Graduate Students Describe the Appeal of Human Factors Research

For Nicole Werner, it was an undergraduate interest in psychology at George Mason University and a visit to her school’s Human Factors and Applied Cognition Program.  “I liked that they were looking at real problems and issues,” she said.

For Haneen Saqer, it was a course on computer design at San Antonio’s Trinity University. “The combination of technology and psychology seemed like the perfect match for me,” she said.

Both paths led these women to the graduate research field of human factors, a science dating to World War II and concerned initially with the performance of manned systems operating on the Earth’s surface, under the sea and in space. According to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, the field has since broadened to include virtually all systems and activities including transportation, architecture, environmental design, consumer products, manufacturing, farming, sports, oil field operations and forensics.

transparent ArchLabLogo.pngBoth Werner and Saqer are now second-year doctoral students in George Mason University's Arch Lab (Human Factors & Applied Cognition). Saqer is president of student chapter of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and Werner is the vice president. Together they coordinated coverage of the FABBS Foundation’s booth, "Where Science Meets the Mind", at the first USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo, held October 23-24, 2010, in Washington, DC.

At GMU, about 40 graduate students work with 12 full-time and adjunct faculty on research that applies attention, memory, visual perception and other factors to various domains including aviation, driving, robotics, and human-computer interaction.

Werner said she is has not yet decided on a career path but for now is interested in reducing human error in the health-care field. As part of her research, she studies how procedures and equipment at hospitals and other medical facilities could impact safety.

“The beauty of human factors is that it can be applied to anything,” Werner said. “You can use your research to affect policy change as well as system design.”

Saqer has focused her research on the effects of automation on human performance. “When people rely too much on automation, they can forget their skills,” she said. “So we look at the [person’s] ability to take control if the automation fails.”

Like Werner, Saqer said she eventually hopes to work in industry to make effective, user-friendly designs, preferably in software, mobile technologies or other consumer products.