is not.

Jenn: Okay, so how did they do?

Dr. Mehta: They get an A for effort. All right, who do I assess first?

Steve: It's a free for all.

Dr. Mehta: Alright, so Hannah, that is correct what you said. I think moving is important. Movement really helps in neurogenesis, which is making sure that, you know, the synapses in your brain remain engaged, the ones that are drying off can get regenerated, so perfect, a perfect answer. Steve. So the first thing you said was limit your computer working times. You will be fired from your job my friend.

Steve: Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Dr. Mehta: So, however, it has some partial truth to it. So I think what would be a better way to phrase it is make sure we engineer products that can help us optimize our time at our computers between productivity and safety.

Steve: That sounds good.

Hannah: Steve will just limit his time.

Steve: So I was wondering, when you mentioned having activity, what are a few things that people could do as they're sitting at their desk.

Dr. Mehta: Or moving at their desks. You know, one of the things that I found really helpful are the standing desks. And I think we've talked about it before, I have a standing desk, it helps me adopt my natural movement rhythm, my, you know, fidgeting motions. That actually helps in micro motions and activations of different muscle groups. I’m going really deep over here. I apologize, but I get very excited talking about muscles and the brain. So having a work environment that helps you move. Even if you're sitting, maybe you keep moving. You stand up, you move around, have some space around you. Make sure that your computer's put in a position that doesn't extend or flex your neck. I do not like dual monitors. I know a lot of people have them. I just cannot deal with it. And also, you know, really if you have dual monitors have one of these monitors as your primary monitor. Because then you know, otherwise, you don't have one as your primary, you're always move, you know, you're never in a neutral posture. Movement is key. And it's important. For those who have those exercise balls. Beware. They seem good in theory, but most often than not people are not trained to use them. And if they don't know how to use their core well, they may adopt bad postures that may fatigue their muscles rather than actually facilitate, you know, conditioning of their muscles. So it's a good tool in the gym, because you're concentrating on that action, right? In the workplace, you're actually concentrating on your work and not on how well you're sitting. So unless you know how well to sit, make sure that you use these cautiously.

Steve: Are there any tips that, you know, we missed that you want to make sure to share?

Dr. Mehta: It's equally important to move. But it also is important to have an active mind. You need to make sure that you rest because your mind can be as efficient as your sleep patterns. You need to make sure that you are mentally healthy and you have an environment around you that supports it and facilitates it, as well as being physically active. It's really important to connect the two, you know, the neck up and the neck down aspects of your being.

Hannah: Mind and body.

Dr. Mehta: Mind and body.

Steve: Perfect. Well, I think that's going to do it for us today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Mehta: Thank you so much for having me. I've had so much fun. I love talking about research so.

Steve: We do too.

Hannah: Oh yeah.

Steve: Wonderful. Well have a great rest of the day.

Dr. Mehta: Thank you. You too.

Steve: Thanks so much for tuning in to Texas A&M Engineering presents: SoundBytes. What’d you think? Have any questions for us? Hit us up and let us know at That's bytes with a Y. And keep an eye out for us in ZACH. We wander around the building from time to time, and we'd love to hear from you. So stop by and say hello or maybe lend your voice for a future episode. Finally, just so you know, the views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the hosts and guests and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Texas A&M University System. Make sure to tune in next week and until then, from everyone on the Pod Squad, sounding off. Thanks and gig ‘em.