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Ranjana Mehta
September 8, 2023

Focus on new faculty: Ranjana Mehta explores connections between mind, motor, machine

Written By: Tom Ziemer

A worker wearing an exoskeleton can lift heavier objects without straining muscles, increasing productivity while reducing injury risk. At first glance, it’s a clear improvement, seemingly without any drawbacks.

But how does wearing such a device impact the worker’s cognitive abilities? Does it add a mental load that might distract attention from, say, an oncoming forklift?

“You have to develop new motor models for how you move, which takes up some cognitive resources,” says Ranjana Mehta, a neuroergonomics researcher who’s exploring these sorts of questions—ones that are often overlooked but carry serious ramifications for workers.

Mehta has brought her work investigating what she calls the ‘mind-motor-machine nexus’ to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, joining the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering as a professor in August 2023.

She arrives in Madison after 10 years at Texas A&M, where she had earned tenure. Prior to that, she was on the faculty at Michigan Tech.

Mehta’s research spans the fundamental and applied realms, from looking at the neurophysiological mechanisms of fatigue to assessing trust in collaborative robots and developing sensory and neural augmentation to enhance human performance. She’s particularly keen to study human behaviors under real-world stresses across representative demographics, all with the intent of enhancing health and safety.

“The world is changing; the present and future work now includes robotics and AI,” she says. “Research is still looking at how the human mind and body respond to these technological systems in silos. You have folks who do exoskeleton research, and they largely focus on biomechanical outcomes, but not how it impacts the user’s cognitive or social behaviors. And then you have folks who study extended reality applications, where they look at how augmented reality or any other interfaces support user cognition, but you don’t know how it’s impacting a user’s mind-motor interactions or diverse user demographics. These investigations are needed for fluent and more inclusive human-technology partnerships.”

Mehta joins her former colleague and current collaborator Tony McDonald in ISyE, where they’ll continue a project studying brain-behavior mapping of driver trust in autonomous vehicles. She’s honored to join the department’s group of human factors faculty, including longtime Professors John Lee and Robert Radwin. She remembers reading the latter’s papers as a PhD student at Virginia Tech.

“They are giants in human factors,” says Mehta, who also holds degrees from the University of Mumbai and the University at Buffalo. “I always used to question myself, if I ever wanted to move, where would I consider moving? And UW-Madison would always come up top, for a lot of reasons.”

One of those reasons is the opportunity to build collaborations across departments and campus. She’s particularly interested in connecting with researchers in the School of Medicine and Public Health’s Department of Emergency Medicine to further her work regarding emergency medical technicians—a context where stress and fatigue test mind-motor interactions.

Mehta will bring her research into the classroom in a new graduate-level course, IsyE 859: Mind-Motor-Machine Interaction. She’s also planning to develop a new undergraduate lab-based course on human factors and ergonomics that will allow students to actively try out a range of different methods, including eye tracking, electromyography, wearables and more.

Beyond specific tools, though, she’s keen to instill the value of bringing a ‘convergence mindset’ to sociotechnical problems. It’s an approach she’s cultivated since being simultaneously captivated by courses on human information processing and biomechanics as a first-year PhD student. Those two seemingly disparate fields have become the intersection for her research.

“Working at the intersection of different disciplines is challenging, sometimes frustrating, but quite rewarding at the end,” she says. “I really love where I am in terms of the work I’m able to do—by leading use-inspired research in human factors and ergonomics, and teaching and mentoring the next generation of human factors engineers.”

Top photo by Joel Hallberg