Uncommon Careers

Psychological science shares borders with many diverse areas. Training in psychological science thus can prepare students to succeed not only in academic departments related to psychology, but also in nonacademic worlds. I asked my colleague Sian L. Beilock to describe the initiative that she is spearheading at the University of Chicago — UChicagoGRAD — which is dedicated to teaching PhD students, including students of psychological science, about the value that their skills can have beyond academia. Beilock has written several pieces on graduate education, which she drew on in writing this column. -APS President Susan Goldin-Meadow What do you see yourself doing after you finish your PhD?” is a question I always ask prospective PhD students during their recruitment visits to the University of Chicago. For several years, I accepted only one answer — that a prospective student aspired to be a professor at a research university. These days, my thinking about the types of answers that are appropriate has expanded. It’s not just because I am now aware that the number of psychology PhDs awarded in a given year outstrips available tenure-track jobs by a large margin, but also because I have come to recognize that some of the best students are interested in diverse career paths. Students are motivated by many desires, ranging from making a clear and immediate impact in the world to — dare I say it — maximizing their earning potential, and a career in academia is not the only option. The varied career aspirations of students, however, present some faculty with a problem. Most of us are quite good at helping our students emulate the path we took toward a faculty position, but we have little experience navigating a career outside the ivory tower and are unprepared to advise students who want to move in a different direction. What do we do? Three years ago, I stepped into an administrative role at The University of Chicago, and I am now the Executive Vice Provost of the university. As part of my portfolio, I worked with academic leaders to develop a new office and initiative called UChicagoGRAD (Beilock, 2015; 2016a, 2016b). UChicagoGRAD is committed to ensuring that graduate students and postdocs have the skills they need to become the next generation of leaders — both inside and outside the academy. Our philosophy is based on a simple premise that I would argue holds true for psychology as well as for many other fields: Many of the same skills are needed for students to be successful in the academy, industry, nonprofits, and government. It is important to be an effective writer, communicator, researcher, critical thinker, teacher, and team member, whether you end up in the classroom or the boardroom. With these ideas in mind, UChicagoGRAD works with graduate students and postdocs to help them develop and demonstrate a varied skill set and then to connect them with the job opportunities they want. Crucially, many of our activities can be implemented at the department level, or even at the individual faculty level, to help psychology students become leaders in whatever careers they pursue. Take a series UChicagoGRAD puts on called “ Expose Yourself!” It is an interdisciplinary series of programs that gives graduate students and postdocs the opportunity to practice presenting their academic work to nonspecialists from across the university. Hundreds of students have, for example, gone on “lab crawls” — moving through four to five labs in an evening — in which students from each lab give short, 10-minute talks on their research-in-progress. The key is to have folks with a variety of backgrounds attend so that students are tasked with discussing the significance of their work to broad audiences. As I have told my PhD students on countless occasions, their goal in interviews for assistant professorships is not to convince the person whose work is most related to their own that they should get the job. This person likely wants to hire them already. Their job is to connect with the person whose work is farthest afield from their own. Activities like our “Expose Yourself!” series help students learn to speak “jargon free”; relate to other people’s interests, background, and priorities; and adjust their presentations accordingly. As a result, they possess the ability to communicate in a way that will not only help them pursue careers as assistant professors, but also as psychological scientists in industry, government, or the nonprofit sector. We also have started an internship and externship program for graduate students to explore diverse careers while gaining professional experience related to their research interests. These experiences range from 1 day to an entire summer. For example, this past summer one of my PhD students, whose research program focuses on understanding individual differences in executive function, attentional control, and human skill learning, spent 3 months in northern California as a paid intern performing research for Sony. In a video-game research lab, he used his knowledge of how we attend and learn to help develop action video games. His experience at Sony, in turn, helped further his dissertation research on learning and performance in real-world, high-pressure situations. Alumni engagement has been key to the success of our career exploration and development programming. Bringing together students and postdocs with alumni who have taken a variety of career paths benefits the professional exploration process while at the same time strengthening the connection between alumni and university. The creativity, logic, and persistence that go into obtaining a doctoral degree in psychology and related fields prepare people to be powerful members of society and the workforce, including (but certainly not limited to) the academy. Obtaining a psychology PhD can be excellent preparation for research-based jobs across industries — from advertising and market research to consulting, recruiting, positions in government and private foundations, and a wide range of other types of businesses. Even if we as faculty members don’t have direct experience pursuing diverse careers, we owe our students the kind of flexible training that will serve them well in and out of the academy and will prepare them to advocate for the value of their skills, which are likely deeply relevant for any career they choose. References Beilock, S. L. (2015).  Preparing PhDs for diverse careers . Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2015/12/18/helping-phds-prepare-diverse-careers-essay Beilock, S. L. (2016a). Finding the full value of a PhD . Retrieved from https://medium.com/uchicago/finding-the-full-value-of-a-phd-88a2c08e6223#.qfqbemnnd Beilock, S. L. (2016b). Introducing UChicagoGRAD . Retrieved from http://mag.uchicago.edu/university-news/introducing-uchicagograd
