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Air Force appoints USC alumna as chief scientist

Mica Endsley, the first woman to hold the position of chief scientist, advises the U.S. Air Force on technical issues.

Mica Endsley PhD ’90 was a rising star when she met USC Viterbi School of Engineering Professor Najmedin Meshkati.

Endsley was pursuing her degree at USC Viterbi in industrial and systems engineering; Meshkati was a young faculty department member who took notice of her work in the Los Angeles chapter of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

“Mica was giving presentations, organizing things. She was a very unique person even then,” Meshkati said. “By the time she finished her dissertation, she had become an authority in her field.”

That was more than two decades ago. Since then, Endsley has been a development engineer, an academic, a private researcher and, most recently, an entrepreneur who finished a term as president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

A few months later, Endsley accepted her most prestigious title yet: chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force.

After taking her oath in June, Endsley began her two-year post advising the branch’s secretary and chief of staff on technical issues and overseeing research and development across its engineering staff.

“I’ll probably be a little different from some of my predecessors,” said Endsley, the 34th chief scientist and first woman to hold the position. “I’ll be looking at how we’re doing in human-systems integration … the Air Force has done a really good job of creating a multitude of sensors and capabilities but hasn’t always done a good job of aggregating that and helping to really provide the information that people need.”

Fortunately, that is Endsley’s specialty: situation awareness, or SA. Her 1990 dissertation defined the term. Now it’s a field of research seeking to integrate people with automated systems so they can oversee automation and intervene when necessary.

After earning her PhD, Endsley returned to her employer, Northrop Grumman, as a research scientist in Los Angeles. She taught at Texas Tech University for seven years before founding her own SA consulting firm, Georgia-based SA Technologies, in 1999. The company now creates and installs management systems for aviation, air traffic control, space exploration and military companies.

“The Air Force is the birthplace of human factors and one of its biggest users, promoters and benefactors,” Meshkati said. Research in the field began as “pilot safety,” when government-employed industrial engineers helped pilots manage complex cockpits during World War II. Now human factors science dominates public and private aviation — almost all of SA Technologies’ clients employ pilots.

“They recognize this by bringing [in] Mica,” Meshkati said. Her work has been a pillar in this field.”

As relevant as her work has been, however, Endsley didn’t arrive at an easy time. The Air Force’s 180,000 civilian employees recently took a 20 percent pay cut following the federal budget sequester. Budget cuts limit how often pilots can fly, which weakens operational readiness.

“One of the main challenges that I’ll have is trying to find ways to make sure that we stay on track with our technical objectives and making sure our research and development goes forward,” Endsley said. “We don’t want to fall behind what other countries are doing.”

Endsley commands respect among scientists, according to Michelle Robertson MS ’84, PhD ’90, her friend and colleague at USC. Robertson is now a research scientist at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, where most of her co-workers have studied Endsley’s work.

“Mica has been blazing the trail for 20 years,” said Robertson, who earned her PhD in instructional technologies at the USC Rossier School of Education.

After her post ends in 2015, Endsley plans to return to the helm of SA Technologies.

“I’m very pleased with the education I got at USC that’s allowed me to continue to pursue [my research] in all these different venues,” Endsley said. “But I’m a design engineer at heart.”

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