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Meet: Katharine Lee

photo of Katharine Lee

Assistant Branch Chief, Terminal Area
Air Traffic Management Research Branch
Ames Research Center

Who I am and what I do:
I have two jobs: one is the assistant branch chief of the Terminal Area Air Traffic Management Research Branch, and the other is a human factors researcher.

The first job involves helping the branch chief run a branch (a group of people who are working on the same project or group of projects). Our branch is comprised of people developing software tools for improving air traffic control operations. As assistant branch chief, I help manage the work that is done in my branch, making sure we meet our deadlines, deciding on the goals we have each year, and making sure that we have the budget for the equipment, travel, and software that is needed. I also review the work that is done to keep things on track, and to help get our branch members recognition for the work that they do.

As a human factors researcher, I investigate how we can make the tools and technologies that we develop work better for the people who use them. I work on a team that includes engineers, software programmers, and air traffic control experts. We create air traffic control software to help air traffic controllers and managers find the best way to manage the air traffic in busy airspace by reducing the overall delay and the amount of airborne holding. I evaluate the workload that our software creates, the type of user interface features that work best, and I identify what training or special information is needed to make the software most useful.

Areas of expertise:
For my human factors work, my educational training in psychology provided me with many of the skills I need: research methods (such as how to conduct studies, create questionnaires and evaluate the results), statistics, and cognitive psychology (a discipline that looks at how we process, remember, and use information).

For my work as an assistant branch chief, I use my technical training to help understand and promote the work that we are doing, but in this role, working with and managing people, the tasks mostly require skills like organization and communication.

How I first became interested in this profession
I learned about human factors as an undergraduate when I took a course in environmental psychology. I wrote a term paper on the effects of living and working in the space environment on astronauts, and through researching this paper, became aware of the fascinating human factors work being conducted at NASA Ames.

What helped me prepare for this job
My master’s degree program included an internship opportunity at NASA Ames with experts in aerospace applications of human factors. In the internship, and throughout my masters program, I was exposed to many facets of human factors and aviation and learned a lot of basics of flight deck human factors. An understanding of how to use the principles I’d learned in school, along with some on-the-job exposure to the flight domain, helped me to understand the air traffic control domain I work in today.

My role models or inspirations
I don’t think I have any particular role model that inspired me to pursue human factors. It is encouraging to me that there are many women in the field. I do admire many of the people I have worked for, and with, over the years. Those individuals have in common the fact that they are experts in their fields, and that they also have earned the respect of their colleagues through their hard work, fairness, and support for their co-workers and subordinates.

My education and training
Bachelors Degrees in Psychology and Biophysics, UC Berkeley
Masters Degree in Psychology, San Jose State University

Career Path
After graduating with my bachelors degrees, I worked for several years in sleep research as a research assistant, which was completely unrelated to my current work but gave me the opportunity to gain work experience in a research environment. At about the same time, I enrolled in masters program in SJSU’s psychology department and pursued my masters degree while also working in an internship position at NASA Ames with a group that was researching flight crew communication processes.

After completing my masters degree, I accepted a position as a human factors engineer with Sterling Software, a contractor that supported the research and development of the Center TRACON Automation System (CTAS), which is the foundation of the work that I currently do. After five years with Sterling, I became a NASA civil servant and began working as a research psychologist, conducting human factors research on the same CTAS-related project. Four years later I became the assistant branch chief, and I have been in that role for the past four years.

What I like best about my job
Two things come to mind: First, I like the people that I work with. They are a group of very smart, hard-working, and fun individuals. They make it easy to do hard work because they are very dedicated, have good ideas, and everyone is very positive and supportive. Second, I strongly believe in what I am working on, which is developing new technologies to aid in the management of commercial air traffic. The aviation industry has a tremendous influence on every aspect of American life, and maintaining and improving its safety and efficiency are critically important. I believe that the work I’m doing is going to make a real, positive difference for air travelers, shippers, the service providers, and the aviation industry as a whole.

I got to really appreciate the importance of what I work on a couple of years ago when I spent about 3.5 months working at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. While I was there, I worked with folks at NASA HQ and at the Federal Aviation Administration, who, along with individuals representing several other government agencies, were establishing the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) to create a national plan for aerospace. The JPDO is still working towards developing the national goals for the future of aviation, and NASA is helping to define the research that will be done to support the future aviation system. It was a great experience to contribute to this very interesting and important planning. I also enjoyed learning about how the folks at NASA Headquarters work, as they have some different responsibilities than the engineers that I worked with back at Ames. NASA encourages its employees to spend time working at NASA HQ, or to take training courses, in order to help you broaden your understanding of not only NASA’s missions, but how to sharpen your skills to do your job.

What I like least about my job
One of the things that I like the least is paradoxically one of the things that I also value a great deal -- that is travel to the field sites for data collection. Since I have small children at home, I don’t like being away from them or my husband for any length of time. However, being in the field to observe and collect data is extremely valuable and necessary for the success of our work. We can’t develop useful tools for air traffic control if we don’t get out there and see for ourselves how they are used by real air traffic controllers. First, you can’t just rely on someone else to report back to you, and second, you shouldn’t develop something in a vacuum – that is to say, without having your target user group involved somehow. Also, when you are present in person, you are showing your investment in a particular activity, and making personal contacts that help you do your job better. So while I don’t like being away from my family, occasionally I travel so that I can be more effective at my work.

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
For students interested in applied human factors, I would say that you not only have to learn the basics about the discipline itself, but the domain that you’re working in (such as aviation or space). You also need some people skills to work with users and be receptive to input and feedback. Not all input and feedback you get will be positive! But what you do with that input can have a positive effect. Sometimes you will find that you are NOT the expert, despite all of your training. In order to help design a better tool, you’ll have to be willing to hear that those concepts you were taught don’t always apply. Don’t be afraid to listen to such feedback and consider it.

My husband and I have three children, and they are our main hobby at this time! We enjoy hanging out with our children – reading, playing games, and going to Cal (University of California, Berkeley) sporting events.


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