Alumni Profile: Amy Alexander

Amy Alexander grew up in a city steeped in aviation history, Dayton, Ohio, and earned an Engineering Psychology Ph.D. at Illinois that had a focus on aviation human factors. Alexander also took advantage of the Beckman Institute’s Flight Simulator during her time at Illinois, but it wasn’t until after leaving college that she could realize a longtime desire, going from a virtual cockpit to the controls of a real airplane.

Amy Alexander grew up in a city steeped in aviation history, Dayton, Ohio, and earned an Engineering Psychology Ph.D. at Illinois that had a focus on aviation human factors. Alexander also took advantage of the Beckman Institute’s Flight Simulator during her time at Illinois, but it wasn’t until after leaving college that she could realize a longtime desire, going from a virtual cockpit to the controls of a real airplane.

Alexander did her research by using the flight simulator of Beckman’s Illinois Simulator Laboratory (ISL), interviewing pilots and air traffic controllers, and generally becoming immersed in the world of aviation. With her background it was only natural that Alexander would want to learn to fly, but time and financial constraints delayed the opportunity until after her doctoral work was finished.

When she did finally begin training for her pilot’s license last summer, Alexander came to the task with much more knowledge than the usual student learning to fly. And that fact wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

“I guess I had been doing the research for about nine years prior to getting my own pilot’s license,” Alexander said. “It’s interesting, because you learn a lot through aviation human factors research about the things that can go wrong in flight.

“So it was exciting and intimidating to know too much,” she added with a laugh.

That knowledge turned out to be a good thing, however.

“That was certainly something I talked about with my instructor,” Alexander said. “From his perspective, he was like ‘well that will probably make you a better pilot; you won’t take certain risks and you will be a little more cautious.’”

Alexander earned her pilot’s license in November while working in her current position as a human factors scientist for Aptima, a firm that specializes in the design of user-centered technology and training systems and organizations. She is Team Lead of the Human Systems Design Team in Aptima’s Cognitive Systems Engineering Division in Woburn, Mass. It’s a position that allows her to continue much of the work she did at Beckman and Illinois.

“The research I conducted at Beckman was fundamental in preparing me for my job at Aptima in a variety of ways,” Alexander said.

As examples, Alexander mentioned the experiences she gained presenting her work in publications and at conferences and working in ISL’s flight simulator.

“Working in the flight simulation facility afforded me the opportunity to develop practical skills that I’ve continued to improve at Aptima,” she said. “And, finally, my passion for aviation grew steadily throughout my time at Beckman, and I think this passion underlies a great deal of my success here at Aptima.”

Alexander says former Beckman researcher Chris Wickens also had a lot to do with her successful transition from academic research to the corporate world.

“Chris always emphasized the importance of bridging the gap between theory and application – this is something I do in all of my work at Aptima,” she said. “Chris has made tremendous contributions to the field of human factors and it was such an honor for me to be accepted into the program and to work with him directly.

“I also have to credit my dad – he attended Illinois as an undergraduate and he brought me there for a visit as I was getting ready to apply to graduate school.”

Alexander’s work at Aptima focuses on human performance and cognitive assessment, advanced flight deck display design and evaluation, and human factors in complex systems. Much of it is directly related to what she did at Beckman, which included examining the effects of display design on pilot performance while working with advanced flight deck displays.

“Aptima is such a wonderful place to work,” Alexander said. “What I enjoy most is certainly the fellowship that exists among the staff, as well as the many opportunities to learn, participate, and lead. I have tremendous respect for my co-workers and the leaders of this company. The environment and culture that have been cultivated here are both challenging and motivating – a combination that I simply thrive in and am proud to be a part of.”

At the heart of all of Alexander’s current and past interests and successes is a love of aviation.

“I developed a fascination for aviation pretty early in life – growing up near the Air Force Museum and going to the Dayton Air Show,” Alexander said. “It wasn’t until my junior year at Ohio State, though, that I realized I could apply my interests in psychology and human behavior to the aviation domain.”

An internship at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base during her senior year sealed the deal.

“We focused on examining situation awareness and mental workload in conventional and virtually-augmented cockpits, and I was hooked!” she said.

Alexander has this advice to current students would like to follow in her footsteps.

“Be open to exploration – sometimes you find your career path and what you’re most passionate about in very opportunistic ways,” she said. “Look at each course you take and professor you encounter as an opportunity to introduce you to a new skill or domain, and don’t be afraid to pursue those paths that seem interesting to you.”

This article is part of the Fall 2010 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.