It’s probably safe to say that most psychological scientists don’t imagine their work affecting the safety of the President of the United States. Marisa R. Randazzo, though, has found herself training the US Secret Service to keep the Commander in Chief from danger. Randazzo, cofounder of the private consulting firm SIGMA Threat Management Associates, spent 10 years as a research psychologist with the Secret Service, the last 2 years of which she served as Chief Research Psychologist and Research Coordinator. One of her biggest tasks in that job was to help agents distinguish between hollow threats and genuine ones. “We really put it to an empirical test,” she says, “by asking, ‘What do people do and say before [trying] to harm the president? Is there anything that is observable or noticeable?’” Marisa Randazzo discusses the Aurora movie theater shooting and the first court appearance of James Holmes on Good Morning America in July 2012. Much of her work involved helping agents look beyond the simplicity of conventional wisdom when assessing dangers. For example, she helped them understand empirical research that suggests that an individual could pose a threat to the president and other officials under Secret Service protection even if that person had no history of violence or mental illness — important information that might help save the lives of both protective detail members and of civilians. If a threatener did have a mental illness, Randazzo and her colleagues suggested that agents go in depth and seek the answers to questions such as: “Are they on their medication; are they in the right care; and how can we connect them to that care?”, rather than making assumptions about those individuals. Randazzo jump-started her career as a psychological scientist at Williams College, where she took a class on psychology and law and was inspired by her professor, APS Fellow Saul Kassin. “His passion for the ability of social science research to inform processes like jury decision-making and expert testimony and justice … got me excited about a field in a way I had never been excited about before,” she said. “It got me thinking about, ‘How can I make social science and law work together?’” Although Randazzo contemplated pursuing a law degree, she opted for a social psychology graduate program at Princeton University. The focus of that program was to foster high-level academics, but Randazzo also was interested in applied research. “I got into the career I did because I volunteered a lot of my time in unpaid internships, actually learning what that science was like,” she adds. “It didn’t give me any publications; it didn’t help my transcript; and it certainly didn’t help me get my degree earlier.” Those unpaid internships — including positions at the RAND Corporation, the Federal Judicial Center, and the Secret Service — did, however, afford her an entry path into an applied research position. After working as a research psychologist at the Secret Service following her internship, Randazzo began overseeing all behavioral research conducted by the agency under the auspices of a stand-alone research program, the National Threat Assessment Center, which conducts studies on government-related risks. Randazzo has not limited her research to protecting VIPs, however — she also codirected a study with the US Department of Education that examined school shootings. The researchers found that shootings both in schools and workplaces are not impulsive acts. “A student [or employee] doesn’t just snap,” she says. “They give these events thought beforehand; they plan them out beforehand, sometimes several months in advance.” Secondly, “people who are planning acts like that don’t keep their plans a secret … they’ll tell friends and they will put it on social media. So we now have scores of cases where school shootings have been prevented because someone saw something posted on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and said, ‘Hey, this sounds worrisome,’” she explains. Randazzo ran a school threat assessment training session for school and law enforcement officials in La Salle County, Illinois in 2014.   Based on these findings, Randazzo and her colleagues created a model for school threat assessment that is now used in federal guides and in threat assessment procedures in Virginia, the only state that takes such measures beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school. As with assessing threats to presidents and other high-ranking officials, Randazzo cautions that decision-makers should not be hasty in deciding how to punish students for acting out before they have fully evaluated what their motives and intentions were. She also emphasizes that prevention often involves connecting that person to the right resources to help solve whatever underlying problems are leading them to feel that violence may be the best or only option left. After the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, during which two students murdered 12 classmates and one teacher, many schools adopted a zero-tolerance policy and suspend or even expel students who show troubling signs or