Texas Tech University

Human Factors Doctoral Student Receives Third Fellowship from NASA

David Gay

September 19, 2017


Brittany Neilson is researching the restorative effect of nature for the NASA Texas Space Grant Graduate Student Fellowship.

Brittany Neilson
Brittany Neilson

When students start their collegiate journey, many have a dream job that they strive for. Brittany Neilson, a doctoral student in the Human Factors Psychology program in the Texas Tech University Department of Psychological Sciences, now has the chance to participate in a fellowship offered by the place where she always dreamed of working.

Neilson recently received the NASA Texas Space Grant Graduate Student Fellowship, her third fellowship with NASA. Through this fellowship, Neilson will conduct research at Texas Tech relevant to NASA's missions.

Neilson said she first heard about NASA's fellowships when she was in a master's program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She was conducting research on motion sickness and how it impacts human cognitive performance, which was relevant to NASA's commercial spaceflight initiative.

Through that research, Neilson earned the Virginia Space Grant Consortium Fellowship. When she came to Texas Tech for her doctorate, she decided to seek out the same graduate fellowship in Texas.

"These fellowships are an excellent opportunity for graduate students to continue to pursue their line of research at their home institution while receiving financial support and recognition from NASA," Neilson said.

During her time at Texas Tech, Neilson has conducted research on the restorative power of nature, which explores if the  exposure to natural environments improves cognition and reduces stress, and its potential applications in designing work environments and technology for aerospace system operators, including pilots, astronauts and air traffic controllers.

"My current line of research is different than my prior research," Neilson said. "But it still has the underlying objective of improving human cognitive performance in operational settings."

How the restorative effect of nature relates to NASA.

Martina Klein, associate professor of Experimental Psychology in the Department of Psychological Sciences, was investigating the restorative effect of nature as Neilson worked in the research lab. Klein first met Neilson as her academic advisor in 2012 and eventually became a critical part of Klein's laboratory, Klein said. 

Martina Klein
Martina Klein

Through watching Klein's work, Neilson was drawn to this area of research because of her personal connection with nature, Neilson said.

As Neilson continued her research, she learned more about how it could relate to a position at NASA. She also saw the real-world applications this research could have.

"When I read the literature on the restorative effect of nature, I began to see its widespread impact on the design of various operational environments, particularly in outer space," Neilson said. "I think better understanding the restorative effect of nature also could have very similar real-world applications for various settings, including aerospace systems and medical environments."

Neilson will conduct three projects under the fellowship and report her findings to NASA.

The first experiment is to replicate another researcher's experiment that found exposure to nature images improved performance on a sustained-attention task compared to exposure to urban images.

Another experiment Neilson is working on is determining the impact of water in a scene on sustained-attention performance.

Water is thought to be an important aspect of investigating the restorative effect of nature, she said.

"The reason we care about water as a proposed underlying mechanism of the restorative effect of nature is that we are thought to have an evolved preference for water since it is necessary for survival," Nelson said. "Nature effortlessly captures our involuntary attention which allows our voluntary attention, the attention we use during most tasks at work, to restore."

In addition to those other experiments, Neilson also is working on her dissertation proposal, which will attempt to generalize the restorative effect of nature to the auditory stimuli of nature so they can compare the visual and auditory elements.

Neilson said this is important for two reasons. First, while nature sounds have been used in the medical field to promote recovery from surgery or illness, there has been little empirical research on the impact of nature sounds on cognition and stress, specifically as it relates to restoration. Lastly, some sustained-attention tasks are visual while some are more hearing-centered.

The dissertation will try to determine if you need to restore depleted attention using the same modality that it was depleted with. This is important to understand for real-world applications, as it may be easier to implement a restorative intervention involving nature sounds or nature images given various work environment constraints. Furthermore, it would be informative to know if both are equally restorative under different task modalities, especially since some operators' tasks are mainly visual or mainly auditory, but most operators' tasks require both visual and auditory processing. 

Neilson's inspirations at Texas Tech

When a person first thinks of a fellowship involving science, technology, engineering and math, they usually do not think of psychology as a part of those categories. But, Neilson said the National Science Foundation does recognize psychology as a subject within STEM.

Receiving this STEM fellowship gives Neilson the opportunity to speak to people about her doctorate in a subfield of psychology called human factors, sometimes referred to as engineering psychology.

