Award Winning: SJSU & NASA Ames’ Researchers Acknowledged for Far Reaching Impacts

by | Sep 28, 2023 | Research and Innovation

Cassie Hilditch, pictured here at NASA Ames, just received the NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal. Photo by Robert C. Bain.

Less than 15 miles from San José State University lies one of NASA’s critical national centers for cutting-edge research and development in the fields of aerospace science and technology Ames Research Center. 

For over 35 years, the proximity between the two campuses has allowed for a flow of researchers and easy collaboration that has a significant impact. San José State researchers and Ames civil servants have worked shoulder to shoulder tackling research at the forefront of human systems integration, aerospace systems, space flight and human fatigue. SJSU is the primary Human Systems Integration partner at NASA Ames. SJSU staff and researchers are in every lab, every division and working on every project, contributing to all Human Systems Integration work performed at NASA Ames. In the last five years alone, SJSU research partnerships have been recognized with 73 NASA awards.  

“In collaboration with NASA scientists, SJSU Human Factors team members have engaged in award-winning research that has improved the reliability, efficiency, and safety of NASA’s missions and continues to benefit the American people,” explains San José State Psychology Professor Sean Laraway, director of the SJSU Human Factors Program at NASA Ames Research Center. 

“NASA awards to our team are among the highest honors that government contractors can receive. In addition, best conference paper awards given to our team by professional organizations at national and international conferences demonstrate the scientific community’s recognition of our team’s excellence.”  

There’s a career journey behind every award

There’s a story behind Cassie Hilditch’s NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal. 

“Sleep inertia … is when you first wake up and your alertness is impaired,” she explains, reflecting on her career focus. ”People in emergency services who work on-call often have to sleep on-shift and may have to wake up and be ready to make really important decisions and take really important actions. That’s become my area of focus.”  

On joining NASA’s Fatigue Countermeasures Laboratory in 2018 as a SJSU employee and a postdoctoral researcher, Hilditch soon began leading a project with one of NASA’s airline partners, investigating intermittent rest and sleep among pilots. She summarized her findings and presented them at respected scientific conferences — the Annual SLEEP Conference, the Working Time Society Meeting, and the Aerospace Medical Association Conference where her work received scientific merit awards. 

Outside of the lab, Hilditch has pioneered fatigue issues for shift workers, especially in aviation. Her active participation in a national working group addressing fatigue issues with representatives from the major U.S. airline carriers led to the Flight Safety Foundation’s publication informed by her research on best practices for controlled rest. She was invited to share her findings with an international group of airline representatives at the Fatigue Risk Management Forum, as well as with Federal Aviation Administration officials at the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI). 

At the onset of the pandemic, facing possible closure of her second large laboratory project, she quickly developed ways to continue the study without requiring participants in the lab. Her successful study led to a new paradigm for data collection, providing new options for how the laboratory can manage future studies without always requiring in-person participants. 

As if this furious pace of research and pioneering sleep studies wasn’t enough, Hilditch’s work has also been recognized for the following commendations awarded during the last five years:

  1. 2023 NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal for exceptional scientific contributions and process improvements furthering NASA’s understanding of the risk of fatigue on the safety of aviation operations  
  2. 2023 William E. Collins Award “Outstanding Human Factors Publication of the Year” granted by the Aerospace Human Factors Association (AsHFA) 
  3. 2020 NASA Ames Research Center Honor Awards, Fatigue Countermeasures Laboratory
  4. 2020 Aerospace Medical Association Scientific Merit Award  
  5. 2020 European Sleep Research Society Poster Award
  6. 2019 Working Time Society Outstanding Early Career Researcher Award 
  7. 2019 Sleep Research Society Abstract Merit Based Award  

Hilditch’s accomplishments studies leading to new scientific processes, publishing eight first author, peer-reviewed manuscripts, invitations to present at major scientific conferences, and scientific merit awards — have all contributed to our understanding of human sleep dynamics. 

“I’m humbled to have received these awards, but also feel very proud to have received them,” explains Hilditch. “It’s hugely impactful to have had the work recognized. It’s nice to know that I’m contributing to the overall mission of the lab — it’s a team effort.”

Hilditch is just one example of SJSU employees winning NASA awards. Anna Jacinto, Randall Mumaw and JonLuc Christensen were also recognized for research contributions: 

  1. Anna Jacinto: NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal for exceptional strategic vision in automating, streamlining, and improving the Ames HCI Quality Assurance team contributions to NASA’s Human Spaceflight mission. 
  2. Randall Mumaw and the Automation Enabled Pilot team: NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal, Group Achievement Award for outstanding development and testing of both control architectures and a mission-based approach for evaluating increasingly automated aircraft. 
  3. JonLuc Christensen:NASA Honors Early Career Achievement Medal for significant performance during the first 10 years of an individual’s career in support of the NASA Mission and significant early career achievement in advancing information and records management.

Learn more about SJSU’s long-standing partnership with NASA in the spring issue of Washington Square: The Magazine.