behave in ways that might be considered threatening. These types of guidelines “look good on paper but don’t actually make schools safer,” Randazzo says. “If a friend knows about something but they know that telling will get [the troubled student] expelled, they won’t tell. If they have a safe space, they’re more likely to come out. We’ve seen a sea change over the past 10 years or so, in that students now know that they’re able to bring things like that to the school’s attention.” And increasingly, this information can be traced not only to academics in labs but also to advisors at private enterprises such as SIGMA Threat Management Associates, a consulting practice founded in 2010 that initially focused on college threat assessments. Its mission has since expanded to include consultations for workplaces, government agencies, and high-profile families. According to Randazzo, the employees come from a broad range of backgrounds including K–12 and higher-education settings, workplace-violence-prevention teams, and the military. “One of our team members just retired from NCIS [the Naval Criminal Investigative Service], where she oversaw their threat management operations,” she says. “We have folks who have backgrounds in federal law enforcement, clinical psychology, education, policy, organizational dynamics, and legal expertise.” When assessing threats of any kind, the power of psychological science cannot be overstated, Randazzo adds. “What [threat management agencies] are focusing on so much is human behavior, so to have people who are experts and can further study [these phenomena] helps enhance [our] understanding of why things might happen,” she says. “Behavioral and psychological science in that setting is critical, because so much of what we can do as psychological scientists is study why people do what they do.”
Department of Music,  University of Sheffield, United Kingdom   I earned my master’s degree in musicology from the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and my PhD in psychology from Radboud University, the Netherlands, where I was a member of the “Music Mind Machine” research group. I worked with two other PhD students who had backgrounds in psychology and computer science. We combined our expertise to conduct interdisciplinary research. Afterward, I was a postdoctoral researcher in music, psychology, and computer science departments in Europe (and once in the United States) before settling down at the Department of Music at Sheffield. This department has a strong tradition in the psychology of music, which makes it a suitable place to work. I’m interested in communication and expression in music performance. My aim is to get insight into what musicians do when performing music, and, on the other hand, what their contribution is to the listeners’ experience. I mostly do behavioral–experimental research, including recording performances under varying conditions (e.g., performing at different tempi or with different expressive intentions), measuring performance aspects (e.g., timing and dynamics), and collecting listeners’ responses to performed music. I also investigate cross-modal correspondences between sound and other modalities and the role they play in perceiving and making sense of performed musical sounds, the perception and expression of emotion through music, and processes responsible for emotion induction. Currently, my focus is oriented toward communication among performers in ensemble contexts. With collaborators in York, Leeds, and Sheffield, we’re investigating temporal coordination in sound and visual gestures in vocal ensembles, with special emphasis on barbershop singing. We also will look at social aspects of such coordination, including emerging practice strategies and patterns of communication in rehearsals. At the moment, however, I am on sabbatical for 5 months in Sydney, Australia, where I collaborate with people from the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behavior, and Development (Peter Keller, Manuel Valera, and Jennifer McRitchie) on a project investigating the role of cross-modal information in duo-performer synchronization. We will use transcranial magnetic stimulation to test the role of particular brain areas related to motor simulation and audio-visual binding. We will recruit pianists whose task is to synchronize with a video-recorded pianist. Participants will hear the recorded sounds and see the hand movements of the video-recorded pianist; this will be compared to a condition in which participants will hear the sounds but see an abstract visualization of the hand movements (i.e., a moving dot) rather than the actual hand. The degree of motor simulation and audio–visual integration across conditions will be compared. Relatively speaking, there is a good proportion of students interested in music psychology within a department of music, particularly in an academically oriented department such as in Sheffield. The master’s programs attract students from across the globe with an interest in the psychology of music, and many of these students are interested in continuing this direction of study through PhD research. In other words, there is no shortage of work. œ
