Meet: William J. Clancey
Specializing in Cognitive Science and
NASA Ames Research Center
Career Fact Sheet Print Version Coming Soon
Who I am and what I do
I am a scientist who helps NASA design human and robotic
space missions, including what people will do (astronauts and flight controllers
on earth) and the tools they will use (especially computer systems).
Areas of expertise
First, you must be able to observe and describe how
people think and work (cognitive science, psychology, anthropology/ethnography).
Second, you must invent new kinds of computer systems (computer science). Third,
you must be able to think about complex interactions and recognize unclear
ways of thinking (philosophy, mathematics).
To work with NASA engineers
and astronaut-explorers, it helps to have a good background in the
sciences (biology, chemistry, astronomy, etc.) and familiarity with
physics and engineering. More basically, you need to have good writing
skills the ability to analyze data using spreadsheets and charts.
I also enjoy photography and have used my skills to document how people
work in photographs, videos, and graphic presentations.
How I first became interested in this profession
I worked with social scientists (anthropologists, sociologists,
and educational psychologists) at the Institute for Research on Learning
in Menlo Park, California, for ten years. We observed people in businesses
(such as a customer call center) to understand how learning naturally
occurs. We emphasized how people succeed in doing their work despite
having inadequate tools or incomplete procedures, by studying how they
helped and learned
from each other.
What helped prepare me for this job
I have a broad college background in computer science,
philosophy, and anthropology. This helped me understand the social scientists
at the Institute for Research on Learning, so I could relate what I knew
about computer science to what they knew about people.
My role models
In college I was inspired by professors who gave clear lectures
and helped me appreciate ideas in classic books written by philosophers
and scientists. My graduate school advisors showed me how we could understand
the strategies that people used to solve problems. So for example, in
studying physicians who were examining patients, we considered "How
does he/she know what question to ask next?" At NASA, I have been
inspired by space scientists who want to go to Mars, and who enjoy working
with computer scientists to develop robots and other tools that Mars
astronauts might use.
My education and training
As a college student at Rice University in Houston, I went through the
catalog and took every course that mentioned "knowledge" or "cognition," regardless
of the department. So I had college courses in 13 different departments,
including Linguistics, Sociology, and even Religious Studies. At Stanford,
I focused on Artificial Intelligence, but again combined different areas
by developing a computer program to teach medical students how to diagnose
a patient (combining computer science, education, psychology, and medicine).
I also always read whatever books interested me, often
finding years later that I could relate my reading to my work. This was
especially true in my reading about astronomy and the space program when
I was a high school student--more than 30 years before I began to work
My career path
I have always been a research scientist, rather than a professor.
Working with students might have been exciting, but as a research scientist
I have been able to focus on developing new ideas and new kinds of computer
tools. I have been a research scientist at Stanford (13 years in Medical
Computer Science), at the Institute for Research on Learning (10 years
in Business Anthropology), and at NASA Ames (since 1998, leading a group
called "Work Systems Design and Evaluation").
What I like best about my job
The people I work with enjoy what we are doing and being together. We
are all excited by the space program, including space flight and basic
discoveries about the universe. We also like working with people in
other fields ("multidisciplinary science") and being outdoors
What I don't like about my job
Worrying about money and budgets. Every year has
been different, we have had no stability or proper long-term planning
since I arrived at NASA. However, we have high hopes for the new leadership
My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
Read lots of books. Read about whatever interests
you. Carry out your own investigations, even if they have nothing to
do with what your school offers you. Realize that many of the important
ideas for the future are not in textbooks, but were published 100 years
ago or more and have not necessarily been understood or appreciated by
your teachers. This includes philosophy and psychology (such as the work
of John Dewey) and what is called "systems theory" (look on
Wikipedia for a good introduction). Science and technology are rapidly
changing. You can contribute by finding the bits and pieces that interest
you, becoming knowledgeable about those things, then bring them to the
table when the world is ready.
As for any scientist, reading is one my pleasures outside of
work. Recently I have been reading the New York Review of Books, which
has exposed me to many new ideas in politics, history, and art. I have
also recently been collecting my photographs into books using iPhoto.
I am writing this at Lake Wentworth in New Hampshire, where I am enjoying
kayaking, swimming, and hiking.