Cognitive Science Alumni

Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.

The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.

The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.

Alumna of the Month: Barbara Holder, 1999

Barbara Holder

Barbara began her career as a human-computer interaction systems engineer at the NASA/CalTech Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While working at JPL Barbara developed a passion for flying and dedicated herself to pursuing a career in aviation. Her pursuit led her to the cognitive science department at UCSD and Edwin Hutchins who is a known leader in the study of cognition in technological settings. Barbara's studies focused on cognitive ethnography and the interactions between technology, cognition, and human activity.

Barbara joined the Boeing Commercial Airplanes Group as a Human Factors Specialist in Aviation Safety. One of her major contributions was the design of improved formats for the procedures and checklists pilot use during emergency situations. Her design is now a standard on all Boeing commercial airplanes and has enhanced safety and improved operational efficiency for airlines world-wide and she was honored by the Air Line Pilots Association for her contribution toward improved aviation safety.

Barbara was recently promoted to the prestigious position of Associate Technical Fellow. Her current assignment is to lead the Flight Deck Concept Center, a team of scientists and engineers responsible for exploring and creating innovative flight deck concepts, technologies, and applications that improve aviation safety, increase operational efficiency, and provide value. Barbara conducts field research at airlines around the world to investigate the role of culture and the role of technology in the conduct of a pilot's daily work. Her research has been applied in Boeing flight decks, flight crew training and procedures, and flight operations.

Barbara lives in Seattle with her husband Marco, a professional musician, and their children. Barbara enjoys sea kayaking, listening to Marco play guitar, and spending time with Max, Roxanne, and Pedro.

An Interview with Barbara Holder

by Kim Sweeney

What do you do in your job now?

I work for the Boeing Commercial Airplanes Group and lead a team of people and a research center called the "Flight Deck Concept Center". Our charter is to innovate for Boeing to solve current problems in flight operations and to come up with new concepts for future flight decks. We try to be creative and innovative, to come up with solutions that you just wouldn't get from the traditional engineering or R&D processes. So we look at all aspects of the flight operation, across cultures around the world: infrastructure, the culture of pilot communities, what common knowledge and skills pilots have. We also keep an eye on new available or up-and-coming commercially available technology, like for example the iPod, looking at how pilots use that technology in flight operations and why. And we work on problems in the here and now. For instance, today a huge problem is fuel conservation, so we're trying to find ways to reduce fuel consumption during flight operations, in a way that will maintain safety standards but will make a more efficient use of fuel. We also study things like synthetic vision and fatigue risk management, to try to maximize the pilot's human capabilities as well as take advantage of the technological capabilities.

Given everything you know about what can go wrong in flights, do you feel safe flying?

Oh, yes, very safe! It is the safest form of transportation we have today. It was safe before with older airplanes which had all kinds of potential mechanical issues, and now... well, the modern airplanes are extremely reliable.

How did you first get involved in human-computer interaction/user interface design, and what do you do with it now?

I did my undergraduate work at UC Irvine in Social Ecology, where I developed an appreciation for how much the physical and social environments shape human behavior and interaction. I focused my studies on designing spaces for people (such as office buildings, parks, and residences) to better support human activity in those spaces. After I got my B.A., I worked at the NASA/CalTech Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a human-computer interaction systems engineer, looking at how technology is used and all the issues people have with its use. Right around then I started flying for fun, and it occurred to me that it'd be interesting to work on designing airplane cockpits. I came to realize that there is a lot of cognitive work involved in flying an airplane and I thought it'd be an interesting area of research. After all, the flight deck is a work space but it is in the sky. So I looked into places where I could do graduate work in the cognitive engineering side of things and UCSD was the top choice. Under the guidance of Ed Hutchins, who was doing research on commercial airplane automation issues, I learned theory and methods that I apply in my work today. I ended up doing my dissertation work with Navy helicopter pilots in training. Seriously, you could spend four or maybe five careers looking at the cognitive aspects of flying.

The most rewarding part of my job is solving complex problems that make commercial air travel safer and more efficient. It's nice to know that the research I do can help make flying more efficient and safer, and who doesn't want that?

So you work in industry, but you're still an active member of the CogSci community here at UCSD. In your opinion, what are some of the differences between those two worlds?

Well, I was pretty sure I didn't want to be a professor because I'd had experience in industry before grad school, and I knew that I liked the fact that in industry you can really make changes: the research you do is the agent of change. Whereas- at least in the areas of aviation and motor vehicles- it's really hard to transition ideas and products from the academic arena into actual implementation. I wanted to be making things work in the here and now, and I really like that about my job. But it's a corporate job, so you don't always have control over everything you want to: sometimes big decisions just aren't yours to make. Generally the PhDs who come to work for us who end up leaving or who are ineffective are the ones who are unable to get past that.

