When 007 Meets PhD

Psychology's own 'Q' works on gadgets around the world

Describing the work I do can be as challenging as the work itself. I envy people who can glibly describe their career field in three words or less: cardiologist, high school teacher, taxi cab driver. Mine is not so easy. Even within psychology, I find that the nature of my work is an enigma. For the past 15 years, I have applied my degrees in experimental psychology to the stuff James Bond movies are made of.

At Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I have assessed the quality of surveillance and reconnaissance imagery in Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles. I have evaluated eyeglass inserts for Air Force gas masks. I have helped B-2 pilots schedule sleep and wake periods to counter fatigue during missions, which often last more than 24 hours. When the Marines grew stymied by the shortage of translators in Iraq, I turned to evaluating the use of handheld translation devices. Finally, I apply studies in target and signal detection to technologies that expose and neutralize explosive devices. The technologies I assess take me from coast to coast and to such places as England, Germany, Japan, Korea, and Australia.

In any location, a common thread remains; I must identify the utility of technology for military applications. And while I deal in the most sophisticated of gadgets and gizmos, I consider my work a pursuit of human factors. That is, I evaluate the “user friendliness” of any equipment designed for human use.

My 007 days began as a graduate student, when my research focused on applying the theory of signal detection to human target detection. I conducted vigilance tasks that required observers to focus on a display and sustain their attention for prolonged periods of time. Little did I know that I would later apply this research to safeguarding military personnel and enabling better use of their equipment.

A typical evaluation involves travel to a user’s location, where he will complete various tasks using the equipment. I collect feedback, head back to the office to analyze the data, and report the results.

The most intriguing aspect of my work is applying principles of experimental design while working in a chaotic field environment. These locations can often be fraught with complications not normally experienced in a laboratory setting. As a technical and quality-assurance specialist, I am also responsible for overseeing the 18 programs within my section to ensure that assessment plans are sound, forms and questionnaires are appropriate, analytical techniques are correct, and reports are well written. Finally, as an instructor, I am responsible for mentoring junior analysts and new hires, developing instructional guides, and providing training seminars for fellow co-workers.

Indeed, both working as a human factors experimental psychologist at SAIC and explaining my application of psychology can be challenging. Yet, my reward is an endless stream of new and diverse opportunities — not to mention the chance of living out a James Bond dream.


Observer Vol.19, No.5 May, 2006

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