Johnell Brooks: Driven to Make a Difference

Lohnelle Brooks working with a client

Johnell Brooks contracted meningitis while a 21-year-old Clemson University undergraduate student.

Inflammation settled on her occipital lobe, the brain’s visual processing center. For a period of time, she couldn’t see well enough to read.

She couldn’t drive, either.

“It had a huge impact on what I do now,” says Brooks, associate professor of automotive engineering. “I know what it’s like to lose your license for a period of time. I was on house arrest. It was awful. I lost my freedom.”

Brooks hopes to spare others the experience. Working with DriveSafety Inc., she developed some of the first rehabilitation tools that use driving simulators to improve the quality of life of patients with motor, visual and cognitive impairments. Her methods and tools have been used with thousands of patients in more than 50 hospitals and clinics worldwide.

“We are creating rehabilitation exercises performed on a driving simulator that can help patients regain visual, motor and cognitive function, as well as assess patients’ fitness to drive,” Brooks says.

The simulators track patients’ responses to various stimuli using steering wheels, pedals and speedometers. Great care and more than a decade of research went into its ergonomics, displays and vehicle controls, ensuring the most accessible experience for patients and clinicians.

Driving simulators aren’t new technology, but what sets Brooks’ apart are the therapist-inspired exercises and driving scenarios. Most research driving simulators measure reaction time for controls like brake pedals, but Brooks’ tools also provide immediate data-based feedback to help both clinicians and patients. For example, measuring processing speed, lane keeping, speed maintenance and ability to detect obstacles can help stroke patients better understand their new limitations.

Partnering with DriveSafety Inc. (a Salt Lake City-based company that has developed driving simulators originally aimed at research labs and industry), Brooks has submitted more than 100 invention disclosures to the Clemson University Research Foundation. The majority of those disclosures has led to licensed commercial technologies with DriveSafety.

“We’re engineers at DriveSafety. Being able to work with a human factors expert such as Dr. Brooks has been extremely valuable,” says DriveSafety CEO Douglas Evans.

Yes, a human factors expert. Despite her faculty appointment in automotive engineering, Brooks is not an engineer like her colleagues at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research. She received her Ph.D. in psychology from Clemson in 2005.

“I like to say my role at CU-ICAR is to teach engineering students that humans exist,” Brooks jokes.

Brooks’ study of human behavior shows engineering students that not all car buyers focus on horsepower, speed, handling and digital connectivity. People experience driving differently. Drivers or their passengers may have different limitations and capabilities that drive their vehicle purchases. To convey this, Brooks has her engineering students wear pregnancy-simulating suits or vision-impairing glasses to get in and out of a variety of vehicles, for example.

“It’s really cool to see how the students come around to thinking less about what they want as a car enthusiast and more about what a specific target market desires,” Brooks says.

DriveSafety experienced a similar revelation about its products that has fueled its longtime partnership with Brooks.

“DriveSafety started in business to improve automotive design and traffic control. We’re gear heads,” Evans says. “Our collaboration with Clemson really opened our eyes to the opportunities for driving simulators to be used in clinical settings. The technology in these simulators is great, but the real value is in the rehab tools and assessments that we’ve developed working with Johnell and her team at Clemson.”

Brooks and Evans first met in Clemson’s psychology department where Brooks was a graduate student more than a decade ago. Evans’ company made the department’s driving simulator that Brooks used for her dissertation. The two have worked together ever since.

“There are already thousands of patients out there benefiting from our shared research,” Evans says. “I think we’ve just scratched the surface.”

Brooks says working at a university allows her research to continually evolve. Universities allow for interdisciplinary collaboration and flexibility. In addition to automotive engineers, Brooks’ team has collaborated with experts from a broad range of disciplines, including civil engineering, bioengineering, computer science and the social sciences, as well as medicine, occupational therapy, physical therapy and K-12 education.

During the 2017-2018 school year, Brooks is taking a sabbatical to work closely with DriveSafety to focus on new products and services to aid Veterans Affairs clinics. In addition, Brooks and her team are working with Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System to study the effects that sports-related concussions may have on teenagers’ driving performance.

Brooks’ own experiences have shaped her life’s work and given her empathy for those patients holding tightly to the freedoms that come from driving.

“I can look back and see how these life events kept happening and becoming intertwined,” she said. “I am grateful that I can tie these events together to have a positive impact on society.” 

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