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NSF CAREER award helps NMSU professor design devices for search and rescue teams

Zachary Toups wasn’t always a computer science professor. Before he started teaching at New Mexico State University, he was a researcher attached to the Disaster Preparedness and Response group involved with Texas Task Force 1, one of 28 federal teams under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue System. These teams go to the scene of a disaster and search the debris to find survivors.



Zachary Toups, NMSU computer science associate professor, was awarded a prestigious NSF CAREER award given to early career faculty to create integrated contributions to research and education.

“When I was working with Texas Task Force 1, the state of the art at the time was walking around with a waterproof box full of paper and pencils and we would write about what we’d find,” said Toups.

Toups’ experiences led to his current research working on human computer interfaces.

After receiving one National Science Foundation award for nearly $500,000, Toups recently received an NSF CAREER award for related research.

“Although Dr. Toups is already succeeding in his young research career, receiving a prestigious NSF CAREER award will give him the extra boost to fully establish his exciting and productive research group,” said Jonathan Cook, department head for computer science in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Toups, an assistant professor in computer science, received the five-year NSF CAREER award of more than $132,000 per year to study wearable computers that may someday help urban search and rescue teams to work more effectively.

“Working closely with the Texas Task Force 1 response team, the project team will create custom-built wearable systems to support their mission as well as purpose-built mixed reality training simulations that combine virtual simulation with physical-world settings,” Toups said. “The team will closely collaborate with its existing task force partners, using observation of their existing training practices and interviews with task force leaders to develop models of task force training requirements and design considerations for wearable systems to support them. These will be disseminated both to disaster response teams and the human computer interface community.”

In Toups first NSF grant in which he is collaborating with computer science professor Son Tran and psychology professor Igor Dolgov, the team is focused on the use of drones. The aim is to consider how wearable computers can support urban search and rescue contexts as science advances to move from multiple humans piloting one drone to one human directing many drones.

Both projects go hand in hand.

“They are complementary projects,” Toups said. “The first NSF grant covers wearable interfaces for drone teams, while the CAREER grant covers wearable interfaces for human teams in search and rescue. I expect drone piloting to be one use case in the future of search and rescue but not our only use case. I also expect there to be work around wearable designs in general that will transfer between the two projects, as well as equipment and software.”

NSF CAREER awards support junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through the integration of education and research. Toups’ CAREER award will help him develop courses and outreach activities for NMSU students including projects based on a human computer interface class.

“With the support of this grant, I also plan to create outreach activities for Dona Ana Community College to expose students from underrepresented groups to research and allow them to work with advanced computing technology,” Toups added.

Ultimately, Toups hopes his research will lead to a design catalog of existing interfaces and best practices for designing wearable and mixed reality interfaces that will guide the design of both wearable interfaces and training simulations for disaster response.

“The team will validate those simulations with the disaster response partners and use them to test and improve both the wearable technologies and the design guidelines the team creates,” Toups said. “Both the work itself and the lessons learned will be used to improve classes at NMSU.”

Toups is among several faculty members in NMSU’s Department of Computer Science to receive NSF Awards in the last year.

“With Dr. Toups’ CAREER award, the faculty members in our department continue their well-deserved success in establishing funded research programs,” Cook said.