So... a good fix for me is to stay connected to the University. I like having the connection to the science- the real basic science- and the rigor I find in the department is something I miss. At my job there's so much time pressure, so we sometimes have to make more compromises to meet deadlines. We don't really have the luxury of doing analyses until we're confident that we're done.

I also like the freshness and the new perspective that I get from being in the Department. Things are constantly changing and being in the academic environment pushes me to continue to learn more and stay in touch. For instance the new research on perception is fascinating, and absolutely applicable to what we do. When I think about it, practically all of the research in the Cognitive Science department is relevant. Even language research... like Seana [Coulson's] research on conceptual blends, and how people come to understand things... or some of her work on language and gesture use. For instance, at Boeing we're looking cross-culturally at language and gesture use on the flight deck. Even though the instruments in the cockpit are labeled in English, pilots pronounce those words with the different sound systems that their native languages use, and sometimes that can create errors and misunderstandings. English is the "official" language of flight operations, but in practice different languages and mixed languages (a hybrid of English and a native language) is what's used. So we're trying to create documents and make design decisions, for instance, that recognize that there are a lot of languages besides English being spoken on the flight deck.

What was the most valuable thing you learned while in the Cognitive Science department at UCSD?

I learned that to be successful you need to be skilled at a lot of different things and be open to opportunities for learning something new. The Cognitive Science curriculum at UCSD is very broad-- there are a lot of courses, a lot of options. And the thing is, I came in very excited about the courses that dealt with human behavior, technology and distributed cognition, but some of the other stuff --like the hard-core neuroscience-- it was hard for me to see how any of that was relevant to my interests. But my advisor [Ed Hutchins] said: "Just take something that sounds interesting. Take it even if you think it doesn't directly relate to what you want to do." So I took some classes that were out of my area, and I found that they were extremely relevant! A lot of the time what you learn- you'll only discover later (sometimes much later) that it is valuable. We tend to get overwhelmed as students, so we get caught up in a 'checklist' of classes and end up dropping courses that aren't required or are too different from our interests... but I'd say stick with it, even if it doesn't seem immediately relevant. It might open doors later. And you'll find that you're able to see connections and have insights that you wouldn't have been able to have otherwise.

For example, when I started my studies I didn't have a good appreciation for the complexity of attention, and how important it is for us in the design community. Especially when you're studying people who are engaged in these highly-paid, multi-modal, information-rich activities, like flying an airplane. But now I see designs that the engineers come up with, which requite the pilot to be able to read one teeny-tiny number over here and another teeny-tiny number over there. They don't see that making that information more accessible to pilots needs to be part of the design. In order to design these things well, it really helps to understand what the human cognitive capabilities are so that you can design something that capitalizes on the strengths of the human system.

How do you maintain a balance between your work and the rest of your life?

It's a huge challenge. I do try to integrate work and life as much as possible and keep my schedule flexible. My husband and I have three kids, and we try to put aside dedicated family time, and if there is an event at the kids' school I want to attend, then I go and flex my time by working evenings or on the weekend. It is difficult though because there is always so much work to be done, it's hard to not get overwhelmed with life and work stress. I try to not force myself to work when I know that I will not be productive. I also try to give myself time to decompress from stressful circumstances that inevitably arise in life. It's hard though, because like many academics, I love my job... and it's kind of bad when you're sitting around on the weekend, looking forward to Monday so you can go back to work! I enjoy sea kayaking though, which is great here in the Pacific Northwest, and I like running, and I find that just shutting everything off and disconnecting for a while is really helpful in reducing stress and staying fit.

If you could choose another profession, what would it be?

I'd probably be a formula one race car driver or maybe be a talk show host, a la Oprah. But I'm very lucky in that I love what I do and I don't really spend time thinking about other careers. I was talking to a guy in computer support the other day, and he said he'd been looking at our website, and that he thought my work sounded 'really cool'. And it is really cool! And many people find my work interesting, even if it's not their area of expertise. There are things I'm not crazy about... the bureaucracy, for example- but this job enables access that can't be rivaled in academia. I can just call the Vice President of an airline and ask for access... and I'll get it. So this job opens many doors. I'm excited by the fact that we can make influential changes on a global scale through the design decisions we make and policies we institute. It's a lot of responsibility but it's also very powerful.

To Nominate Someone

To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at