 Patricia DeLucia
Patricia DeLucia

"People give me a perplexed look because they have never heard of engineering and psychology operating together, and then, I get the chance to share my passion for what I do," she said.  "In general, engineers apply their mathematical and scientific knowledge to designing and building things; they make things operate.  However, humans interact with these technologies, and as such, it is important to consider the human throughout the design cycle of technologies. That is precisely where psychology comes into play. We empirically research the capabilities and limitations of humans as well as relationships between humans and technology."

The collaborative work of the engineers and human factors psychologists helps reduce the likelihood of errors and improves safety, Neilson said.

Klein said she has seen Neilson grow into a highly motivated researcher.

"Neilson truly cares about the research projects in which she is involved," Klein said. "Her character traits of hard work, trustworthiness and passion for the research study itself and her concern for the success of her collaborators have greatly contributed to her own success as a researcher as well as that of the students she works with."

Neilson is now serving as Klein's "right-hand man" in her laboratory. Neilson independently generates research ideas, collects data for testing hypotheses and independently analyzes the data.

Without Klein's support, Neilson said she would not have been as successful as she has been at Texas Tech.

Keith Jones
Keith Jones

"I am incredibly grateful to have a mentor who genuinely cares about my success and supports all of my professional endeavors," Neilson said. "Klein has not only guided me in my research on the restorative effect of nature, but she has also shaped me into an ethical researcher, a scientific writer, a team player and a persistent woman in human factors by modeling these traits herself."

Neilson also was inspired by Patricia DeLucia, professor of psychological sciences and associate vice president for research, and Keith Jones, an associate professor in experimental psychology, in how they set high standards for their research and researchers.

DeLucia said she first met Neilson when she started in the program five years ago. She was impressed by Neilson's enthusiasm for the field.

"She's very passionate about human factors and working for NASA," DeLucia said. "NASA is her end goal and dream job. She is always keeping connections with people there."

Obstacles that Neilson overcame to succeed.

The fellowship that Neilson received had never before been given to a graduate student pursuing psychology. Neilson said she had to advocate for the importance of the human factors field before she could start her research when she applied for the fellowship.

"Receiving this fellowship is a sort of recognition of the importance of our field at NASA, which just increases my interest to work there one day even further," Neilson said.

To receive this fellowship, Neilson had to overcome the hurdle of being a woman in a STEM field. With the support of several individuals, she has gotten closer to making her dream a reality.

Because so many people helped her succeed, Neilson wants to help those women who want to pursue a career in the STEM field.

"Girls and women pursuing STEM interests are faced with unique barriers," Neilson said. "I would love to participate in initiatives that further support girls and women pursuing interests in STEM. I truly believe I might not be where I am today without the support I received. It is not that I, or other girls and women, are not capable of success without the support of others, but support acts as a buffer against barriers. I am not sure I would've had the confidence to persist despite obstacles had I repeated my journey on my own."

For all students who want to succeed in the STEM field, Neilson said it is important for them to put their name out there by applying for internships and fellowships, even if the competition is high.

Neilson said she also recommends talking to people who are in a career you want to be a part of in the future.

"I cold-emailed a researcher at NASA, and that led to internships and some great mentors who continue to support me today," Neilson said. "When I attend conferences, I try to talk to people who work in positions I would like to work in someday and tell them that I am interested in pursuing a similar career path. You may be surprised by the great advice and support that you receive."

DeLucia said Neilson's journey helps students learn how to apply and search for internships and fellowships. Students will also learn what goes on in a government lab and what challenges there are working there.

Neilson hopes this fellowship will help her career goals by increasing her multidisciplinary interaction with people who have similar career pursuits. This will provide her with greater opportunities to apply her human factors knowledge to NASA's work.

DeLucia said Neilson receiving this fellowship shows the human factors program in a great light and increases the program's networking.

Neilson said receiving this fellowship is a testament to the success of the Department of Psychological Sciences and the human factors program.

"Receiving this fellowship reflects the high research productivity of our department and our human factors program within our department," Neilson said. "Faculty in the human factors program received grants this past academic year from the National Science Foundation and the Air Force of Scientific Research. They have collaborated on grants with several other departments at Texas Tech, including computer science, mechanical engineering, education, music and the Health Sciences Center's nursing and surgery departments. The same high-level of research productivity is evident in all of the programs in our department."

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