CSUN ARCS Helps Build JPL’s Laboratory of the Future from Home

Photo credit twenty20photos and Envato

A team from CSUN ARCS is collaborating with the staff at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to create the laboratory of the future. 

A new model of studying the workplace culture is being created as a team from the Autonomy Research Center for STEAHM (ARCS) at California State University, Northridge collaborates virtually with staff at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to create the laboratory of the future.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, CSUN anthropology graduate student Neil Thompsett would have visited JPL’s facilities in Pasadena to study how the laboratory’s researchers do their work. Thompsett and JPL’s researchers now work remotely and communicate via virtual meetings.

This new reality is providing important lessons on how their experiences during the pandemic may change how the researchers do their jobs in the future, said CSUN mechanical engineering professor Nhut Ho, the founding director of ARCS.

To that end, an ARCS team will be embedded in various groups of JPL scientists, engineers and managers, to conduct anthropological studies on team dynamics, chains of communication and culture. Through their research, the team members will provide JPL with a set of best practices on communicating, teaming and recruiting new talent within a virtual or remote working environment.

“We are able to move forward with our mission of utilizing multidisciplinary research despite these new changes,” Ho said. “Incorporating anthropology into this project and our program will bring exciting opportunities to non-STEM disciplines and strengthen our research.”

The ARCS program is designed to present CSUN students and faculty from disciplines across the university with the opportunity to collaborate with NASA and NASA JPL on projects supporting NASA research in autonomous systems.

As JPL scientists, engineers and managers communicate virtually, the ARCS team will focus on the employees’ language to better understand their work culture.

Studying certain phrases and micro-expressions used by individuals with a predominately STEM background will be an interesting venture for the research team, said Thompsett.

“It’s a privilege to gain insight into the human and linguistic aspects of what goes on in the creation of automation and rocketry. All of us, at some point, have been amazed by people who can build these things and send them into space,” Thompsett said. “To actually get to know them and understand what is going on in their world is quite fascinating.”

The ARCS team consists of ARCS Fellows Thompsett, anthropology undergraduate Michael Baumgarten and Suzanne Scheld, chair of the Department of Anthropology.

Thompsett called the opportunity to engage with JPL scientists in their own environment “an exciting experience.”

“What’s exciting about this is that it is probably going to be the first time we are studying scientists as they work remotely in their kitchens and in their homes as opposed to in their labs,” he said. “The beauty of it all is that maybe this will lead to a whole new way of thinking how work from home could be.”

The CSUN researchers said they hoped their work will help JPL officials identify effective ways to communicate and how to adjust their team to remote situations. The project is also providing the ARCS student fellows valuable research experience. Thompsett is writing his graduate thesis exclusively on the project.

“It’s quite incredible the way the door has been open for faculty and students to engage,” Scheld said. “From the Department of Anthropology’s point of view, this project has been really wonderful because it is hands-on research. This is an excellent example of how anthropology can be readily applicable.”

Baumgarten noted that “it’s rare for anthropology to be involved in a NASA project and have the relationship that it does with all these other STEM fields. That aspect really informs the way I’m developing ideas for my anthropological career.”

Yan Searcy, the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said he was proud of the work the students and faculty in the college were doing in the project.

“Interdisciplinarity is often discussed but seldom realized,” Searcy said. “The research team includes social science perspectives that positively impact processes and outcomes. Our stellar faculty and students are involved in applied research that generates practical impacts for the community.”

Ho shared Searcy’s pride.

“As a NASA-sponsored center, we are proud to be supporting JPL’s concept for its laboratory of the future,” Ho said. “This project truly upholds ARCS’ vision of conducting research with deep integration across disciplines. I’m excited to see what they discover.”

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