From the human body to the human mind: Soccer player turned engineer


By Miranda Buckheit

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Noriana Radwan, a former kinesiology student and division one soccer player, knew that she wanted to help others reach peak athletic performance with her degree — or so she thought. Now, Radwan studies industrial engineering and conducts research on teamwork and cognitive styles.

Radwan, a doctoral student in the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (IME) at Penn State, currently works within the Technology and Human Research in Engineering Design (THRED) Group, a team within the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP).

Under the mentorship of THRED Group Director and Assistant Professor Christopher McComb, Radwan’s research explores human factors, rather than the human body that Radwan had studied for many years.

“People were shocked that I went for engineering because I always thought that I would be a professional athlete,” Radwan said. “It’s been amazing to pursue something that I have never done before — it’s come with its challenges, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. If you put your mind to it, you can do it.”

From the field to the lab

It was during her junior year of college at Hofstra University, while Radwan was working at Nike as a retail employee, that she realized her fascination for how different designs and materials can affect athletic performance. In particular, Radwan was interested in shoes.

“It’s important to have the right materials and tools to enhance an athlete’s performance, like with their clothes,” Radwan said. “Typically, as a kinesiology student, you go with medical degree options. I learned about industrial engineering and the area of human factors and ergonomics and thought that ergonomics seemed like a good fit.”

She began prepping for graduate school by taking the necessary prerequisites for an engineering graduate program, such as advanced math and statistics courses. During this time, she also researched available programs in the country and met with industrial engineering faculty at her university.

Radwan, through her research, discovered the industrial engineering graduate program at Penn State. Setting her sight on the program, Radwan worked meticulously to keep her grades up.

“Penn State was my number one choice and I thought that ‘If I get in, this is it,’” Radwan said. “I also thought that I was at a disadvantage based on my background. I felt like I had to work harder to be accepted because most people in engineering graduate programs have an engineering background or something similar.”

Despite what Radwan felt was a deterrent, her unique background did not stop her from being accepted into the program. When Radwan came to Penn State University Park, she began working with Andris Frievalds, Lucas Professor of Industrial Engineering, and Ling Rothrock, professor of industrial engineering.

One of Radwan’s first projects was with Rothrock on the utilization of augmented reality to help create a virtual software system for pipefitting apprentices. The goal of the software was to prepare the apprentices for their job via 3D technology.

“The transition from my undergraduate education into graduate education was almost seamless,” Radwan said. “The computer work wasn’t that hard for me to understand and the design project was great to help me get some experience under my belt.”

How do we think?

Over time, Radwan became more interested in the way that the human mind operates. Shifting gears, she began working with McComb in fall 2019.

Via the THRED Group, Radwan began working on the study of cognitive styles and teams. The goal of Radwan’s current project with McComb is to measure a person’s preferred way of problem solving.

Radwan explained that cognitive styles can vary: some people may be more innovative in their thought processes and shake things up, while others may be more adaptive and prefer not to rock the boat. Radwan noted that most people fall in the middle or near it, while few lie at the extremes.

Cognitive styles can affect the way a team operates, which is why industry is invested in learning more, Radwan noted.

Radwan also explained that this connection can be made for athletic teams: if a player has a coach with a vastly different cognitive style, there may be conflict.

“If people have different cognitive styles, it can affect the way a team works or how a one-on-one relationship between a manager and employee operates,” Radwan said. “Also, I want to learn more about how people cope when they are given a problem to solve that must be solved in a certain fashion that may be against their cognitive style. How do you cope? How long can you cope? These questions are still in the exploratory phase.”

McComb hopes that as they continue this work, they can create knowledge that supports the beneficial role of cognitive diversity in teams. McComb wants to help people better understand their own cognitive style so that they can use their strengths to be better team members.

He explained that Radwan is an “amazingly hard-working researcher” and developed the project on her own. He also noted that her unique background brought in fresh perspectives for the team.

“Since she doesn’t have a background in engineering, she has challenged some of the basic assumptions that we were making about how teams work, which has really helped the project to progress,” McComb said.

Making goals

Despite being busy with her doctoral studies, Radwan still finds time for her passion: soccer. She plays on the Penn State women’s club team and explained that it’s her favorite non-academic experience with the University.

“Sports build a bond,” Radwan said. “We get to go through similar experiences together and have our passion with less pressure. I think this is a great follow up to my undergraduate soccer career because it has provided me with my closest friends at Penn State.”

Radwan’s team is self-coached and usually practices five times a week while playing games on the weekends. Radwan’s team went to club soccer team nationals in fall 2019.

By finding her niche, Radwan found a community within the larger Penn State network. She explained that the transition to a large university and engineering was a challenge; yet, the size of Penn State didn’t constrain her.

“I think that my life has been a constant learning experience,” Radwan said. “I never saw myself as an engineer, but this has been a super rewarding experience from top to bottom. I look forward to my future as a researcher and engineer and I am thankful for the life I have been able to build for myself outside of my studies.”

The student spotlight series by the Penn State Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (IME) aims to highlight innovators, makers and those that personify engineering excellence in their academic studies. The department currently has 90 doctoral students, 59 master’s students and 436 undergraduate students. In addition, the department hosts 31 full-time and courtesy faculty members. Established in 1908, the department is home to the first industrial engineering program in the world and has made a name for itself in the engineering industry through its storied tradition of unparalleled excellence and innovation in research, education and outreach. To learn more about IME and how you can get involved, visit


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Megan Lakatos

a woman stands next to a research poster

Radwan switched her academic focus a few times until she found her passion of cognitive research. IMAGE: PROVIDED

“I never saw myself as an engineer, but this has been a super rewarding experience from top to bottom.”
—Noriana Radwan, industrial engineering graduate student