National Spotlight Shines on Pitt Research and Technology

Issue Date: 
October 21, 2016

The headline on reads, “Obama Geeks Out Over a Brain-Controlled Robotic Arm That ‘Feels.’”

The online story in WIRED, a media outlet for technology and innovation, refers to groundbreaking research by a University of Pittsburgh-UPMC team that produced assistive technology to enable a person paralyzed by a spinal cord injury to experience the sensation of touch through a robotic arm controlled by the person’s brain.

A self-confessed “science geek,” President Barack Obama visited Pittsburgh for the Oct. 13 White House Frontiers Conference, produced in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. The event explored the future of science and technology. The president's visit focused the national spotlight on Pitt research as well as on the University’s key role in the region’s continuing economic revitalization.

During a morning stop in Alumni Hall’s Connolly Ballroom, Obama viewed several scientific and technological exhibits from across the nation, many with a high “wow factor.”

“Earlier today, I got to see some pretty cool stuff,” the president said during his opening remarks to the 500 guests invited to attend the conference. And that Pittsburgh was chosen as the host city for the White House conference was no surprise, Obama added.

“Pittsburgh has been revitalizing itself through technology for a very long time. … The Steel City is now home to groundbreaking research and world-class universities. … You are doubling down on technology, doubling down on science, doubling down on innovation,” the president said.

The conference looked at the role that science and technology will play in the personal, local, national, global, and interplanetary realms. Speakers addressed topics ranging from how to enable humans to live on Mars to the intricacies of personalized medicine.

But the topic that garnered many of the headlines across the country was a Pitt-UPMC developed technology known as a Brain Computer Interface, which enabled Nathan Copeland, a 28-year-old man who was paralyzed in a car accident, to feel the sensation of touch for the first time in 12 years. A team of Pitt-UPMC researchers recently reported the results in a study published online in Science Translational Medicine.

Obama spoke with Copeland in Alumni Hall, and then shared his experience during his talk later that afternoon.

“Nathan is the first person who can feel with his prosthetic fingers. He hasn’t been able to use his arms or legs in more than a decade, and he can now feel the touch of another person. Researchers will tell you there is still a long way to go. He still can’t feel with his thumb or experience hot and cold. But he can feel pressure with precision,” Obama said.

“That’s what American innovation can do," he added. "Imagine what’s possible for Nathan if we keep on pushing the boundaries."

For more coverage of the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, visit and

(Page One photo: From left, Robert Gaunt; Jennifer Collinger, an assistant professor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation; President Obama; Nathan Copeland; and Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher)