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Meet: William J. Clancey

photo of Bill Clancey in the field
Computer Scientist,
Specializing in Cognitive Science and
Artificial Intelligence
NASA Ames Research Center

Career Fact Sheet Print Version Coming Soon

Who I am and what I do
I am a scientist who helps NASA design human and robotic space missions, including what people will do (astronauts and flight controllers on earth) and the tools they will use (especially computer systems).

Areas of expertise
First, you must be able to observe and describe how people think and work (cognitive science, psychology, anthropology/ethnography). Second, you must invent new kinds of computer systems (computer science). Third, you must be able to think about complex interactions and recognize unclear ways of thinking (philosophy, mathematics).

To work with NASA engineers and astronaut-explorers, it helps to have a good background in the sciences (biology, chemistry, astronomy, etc.) and familiarity with physics and engineering. More basically, you need to have good writing skills the ability to analyze data using spreadsheets and charts. I also enjoy photography and have used my skills to document how people work in photographs, videos, and graphic presentations.

How I first became interested in this profession
I worked with social scientists (anthropologists, sociologists, and educational psychologists) at the Institute for Research on Learning in Menlo Park, California, for ten years. We observed people in businesses (such as a customer call center) to understand how learning naturally occurs. We emphasized how people succeed in doing their work despite having inadequate tools or incomplete procedures, by studying how they helped and learned
from each other.

What helped prepare me for this job
I have a broad college background in computer science, philosophy, and anthropology. This helped me understand the social scientists at the Institute for Research on Learning, so I could relate what I knew about computer science to what they knew about people.

My role models
In college I was inspired by professors who gave clear lectures and helped me appreciate ideas in classic books written by philosophers and scientists. My graduate school advisors showed me how we could understand the strategies that people used to solve problems. So for example, in studying physicians who were examining patients, we considered "How does he/she know what question to ask next?" At NASA, I have been inspired by space scientists who want to go to Mars, and who enjoy working with computer scientists to develop robots and other tools that Mars astronauts might use.

My education and training
As a college student at Rice University in Houston, I went through the catalog and took every course that mentioned "knowledge" or "cognition," regardless of the department. So I had college courses in 13 different departments, including Linguistics, Sociology, and even Religious Studies. At Stanford, I focused on Artificial Intelligence, but again combined different areas by developing a computer program to teach medical students how to diagnose a patient (combining computer science, education, psychology, and medicine).

I also always read whatever books interested me, often finding years later that I could relate my reading to my work. This was especially true in my reading about astronomy and the space program when I was a high school student--more than 30 years before I began to work at NASA.

My career path
I have always been a research scientist, rather than a professor. Working with students might have been exciting, but as a research scientist I have been able to focus on developing new ideas and new kinds of computer tools. I have been a research scientist at Stanford (13 years in Medical Computer Science), at the Institute for Research on Learning (10 years in Business Anthropology), and at NASA Ames (since 1998, leading a group called "Work Systems Design and Evaluation").

What I like best about my job
The people I work with enjoy what we are doing and being together. We are all excited by the space program, including space flight and basic discoveries about the universe. We also like working with people in other fields ("multidisciplinary science") and being outdoors on expeditions.

What I don't like about my job
Worrying about money and budgets. Every year has been different, we have had no stability or proper long-term planning since I arrived at NASA. However, we have high hopes for the new leadership at Headquarters.

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
Read lots of books. Read about whatever interests you. Carry out your own investigations, even if they have nothing to do with what your school offers you. Realize that many of the important ideas for the future are not in textbooks, but were published 100 years ago or more and have not necessarily been understood or appreciated by your teachers. This includes philosophy and psychology (such as the work of John Dewey) and what is called "systems theory" (look on Wikipedia for a good introduction). Science and technology are rapidly changing. You can contribute by finding the bits and pieces that interest you, becoming knowledgeable about those things, then bring them to the table when the world is ready.

As for any scientist, reading is one my pleasures outside of work. Recently I have been reading the New York Review of Books, which has exposed me to many new ideas in politics, history, and art. I have also recently been collecting my photographs into books using iPhoto. I am writing this at Lake Wentworth in New Hampshire, where I am enjoying kayaking, swimming, and hiking.


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