Psychological Scientists in the Private Sector

A Vision for Psychological Science

By Celeste McCollough Howard
Celeste McCollough Howard During my first sabbatical leave from Oberlin College in 1962-63, I used my graduate training in visual perception to replicate one of Ivo Kohler's experiments with two-colored spectacles (McCollough, 1965). This research familiarized me with the methods and computational procedures of color science. It also led in the following years to discovery of the "McCollough effect," a color after-effect often demonstrated in introductory psychology classes.

When I returned to professional work in 1986 after 15 years of mid-life "retirement" (if you can call raising two children retirement), my best opportunity came from the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI), which held a contract to provide research directors and other services to the Air Force Human Resources Lab at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona. At the time, this lab - which operates at the leading edge of flight simulation technology for pilot training - was moving from monochrome to full-color displays in its large-field-of-view flight simulators.

Because of my background in color science, I was hired to "do something" about this newly available color. I found that the light from these displays was quite dim, making it difficult to specify and match colors in neighboring parts of a display. In order to address this problem, I began participating in a technical committee of the Commission International de l'Eclairage (CIE) that was studying mesopic photometry, the evaluation of medium-intensity light that stimulates both rods and cones. (The cone sensitivity function is used for evaluating intense light that stimulates only cones, and the rod sensitivity function for dim light that stimulates only rods. There is no simple way to combine these functions for light that affects both kinds of receptors.) For several years, my publications described the apparent brightness of mesopic colors, the color output of light valve and CRT projectors, and the procedures we developed for optimization of color in multiple-screen flight simulator displays. Today's color displays have much greater brightness and resolution, but CIE technical committees are still working out ways of measuring the effectiveness of light in the mesopic range.

Since 1995, the contract formerly held by UDRI has been shared by three corporations, and my research has supported the Night Vision Training Research Program. We have recently done two experiments that arose from a typical operational issue: When a pilot is wearing night vision goggles (NVGs), can s/he become so light-adapted that s/he cannot immediately get information from the dimmer cockpit instruments? One of these studies was done under contract with a university laboratory which had the required visual science equipment. I studied the available literature, designed both experiments, guided their execution, and wrote two reports, one for visual scientists (Howard, Tregear, & Werner, 2000) and one for the applied aviation community.

Other psychologists with research interests in speech perception, attention, cognition, human factors, and training technology have also contributed to the work of this lab. A number of these psychologists now work in the aircraft or automotive industry. Military labs tend to focus on research that can be applied in military operations, but my experience suggests that there is always some recognition of the importance of basic research. The latitude for supporting basic research will vary from time to time, depending on local and national moods.

If you consider taking a position with a military lab contractor, be sure to get well acquainted with the civil service branch chief whose job it is to understand both the military chain of command and the corporate contractor you will be working for. The uniformed officers will come and go; it is the civilian research directors who provide continuity. Young PhDs might do well to think about hiring on to work toward such civil service positions.

Some final words of advice to psychological scientists contemplating a non-academic career: Keep and enlarge your connections with psychologists doing related research at universities and other locations throughout the world. They will help you find needed information quickly and ensure high quality in your research designs.


McCollough, C. 1965. Conditioning of color perception, American
Journal of Psychology, 78, 362-378.
Howard, C.M., Tregear, S.J. Werner, J.S. 2000. Time course of early
mesopic adaptation to luminance decrements and recovery of spatial
resolution, Vision Research 2000, 40, 3059-3064.

American Psychological Society
December 2000
Vol. 13, No. 10

2001 American Psychological Society
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