Katharine Lee

I’m sure that like many of my generation, I grew up always knowing about NASA. I do not recall seeing the moon landing on TV, which happened before I was 4 years old, but I remember that since I was very young, I always assumed that space travel would be a “normal” part of the human experience. I loved reading and watching science fiction and associated NASA with amazing futuristic ideas. I did not realize until later, however, that this storied agency did so much pioneering aeronautics research, which I’m glad to be a part of now.

When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor or some kind of scientist. I think that I was lucky that when I was growing up, I didn’t actively feel that there was anyone trying to tell me that girls couldn’t do anything they wanted to do, or that girls should only be in certain careers. Or if anyone did say that, I certainly wasn’t listening. At the University of California at Berkeley, I completed a double major in biophysics and psychology and I gravitated towards the psychology courses related to cognition, exploring how humans process information, learn, and reason. I also took a course in environmental psychology where I learned how environmental factors can influence behavior. I was especially taken with research I had read about designing habitable environments for astronauts with environmental psychology principles in mind. That led to my “discovery” of human factors as a discipline. In between college and graduate school, I worked for a few years as a sleep technician, assisting in sleep research, as well as clinical evaluations of patients with sleep disorders. When I started graduate school at San Jose State University, I interned with a group at NASA Ames Research Center who was researching the communication patterns of airline pilots as they transitioned to flying more highly automated, or “glass” cockpits.

I’ve worked almost entirely in the aeronautics part of NASA since arriving at Ames, and worked as a contractor before becoming a NASA civil servant in 1997. I’ve also had small detours in my career with a detail assignment in another Ames organization and one at NASA headquarters. A source of inspiration for me is that one’s contributions at NASA, however small, will likely advance technology and make a huge difference in the world. Researchers from other countries that we collaborate with have commented to me that they know that once NASA sets their mind to something, it’ll get done.

Today, I am the deputy division chief of an organization that performs air traffic management (ATM) research and development and that operates high-fidelity flight simulators. We are directly contributing to a nationwide initiative called the Next Generation Air Transportation System (or “NextGen”) that will make air transportation more efficient and better for the environment. I have worked on projects that have tested new technology for scheduling air traffic, evaluating how air traffic controller workload is impacted, and designing user interfaces and procedures to take advantage of the automation. The human factors implications of this new automation are taken very seriously with the technology development. When I first started working in ATM, human factors often was applied as a band-aid, once an automation system or piece of technology was designed. However, now it’s clear that you have to evaluate the impact of human factors throughout technology development, so you don’t end up with a technology that although is more efficient, the user simply can’t trust or understand and therefore won’t use.

Some of my most enjoyable work experiences were when I traveled to air traffic control (ATC) field sites for testing our technologies. Being in a live air traffic control facility reminds you of the complexity of ATC and how our work will ultimately affect the flying public.

What I’m proud of in my work has changed over the years. As an intern, I couldn’t wait to contribute to a research project to earn co-authorship on a publication. When I worked as part of a team researching advanced ATM automation tools, I was more focused on whether the FAA or airlines eventually would use our technology, and publications were less important. Later, as I became a manager, I let all the smart people make the impact, and I wanted to make sure they got the recognition they deserve. Today, my most proud moments are when I have some role in helping our staff earn promotions, awards, or recognition for their incredible technical achievements. It’s not the same as personally inventing some new technology or method, but it’s very satisfying.

My greatest accomplishment so far is raising three amazing kids with my husband, who also works for NASA. OK, so that’s not work-related, aside from the fact that our kids all attended the Ames Child Care Center when they were infants through preschool-age. (Work-life balance!) But our kids are growing up knowing and caring about NASA, really cutting-edge technology, science and engineering, and aeronautics and space. I know that what NASA develops will in some way touch their future lives. They think it’s funny when they overhear our conversations that are overloaded with NASA acronyms. They also get a good laugh out of phrases like, “…well, if you’re going to go to Mars….”

I really believe that NASA is a source of inspiration to our children. I try and make sure our kids’ friends and classmates know about NASA, especially reminding them that the first “A” stands for Aeronautics! It’s fun to do an outreach presentation to kids – in first grade, for example, they are in awe of any big number – no matter what it is or what it has to do with. They are so excited about airplanes and rockets. When we work here everyday, we forget how we are on the cutting edge of what’s possible, and not everyone sees that all the time. High school kids are slightly harder to impress, but even they are pretty amazed when I show them a video of the national air transportation system that our researchers created, and that is currently running everyday in the National Air and Space Museum.

I got to witness a night launch of STS-88, Space Shuttle Endeavour, in December 1998 when I was in Orlando attending a conference. The first night that the launch was scheduled, we did not try and see the it, and it was scrubbed, but the second night, we decided to go, and Endeavour did launch. It was simply the most amazing thing I had ever seen. That was the only shuttle launch I saw in person. I guess it’s fitting then that I got to witness Endeavour’s flyover of NASA Ames in September 2012 on its way to its new home in Los Angeles.

photo of Katharine Lee

Biography

Katharine Lee currently serves as the deputy division chief of a research organization at NASA Ames Research Center that performs air traffic management (ATM) research and development and which also operates high-fidelity flight simulators. She came to this position from providing human factors evaluations of ATM automation tools. Human factors is a discipline that examines how humans interact with and use technology. She learned about human factors at the University of California at Berkeley, where she completed bachelors degrees in biophysics and psychology. In an undergraduate environmental psychology course, she read about NASA’s human factors research in designing more workable and livable environments for astronauts. While completing her masters degree in psychology from San Jose State University, Katharine worked as a graduate student intern in human factors with NASA Ames researchers investigating the communication patterns of airline pilots, contrasting their performance in “traditional” versus more highly automated, “glass” cockpits. From there, she was employed as a contractor supporting the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) liaison office at NASA Ames, and worked with NASA engineers to develop and evaluate a suite of ATM automation tools known as the Center-TRACON Automation System (CTAS). She joined NASA as a civil servant in 1997 and continued to contribute to, and later manage, increasingly advanced ATM research. Today, her division’s work will help achieve the goals of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (“NextGen”) with more efficient and environmentally friendly airspace operations. Katharine sees her NASA career as a family experience, as her husband also works at NASA Ames, and all three of their children attended the Ames Child Care Center from infancy through age 5.