Meet: Katharine Lee
Assistant Branch Chief, Terminal Area
Air Traffic Management
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
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
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
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
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
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)