NASA People

Center Snapshot: Jennifer Murdoch
Jennifer Murdoch. Image above: Jennifer Murdoch, with daughter Lucinda, counts time spent doing research aloft as among her favorite projects while at NASA Langley. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

Jennifer Murdoch considers technology, when it’s intended for use by human beings, to be successful when humans find the technology useful and usable.

Not everyone does.

"There are times when engineers develop an innovative technology, be it a piece of equipment and/or a new set of procedures, and they think that as long as the technology works well in and of itself, that it's ready to go," she said. "But if a human user is expected to interact with the technology, that adds a whole new dimension. That's where human factors come in."

That's her job. She's a research psychologist and acknowledges that psychology is a “soft science” with a smile. But there's another term for what she does in the engineering environment at NASA Langley.

"What I do is also referred to as human factors engineering," Murdoch said.

Her mission is to gather empirical data from human research participants, usually general aviation or commercial airline pilots, in order to assess the usefulness and usability of new technologies intended for use within the flight deck.

"There are times when human beings are expected to adapt or be trained to overcome imperfections in a technology or system," she said. "But we really need to ensure that the system is designed so that it doesn't need a Bandaid, so that humans aren't expected to work their way around problems. Appropriately designed systems involving human users need to be useful for a person and usable by a person."

Murdoch's job marries her undergraduate course of study, psychology, which she pursued at Christopher Newport University, with her master's and doctorate degrees in Industrial and Systems Engineering from Virginia Tech.

She has always worked at Langley since she came as part of the student pipeline. Murdoch came to Langley while still in high school at Ferguson in Newport News in 1989 through the Summer High School Apprentice Research Program (SHARP), then went through the Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars Program and then the Graduate Student Research Program (GSRP).

Along the way, she has spent time flying as a researcher in Langley’s Cessna 206 and Cirrus SR22 aircraft while investigating the use of weather displays in the cockpit as well as the feasibility of utilizing new procedures in conjunction with smaller airports in order to support the development of a small aircraft transportation system.

Most recently, she worked in Langley's Air Traffic and Operations Laboratory as a co-principal investigator on the "Separation Assurance Human-In-The-Loop (SA HITL) simulation study," she said.

This research effort, in which Langley was partnered with Ames Research Center, was designed to investigate different allocations of the traffic separation function of Air Traffic Management (ATM). Langley focused on the concept of airborne self-separation: the concept of asking pilots to take on more responsibility for maintaining separation between their aircraft and other aircraft flying within the National Airspace System (NAS).

"Ames, on the other hand, focused on a ground-based separation assurance concept" and utilized air-traffic controllers as research participants, Murdoch said.

It was an arduous task, involving months spent designing an experiment during which objective data were collected in addition to the subjective responses, or opinions, of 48 commercial airline pilots brought into the lab as research participants. There followed long days of testing and accumulating data, and now there are reports to write once data analyses are completed.

Murdoch worked hard to make sure that there was plenty of time for Lucinda, even though demands at work were particularly high while preparing for and conducting the SA HITL simulation study. "Fortunately, I work within a very family-friendly environment and my branch head, Lisa Rippy, is extremely family-oriented and supportive," Murdoch said.

Lucinda will turn 3 in May, and Murdoch spends as much time as possible engaged in parent-involvement activities at the Langley Child Care Development Center (LCDC) with her daughter.

"I know that these early years of childhood are going to pass by quickly, and there¹s going to come a time when Lucinda’s not going to want ol' mom to be around as much," Murdoch said."I want to spend as much time as I can with her now."

Having a daughter has prompted her to re-order priorities in her life and her work. Getting Lucinda to an early childhood music class, to a Mommy-and-me gymnastics class and to the LCDC every day has precedence. It also makes her appreciate the children's center at Langley.

"When I tell people that I work at NASA and that she's on-site with me, they are so impressed," Murdoch said. "The ladies at the LCDC have some of the most important jobs at Langley. Every person at the Center who has a child enrolled at the LCDC is able to perform his or her job so much better knowing that theLCDC children are in very capable hands."

Murdoch is soft-spoken and shy. She shuns the limelight, saying she is happy as "worker bee," and is not terribly interested in scaling the civil service ladder.

"I'm happy as a researcher, and I enjoy sharing leadership duties with a partner or with fellow team members," she said, citing the coordinated Langley-Ames SA HITL experiment as an example. "I am happy to roll up my sleeves and give you all of the elbow grease that you want. I will work hard, make sure that an experiment is conducted well and help you write papers to disseminate important research findings, but I must admit to being a true introvert and don't particularly enjoy standing up before a crowd."

Still, though, there is a streak of adventure that was fed during her three experiments conducted in the air, in 2001, 2003 and 2004.

"I would absolutely love to work with the people in B1244 again and get back in the air," she said. "I want to collect empirical data from subject pilots flying Langley’s research aircraft again. It was the most fun I've had here at Langley. It was so exciting as well as fulfilling since we were able to conduct some very important research.

"I've still got my flight suit and am ready to serve as an airborne research psychologist whenever the opportunity presents itself."