Information and Computer Sciences Department, University of Hawai’i at Manoa My work is in the area of human–computer interaction (HCI). HCI researchers are concerned with the design and use of interactive computing systems, and more broadly with their impact on individuals and society. When I began my career, the field of HCI was just getting started. The Association for Computing Machinery was having its first conferences in an area they called “Human Factors in Computing Systems,” and those conferences initially were dominated by psychologists and a smattering of computer scientists. Although it was a promising area for the future, there were not many job titles consistent with it at the time, especially in academia. My first jobs were in psychology departments, but those were not good fits for me. I left academia for the computing and communications industry, where I was a much better fit. This allowed me to grow with the field. Then, the department at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa was seeking HCI expertise at the same time that I was seeking a new job. Kismet! Most recently, I’ve been researching how people use social media and new media to understand political issues and to participate in civic life. In prior jobs, I’ve also studied how mobile devices might work together with televisions, how programmers could learn from an intelligent-agent-based tutoring system, how a knowledge-management system might be designed to support library research, and how people do predictive answering of questions as they are reading them. My research allows me to participate in the unbelievably fast-paced realm of computing technology. It allows me to think about future technologies that are relevant to human experience and behavior, such as wearable technology, the Quantified Self, augmented perception and cognition, social media, and civic well-being. It keeps me in contact with other academic and corporate researchers engaged in a hugely diverse realm of activities. I feel privileged to be able to bring people’s perspectives into the domain of technology design and development, and maybe make a difference in how our highly technologically mediated society develops. I also get all of the interesting students to work with. Right now, I am advising a graduate student who is designing a system for scripting animatronic puppet shows. This is not core computer science, but it is certainly interesting, and there are many HCI-related issues. My most recent advisee just completed a dissertation that examines how people use social media while simultaneously watching political debates. Again, it’s more like psychology than computer science, but really it involves both. A computer science department without a behavioral scientist would not be able to support these interesting projects. It’s difficult to convince others that behavioral science is important to computer science. I am lucky that my colleagues at the University of Hawai’i “get it,” but for computer science students it is often a struggle. I have the challenge and pleasure of explaining why the computational and social-behavioral sciences should not be so separate.
Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law I research and teach at the intersection of race, psychology, and law. I’m an experimental social psychologist by training (I also have a law degree), and I research how people perceive and categorize individuals and situations — particularly identities and situations involving racial stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. My projects include investigating how the law defines race and its relationship, or lack thereof, to the psychology of how people process racial cues (e.g., ancestry, appearance, self-identification). I also have a project on how social psychological theories about differences in perceptions of discrimination affect the decisions of judges from different social-identity groups — for example, male versus female judges — in real discrimination cases. Fundamentally, I’m interested in how social psychology can check, validate, and/or correct the assumptions that the law and legal professionals make about human behavior and cognition. My interest in psychology came first, and I declared my major in psychology as a first-semester freshman in college. In my sophomore year, I began work on a project investigating whether or not hate crime laws reflected lay understandings of hate crimes. That work became my senior research project. I also did a summer research fellowship at the American Bar Foundation, a sociolegal research organization, where I worked with JD/PhD social psychologist Shari Diamond on a project involving jury decision-making. It was during that summer that Diamond encouraged me to consider a joint-degree program because of my interest in law and policy. I was admitted to the JD/PhD program at Northwestern, and I felt that I couldn’t turn down the opportunity. When I applied for work in my last year of graduate school, I applied to both psychology and law positions, and I chose a fellowship at the Duke University School of Law. I spent 2 years at Duke, and in my second year I again applied for jobs, this time seeking tenure-track positions in psychology departments and law schools. I wasn’t sure how competitive I would be on either market. I was not successful on the psychology market, but I did extremely well on the law school market — so here I am in a tenure-track position in a law school, and it has proven to be a very good fit. One challenge of being outside of a psychology department is that most, if not all, of my colleagues do not share my methodological orientation. That adds a challenge to presenting work because it becomes a translational exercise that wouldn’t be required in a psychology department. Sometimes my colleagues will question or challenge my basic methodological orientation in ways that I wouldn’t encounter in a psychology department. Another drawback is the lack of infrastructure to support experimental research. Law schools are not full of experimentalists who are accustomed to having labs, research assistants, and graduate students, so the logistics of research can be more challenging. It requires more creativity, a supportive administration, and possibly more initiative to acquire outside funding. But I have really come to appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of my position at a law school. I can publish in psychology journals, law reviews, and law and policy journals. I can do experimental work. I teach law, but I can bring psychology in where it’s relevant. In addition, I’m exposed to a lot of interesting work done from a variety of perspectives and grounded in areas of law and social science that I would not be exposed to otherwise.
