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The human factors psychology program at Old Dominion University has built a reputation that would make Earl Alluisi proud.

One of the pioneers in human factors-or ergonomics-research in the United States, Alluisi came to ODU in 1974 as the school's first University Professor. He helped to create the industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology doctoral program, which was the parent of the current human factors doctoral program.

Human factors psychology is concerned with designing devices and systems that match human capabilities and accommodate human limitations. Research in the discipline at ODU can involve factors such as the effects of aging on automobile driving skills, the mental concentration of air traffic controllers, the manual dexterity of medical students or the efficiency of sailors' reactions to a shipboard emergency.

Alluisi, who died in 1993, also served during the 1980s as president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), the very organization that a few weeks ago gave ODU psychologists the opportunity to show how much fruit Alluisi's work has borne.

At the 50th annual HFES meeting in San Francisco in October, ODU faculty, students and recent doctoral graduates figured in 10 seminars, workshops and ceremonies.

"ODU was well represented at the society meeting," said Mark Scerbo, professor of psychology. A presentation of the battlefield surgical performance research of ODU doctoral student Elizabeth Schmidt and Scerbo was highlighted by HFES in its conference media alerts and resulted in at least one nationally disseminated news article.

Added James Bliss, associate professor of psychology, "Attendees of the conference representing government, academic and industrial sectors remarked about the strong presence of ODU students and faculty."

Carryl Baldwin, assistant professor of psychology and head of the ODU Cognitive Neuroscience Aviation and Driving Laboratory Group, may have been the busiest member of the ODU delegation at the meeting. She participated in four presentations based on her work together with two of her graduate students, Jennifer May and Ian Reagan.

Bliss and his students, Elizabeth Newlin, Ernesto Bustamante, Randall Spain and Corey Fallon, presented research on reactions to alarms and signals.
Two faculty members associated with ODU's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC)-Michael Mihalecz and Hector Garcia-were also part of research teams whose work was presented.

Matthew Risser, a 2006 doctoral graduate, was another presenter and Julie Stark, a 2005 doctoral graduate, was recognized as a past recipient of the society's Alphonse Chapanis Best Student Paper Award, one of the most prestigious awards a student can earn at the meeting.

Finally, the ODU student chapter of HFES organized and helped to run a technical session titled "Internships: Building a Bridge from Classrooms to Careers." Leading roles in this project were taken by ODU doctoral students William Bailey and Bustamante.

"The goal of human factors is to understand how people interact with tools and their environment to improve efficiency, safety, ease of use and job satisfaction," Scerbo said.

Human factors also is a cornerstone of modeling and simulation, and research in the discipline at ODU has been both a catalyst for and beneficiary of the 10-year-old VMASC. "Many of the most critical and challenging processes to be modeled involve human behavior," Scerbo pointed out. This modeling can range from designing true-to-life computer visuals to the development of intelligent systems that behave and think like humans.

The Department of Psychology is currently searching for a fourth tenure track professor in human factors. The position was funded expressly to boost modeling and simulation at the university.

"This new hire in human factors will allow us to take advantage of the increasing opportunities to cross fertilize research ideas with other research partners both within and outside of our university," said Janis Sanchez-Hucles, chair of the psychology department. "We have noted in psychology that science is increasingly interdisciplinary, and with our new professor we hope to be poised to uncover those significant discoveries that can only be made at the boundary of disciplines."

Scerbo said human factors psychology at ODU also has benefited from collaborations with Eastern Virginia Medical School, Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, U.S. Army, NASA, American College of Surgeons, the SimGroup at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Tulane Medical School and Washington University School of Medicine.

Together with Bliss, Scerbo has led ODU into the forward ranks of human factors research in medical simulations. Virtual environments developed in ODU's Cave Automatic Virtual Environment can train medical personnel to do surgical procedures on a simulated battlefield or in a virtual hospital operating room. Simpler simulations might train a medic to remove debris from a wound.

Baldwin's research explores how operators in surface and air transportation environments-drivers, pilots, air traffic controllers-react to auditory and visual data displays, alarms and verbal-guidance instructions. The work examines factors such as task-induced fatigue, sensory-cognitive interactions in complex information processing and the impact of hearing impairments on the performance of older adults in the workforce.

While Baldwin studies the usefulness of auditory alarms to warn automobile drivers when they are too close to another auto or obstruction, Bliss comes at the subject from a somewhat different angle. One of his research focuses is the human tendency to ignore alarms that are too quick to warn of dangers or that warn of dangers not likely to happen.

This article was posted on: December 13, 2006

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