A Psychologist Discusses Research and NASA

Cynthia Null
NASA Ames Research Center

In the beginning, I planned on becoming a college professor since all my role models were college professors. I turned down a job in an industry research lab, partly because I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like. I observed a certain passion in their work, something that was highly visible in my major professor, David Wessel. He had taken his passion for discovery and his love of music and turned it into a research agenda and enthusiastic teaching. I hoped to find such passion in my career, whether that entailed teaching, research or mentoring.

My professional life after graduate school began in a traditional manner. After receiving a PhD in quantitative psychology from Michigan State University, I became an assistant professor of psychology at the College of William and Mary and officially remained there for nineteen years. In addition to the usual responsibilities to teach and do research, I was also expected to be the statistical consultant for the department.

Before the age of the personal computer (PC), I had set up a computerized laboratory for my own work, so when PCs eventually became standard research tools, I helped get public laboratories located in the psychology department and filled them with experimental tools in addition to the standard office applications. My research focused on understanding the application of multidimensional scaling (MDS) techniques to the study of perception, and the development of new algorithms for MDS. I was an active collaborator in studies on parenting, attribution, pilot workload, small group social structure and so forth.

I attended the annual meetings of the Psychonomic Society, Psychometric Society, and the Society for Computers in Psychology. When I could arrange the travel, I also attended others like Cognitive Science Society, APA and Society for Mathematical Psychology. I don’t remember exactly how it happened but I was asked to be the Secretary-Treasurer of the Society for Computers in Psychology (SCiP) in 1977. When all the financial information arrived, I realized that we had a problem — bills in excess of the cash on hand. By the next annual meeting, we were fortunately in the black.

In a small society, you can end up helping with any and all of the duties, so I organized the annual meeting program a couple of times, and about 1980, I was asked to expand the small vendor tables at SciP into a real exhibit at the Psychonomic Society Meeting. I immediately sought out experts and the APA convention office gave me a quick Exhibits 101 tutorial over the phone, while sales representatives I knew helped me as well. At the next meeting, there were booths and exhibitors.

In 1981, I became treasurer of the Psychometric Society. The advantage of being an officer of any society is visibility within your profession. In 1983, I became the executive director of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences. My eclectic research history was a great help to me, as I was called upon to talk about the importance of research by our entire research community.

Working in Washington, D.C. was very exciting. Although I could only spend a few hours a month thinking about my own research, I believed that the work of the federation was important in keeping the federal research funding viable for our discipline. From colleagues at the APA, COSSA and other science organizations in D.C., I quickly learned about working on the Hill, how to influence funding agency priorities and advocate for agency budgets with Congress. Just as the federation continues to do today, we lobbied, we ran educational seminars for congressional and agency staff, we wrote science policy papers and we worked with the science community at large.

Colleagues often asked if I missed teaching. I usually responded that I was still teaching — on a short time scale of two minutes a lecture. I was explaining the importance of research into human and animal behavior and performance, broadly defined. Working on science policy issues, such as the use of animals in research or academic freedom, was very different from research, but equally important.

Soon after I moved my family to Washington, my husband and I were asked to manage Psychometrika’s technical operations. The one thing that worried me about working for the federation was that I would be so busy with the overarching issues for the discipline, that I could not find the time to keep track of what was happening in my field of research. So I agreed to be managing editor, knowing that before each issue of the journal was published I would have to read it. That strategy worked. Today, we continue working to help evolve Psychometrika into the new age of information technology.

In 1984 NSF was building its new program in super-computing. They were running workshops, by discipline, to set requirements and demonstrate needs. Working with NSF staff, we put together a proposal to have a workshop on the needs of experimental psychologists.

The computer scientists at NSF were skeptical, but the federation, sponsored by NSF, put together a conference. Unlike many of the other reports, we said that although the first vector supercomputers were helpful, that some of our needs would be better met by a parallel architecture. I can’t take credit for the ideas in the report, since I had a great team. Of course, today the machine on my desk is as fast and has the capacity of the first supercomputers. Today, a supercomputer by definition has parallel computational architecture.

In 1987, my lobbying career came to an end. Although William and Mary had generously let me have a four-year leave of absence, they said it was time to come home. It was wonderful getting back to teaching and research. I had always been passionate about teaching. With my experience in Washington I gained a broader perspective of my discipline.

I came back to teaching with this broader perspective, and an increased enthusiasm. I completed the research for the grant that had floundered while I was in Washington, and I finally put together the facilities I needed to pursue my research passion, that had begun with my dissertation auditory perception of complex stimuli. I was immediately approached to be the secretary-treasurer of the Psychonomic Society. The main part of this job was actually doing all the conference arrangements from hotel to program scheduling.

In 1990, I was asked to visit the Human Factors Research Division at NASA Ames Research Center. Former Washington colleagues were looking for someone to head one of their research branches. This would involve closing my research laboratory and moving to California. Needless to say we moved at the beginning of 1991, and I knew in advance that continuing my research and being a manager at NASA was not possible. I came to learn that this division had an incredibly strong research base. In addition, they were working on solving real world problems in aerospace human factors.

When everything is working as planned, the basic research findings drive applied solutions, and the questions that arise when solving applied problems lead to the next theoretical question. It was very easy to be passionate about the work that is ongoing. Although I began as a branch manager, in a few years I was asked to manage money instead of people. In this capacity I helped shape NASA’s Aviation Safety Program. Today, we are beginning to see the products that resulted from plans made five years ago. It is hard not to believe that what we do as a division is important.

In the wake of recent events, it is difficult not to think about family, extended families and the importance of professional and personal relationships. Without the support of my husband and daughter, I could not have done all the things I have done already in my career. In my early years, I had the support of my parents. The summer before my junior year, my father introduced me to Professor John Milholland on the quad at the University of Michigan. When he learned that I was a mathematics major he said that I should come to graduate school in psychology, though I’m sure neither of them was particularly happy with my choice of Michigan State University.

I’m not sure I would have ended up in quantitative psychology without that incredibly short conversation. How I have moved from one career to another, or even one service job to another is mostly a mystery. My colleagues have been as important to me as my work. Without collaborators my research would not have been as interesting. I realized a few years ago, that I have never gotten a job I’ve applied for. Fortunately, I’ve been offered many jobs and then been asked to complete the application. Taking advantages of opportunities has shaped my career.

Nearly three years ago, my career completed a circle. I am teaching a class in human centered design for aerospace engineers in the Engineering School at Stanford. I was given the opportunity to leave management and build a research laboratory. Although I continue to keep my hand in planning future research efforts related to the human factors of space operations for NASA, my focus is on my new career and my own research. The journey has been exciting and rewarding. I am reminded of a T.S. Eliot quote that I first encountered on a visit to the Air and Space Museum shortly after I finished my PhD.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”


(Originally published in the Spring 2003 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)