Department of Surgery and Cancer , Imperial College London, United Kingdom After my first postdoctoral appointment in a psychology department, I became an assistant professor of behavioral sciences at a medical school. I lectured on medical error, the role of cognitive biases, risk perception, and risk communication in medical decisions. During this post, I obtained a national research fellowship to study adverse events in primary health care. This award helped me develop my research on medical error, obtain further research grants, and establish a career as a psychologist working in a medical academic environment. My interest in human error and especially medical error made the transition from a psychology to a medical department plausible. In fact, after my first postdoc, I was contemplating leaving academia, as I found the research process too drawn out and removed from real life. I am much happier when research moves in a bidirectional way, from the lab to the ecology and back to the lab, but always with an eye on the ecology. I study judgment and decision-making applied to health care. My aim is to apply psychology theory, methods, and findings to the study of medical decisions by professionals and patients. I have conducted research in different health care contexts and have led a number of projects on medical judgment and decision support. I employ psychology postgraduates and supervise psychology PhDs. My current PhD student is studying the role of predecisional information distortion in medical diagnosis. My current postdoc has a PhD in neuropsychology and is working with me on a project that uses signal detection theory to study misdiagnoses. The biggest benefits to working in a medical school are access to populations of interest (i.e., physicians and patients); knowledge about research gaps and needs, which is important for obtaining research funding; and the opportunity to do research that is likely to have an impact on patients and their care. A drawback is the lack of easy access to psychological scientists from similar areas with whom to exchange ideas and learn about the latest theoretical and methodological developments. Going to conferences, being a member of scientific societies of relevance (APS, the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, the European Association for Decision Making, and the Society for Medical Decision Making, in my case), and collaborating with other psychologists are some ways to compensate for this, as is disseminating your work to colleagues who would never otherwise get to hear about it. Another drawback is the expectation to publish in high-impact-factor journals, which is the norm for most medical journals. Publications in journals with an impact factor of less than 3 to 5 (as most psychology journals are) may be omitted from a medical school’s submission to the Research Excellence Framework , which can disadvantage an individual seeking promotion. It is encouraging that behavioral sciences have become more prominent in medicine in the last 15 years because of  health psychology and, more recently, “nudging” and behavior change. Nevertheless, psychological scientists still have a long way to go to have their contributions acknowledged as those working in more traditional disciplines such as genetics, molecular biology, and epidemiology.
University of Michigan School of Dentistry I was on maternity leave in 1990 when the dental school administration contacted the department of psychology to find a replacement for their behavioral science instructor, who had to leave her job suddenly. Our department chair recommended me because I previously had taught courses at the medical school. I taught one course, then another, and now I am a tenured professor in the dental school (and an adjunct professor in the psychology department) and love my work there. I am in the periodontology and oral medicine department. My research focuses on the role of psychosocial factors in patients’ oral health and oral-health-related behavior as well as in interactions between patients and dentists. I teach three courses and coteach one course for predoctoral dental students, one course for dental hygiene students, and one course for orthodontic residents per year. The material I cover is concerned with ensuring that students become patient-centered, culturally competent dentists and dental hygienists who are interested in collaborating with other health professionals such as psychologists when providing care for their patients. Mentoring junior colleagues and students for their research activities is probably the biggest contribution I make to our school. The biggest benefit to working in the school of dentistry is that I can introduce my dental colleagues to psychological insights they might otherwise not consider. The Commission on Dental Accreditation requires all graduates to be competent in behavioral-science-related issues of care, so my teaching is crucial to ensure that this accreditation standard is being met. The biggest drawback to working in this department is that it is difficult to keep up with the field of psychology because I am so strongly involved in dentistry-related research. Behavior plays a huge role in preventing oral health issues such as periodontal disease and caries. Much of my work therefore focuses on prevention of oral disease, including engaging students in tobacco-cessation counseling. A new trend in dentistry and medicine is to include patient-centered outcomes, such as assessments of oral-health-related quality of life or patient satisfaction with treatment, in research studies. My colleagues appreciate my collaboration in this area.
