Putting the "Human" into Human Systems Integration
"Should I pursue art or engineering?" This was the dilemma facing
Erika Darling, currently a lead human factors engineer at MITRE,
as she was deciding where to pursue her undergraduate degree. Fortunately,
Darling found a way to combine both interests at Tufts University—in
a field called human factors engineering (HFE). Generally speaking,
HFE strives to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.
As it turns out, this was a good fit for Darling and for MITRE.
Darling first learned about MITRE in 2001 when she was finishing
her undergraduate degree. She attended a career fair at Tufts and
met MITRE's Janet Perron, also a graduate of Tufts' HFE program."MITRE's
work program sounded interesting and I liked the non-profit aspect
of the company," she says. "It was evident that the staff had a
real passion for working in the public interest."
After graduation, Darling joined one of MITRE's user-centered departments,
named Human-System Integration (HSI), Visualization, and Decision
Support. The team's mission is to identify strategies, tactics,
and technologies that will improve the usability and effectiveness
of MITRE's customers' systems.
Delving Into Research
Darling's first projects at MITRE were designing websites and providing
HSI guidance to customers' programs. However, it wasn't long before
Darling decided to complement her work program by pursuing one of
the many research opportunities at MITRE.
Her first research proposal, which examined the application of
non-linear visualization to MITRE customers' complex datasets, did
not receive funding but gave her a good working knowledge of the
company's research program. "It was a great learning experience
in how to navigate the MITRE Technology Program process," she says.
"Plus, I found MITRE's management to be very supportive. Dave deMoulpied,
my manager, mentored me through the entire research funding process."
Her second proposal received funding in 2003 and shortly thereafter
Darling began spending half of her time on a two-year research project
investigating the effectiveness of semantic lensing when working
with layer-based map displays. This work progressed into the research
project she is working on now, Spatio-Temporal Analysis for Rapid
Tasking (START). "This research focuses on developing and experimenting
with innovative decision support concepts to improve situation awareness
and target coverage when dynamically replanning intelligence, surveillance,
and reconnaissance assets," she explains. "As the co-principal investigator
of START with Nikhil Kalghatgi, we are responsible for setting the
direction of the research, developing new collaborative opportunities
both internal and external to MITRE, and sharing knowledge gained
in the research."
In addition to her research and project work, Darling participated
in MITRE's Accelerated Graduate Degree program (AGDP) while earning
a graduate degree from Tufts University's Engineering Management
Program in 2004. The AGDP program allows employees to have one paid
day off each week for schoolwork and reimburses employees for tuition
and books. Fortunately for Darling, the Tufts' program is set up
for students to take classes on Friday and Saturday every other
week, a good fit with her MITRE schedule. "Participating in the
AGDP was a great opportunity," she says. "To this day I use many
of the techniques and tools I learned in graduate school in my MITRE
work." Darling continues to be involved with Tufts University and
recently received the 2007 Outstanding Service Award for Tufts Graduate
Other "Human" Aspects of Her Work
Darling's interest in people extends beyond her HSI work. Early
on in her MITRE career, she began co-leading a networking group
called Networking for Professional Women (NPW). "It started as a
vehicle for women across the company to get to know one another,"
explains Darling "We had featured speakers each month and everyone
was welcome to come. Eventually it became a recognized MITRE club
with a representative on the company's diversity committee."
Her participation in the NPW segued into more involvement with
what is now the MITRE Command and Control Center's diversity committee.
Four years ago, Darling was chosen to participate in one of the
committee's pilot programs where new staff shadowed a senior staff
person for two to three meetings. "During the program, I was paired
with [MITRE executive director] George Providakes," she says. "It
was a great experience—I was able to attend everything from
high-level meetings with chief engineers to smaller, more creative
brainstorming meetings." Darling was so impressed with the program
that she joined the diversity committee shortly thereafter. "I thought
it would be a great way to help others in the company," she says.
Despite her busy schedule, Darling still makes time for activities
outside of work. A favorite is ballroom dancing—a hobby she
enjoys with her husband. She also participates in a program called
Citizen Schools, which connects adult volunteers to middle school
students in hands-on learning projects.
Reflecting back on the first five years of her career, Darling
says, "I think MITRE has been a great fit for me. The research program
is excellent, and senior staff is very supportive. I've been impressed
by the number of growth opportunities here at MITRE and look forward
to many more in the future."
—by Kay M. Upham
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