Department of Political Science,  Stony Brook University Our department has an internationally acclaimed specialty in political psychology. My research focuses on the dynamics of public opinion, and I conduct multimethod studies that involve a mix of nationally representative sample surveys, survey experiments embedded in large-scale surveys, and content analysis. I draw on basic intergroup-relations theory and research to examine the influence of gender, racial, ethnic, and political groups on political behavior. The Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University is unusual. It’s a small niche department that does not cover all subfields of political science, some of which might be at odds with a psychological science approach to the study of politics. Over the years, the department’s focus on political psychology has gained a unique profile, attracting and retaining good faculty and drawing in strong PhD students from both the United States and other countries. Our department has hired a number of psychological scientists, and we typically advertise available positions in both psychology and political science. I regard my PhD training as excellent preparation for my position, but there are always gaps and cultural differences across academic fields, and I still had to learn how to write for a political science audience. A good political science manuscript requires careful discussion of the political importance of a given set of research findings in addition to its broader theoretical significance. It took time to learn how to do that. The style of writing is also different; editors and readers have less tolerance for jargon. I now greatly enjoy writing in this style (although I may still sound too psychological to some political scientists), but it involved a definite change on my part. One of the things that I like about working in a political science department is that it allows me to shift my focus away from the micro aspects of a specific psychological process to contemplate larger questions about human nature, social organization, and governance. The downside is that it is more difficult to keep up with developments in psychology, which is a large and productive field. The absence of diverse psychology colleagues makes it more difficult to follow the latest research in various subfields of psychological science. It is also difficult to regularly attend major conferences in several subfields, and that means often waiting until research is published to learn of cutting-edge or new research developments. But the work here provides a common topic of discussion for the faculty members, a disproportionate number of whom are political junkies. Thus, as a side benefit, I am also better politically informed than I might be otherwise.
APS Fellow Marita Rohr Inglehart was on the University of Michigan psychology faculty 26 years ago when she was asked to teach a behavioral science course in the university’s School of Dentistry. That led to a research focus on psychosocial and behavioral factors in oral health, and today, Inglehart is a tenured professor in the dental school. Inglehart is among a distinct group of APS members who have faculty appointments in departments or schools of computer science, music, physics, and other disciplines not obviously associated with the field of psychological science. Roughly 14% of APS members working in academia are doing so in departments other than psychology, behavioral sciences, social sciences, and the like, an Observer analysis shows. The largest chunk of those members (35%) work in schools of business, management, and marketing, and another 27% are in medical or dental schools. The rest are distributed across disciplines such as computer science, communication, education, law, linguistics, public health, political science, and others. Some of the assignments should seem logical: Business schools have long been filled with industrial/organizational psychological scientists, and medical schools have increasingly incorporated behavioral curricula into their programs. But other appointments may appear highly counterintuitive — there are psychological scientists in schools of hotel management, optometry, zoology, engineering, music, housing and urban research, international relations, fashion, nutrition, and physics. In this series, psychological researchers discuss their unconventional academic career paths and the scientific perspectives they bring to colleagues and students.
APS Fellow Mary Kaiser’s research domain is literally out of this world. NASA’s Mary Kaiser applied perceptual psychology to the Constellation spacecraft design to improve astronauts’ ability to read displays during massive resonant vibrations produced during launch. Working at NASA, Kaiser has employed a combination of behavioral science and engineering expertise to study how to make astronauts’ lives easier. “One of the cool things about working at a place like NASA is you tend to divide time and energy between operationally specific problems and more general foundational knowledge in the field that will have broader implications not just for current systems but for future systems as well,” Kaiser, who retired a year ago, says of her more-than 30-year career at the research institution. “The unique thing about working for a federal research lab [is that you] really are working to develop knowledge for the public good.” One example of such knowledge involved an applied science problem that was successfully solved by a collaboration of engineers and psychological scientists: As developers at NASA work on the next generation launch plan for the Constellation spacecraft, they have found that a side effect of the launch — resonant vibration — is preventing astronauts from being able to make split-second decisions about whether to abort a mission. “As a solid fuel rocket burns out its fuel, it creates this resonant vibration. It gets pretty intense, especially as you get to its fifth segment; the rocket’s almost acting like a pipe organ at 12 Hz,” Kaiser explained. This vibration was making it difficult for astronauts to read the control panels that displayed vital information about whether the launch was progressing safely and successfully, and thus, whether they should abort. “It’s an interesting frequency because that’s right where you top out the human visual system ability to do compensatory eye movements,” Kaiser added. “You’re right at that point where the system’s attempts to compensate would make things worse, so it’s working hard and doing poorly.” Instead of trying to force the displays to stop vibrating, the team of scientists and engineers came up with a solution that incorporated the module’s current design: They modified the displays so that they would strobe at the same frequency. This allowed the astronauts to continue reading the control panels clearly during this critical time, explained Kaiser. “Right when that rocket stops burning, you have about 15 seconds to make the abort/no-abort decision. The crew needed to stay in the loop so they could make the decision.” Although such innovative problem solving might not seem intuitive, Kaiser called it “one of those solutions that was obvious in retrospect.” She continued, “The cool thing here was that we were able to go a step further and think about, ‘Knowing what we know about human vision, is there some engineering countermeasure we could come up with so you could even under vibration read the displays?’ That led us to come up with this method in which the displays strobed at the dominant frequency.” Kaiser explained that her team’s solution could be applied in many situations: “This would have broad applications — helicopters undergo a lot of vibrations when you go to full power, and this would be very inexpensive to implement in any display system.” NASA has patented the idea and licenses it to other companies that wish to use the technology. They also actively seek such partnerships, said Kaiser. The psychological scientist stressed that there is a learning curve for those who want to cross into nonacademic fields. “When we have young researchers join our staff — and unfortunately we have far too few of them doing that — their main challenge is to come up to speed with what the operational environment is like [and] what the challenges and constraints are,” she said. The difficulties that arise in a federal work environment can be very different from those in academia, and at times can be frustrating, Kaiser said. For example, NASA sometimes is reluctant to reexamine existing systems if they are not malfunctioning, whereas psychological scientists might be keen to find more efficient methods of operation. But there is a good reason for this discrepancy: When human lives are involved, the margin for error is much smaller. More than a decade ago, some of Kaiser’s colleagues attempted to design new cockpit displays to replace the outdated ones being used in the Space Shuttle — an important project because pilot astronauts with military backgrounds were used to newer display technologies than those from the era of the Shuttle’s original design. “It became clear that any change to avionics [displays] would involve mucking with a million lines of code,” Kaiser said. “The human space flight program has a sort of ‘If it ain’t really broke, don’t mess with it’ [outlook]. There is so much opportunity for introducing an error in the system that could have such horrific consequences, that they ultimately decided, ‘Yes, you did some nice studies, you showed that these displays are better, but ultimately the benefits do not outweigh the costs.’” Financial and political considerations also play a role in the decisions made at NASA. The pipeline can move excruciatingly slowly, Kaiser noted, and even when a project is approved it does not always come to fruition. “Whenever you go from an academic environment to an operational environment, you’re going to have a lot of false starts,” she added. “Some of the [false] starts can often last a year or two. It can often take that long before decisions are made [or] before it’s decided this is not a viable project.” This doesn’t mean that psychological scientists in a nonacademic environment should stop striving to find creative solutions to the problems they encounter. “Your academic training and knowledge is critical,” Kaiser concluded. “Everything from methodological techniques and analysis that you learn to your foundational knowledge about human psychology and performance … once people understand who we are and what we do and why it’s important, we get pretty good respect.”