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Cecilia Aragon

Blue-Sky Visionary

A former stunt pilot brings high tech down to Earth.

By Mark Matthews

As a young, shy software consultant in the mid-1980s, Cecilia Aragon overcame a fear of flying to train as a stunt pilot, powering her single-engine prop plane through loops, spins, and rolls. Each time she went up and didn’t crash, flying became easier; indeed, everything became easier. She went on to perform in air shows, earn bronze medals in the National and World Aerobatic Championships, found a flight school, and develop curricula that prepared pilots for in-flight emergencies.

Nowadays, Aragon helps users of technology overcome less traumatic but nonetheless difficult barriers. A pioneer in the growing field of human-computer interaction, she directs the Scientific Collaboration and Creativity Lab in the University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering. The navigation, visualization, and augmented-reality tools she has developed let everyone from pilots to consumers, scientists, and scholars digest complicated data in ways that save fuel or lives and make sense of the universe. Her innovations have won Aragon a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and honors as one of Hispanic Business magazine’s Top 25 Women of 2009.

Aragon’s flying experience served her well when she turned to scholarship in the 1990s, pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley and research at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory. Recalling how, as a pilot, the only thing that alerted her to invisible, dangerous airflows was spotting the occasional dust devil (whirlwind) near a runway, she set out to change that, making it the subject of her thesis. With help from Navy flight-test engineers, she designed a visualization system to convey large amounts of airflow data from flight-deck sensors to a cockpit computer screen in real time. She made it vivid and simple enough for stressed helicopter pilots, with just a fleeting glance at the screen, to see where hazards loomed.

Moving to the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL), Aragon tackled the failure of programmable thermostats to deliver their promised 10 percent household energy savings. It turned out the new thermostats were so complicated to program that consumers gave up. “Manufacturers said, ‘Why not get out your manual?’ But most people don’t know where their manual is.”

A better system, Aragon says, would have a screen that instantly tells a user, “Your thermostat is not programmed,” and with the push of a button provide clear instructions for how to do it. Aragon, graduate student Daniel Perry, and fellow researchers came up with a set of “usability metrics” for manufacturers to employ in designing future thermostats. Taking note of such things as the number of button presses required per programming task, the metrics are now being studied by the Environmental Protection Agency, and may become design requirements for manufacturers.

At LBL and now at the University of Washington, Aragon has been intent on designing interfaces that make vast amounts of data understandable and that open up bottlenecks in scientific discovery. “What’s new about Big Data is the complexity” and size, she says. “It’s straining human comprehension.” Her development of the visual analytics system Sunfall is credited by LBL with eliminating 90 percent of the human labor required in the search for supernovae, the intense stellar radiation bursts that can outshine whole galaxies.

Aragon’s software lets scholars go where curiosity leads them. Recently, two University of Washington biologists, Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom, joined with the academic database JSTOR to find the contribution of women to scholarship over the centuries. The Hoptree visual navigation system developed by Aragon and graduate student Michael Brooks gives users easy access. Click on Sociology, for instance, and you’ll find that women contributed 31.5 percent of works overall and 49.9 percent of the subcategory labeled “sexual activity of adolescents.”

Aragon’s own curiosity runs to how kids interface with technology, and their emerging rich language of emoticons capable of conveying feelings.

The life of an associate professor currently leaves Aragon no time for aerobatics. But she’s not complaining. Teaching and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, and seeing them grow into independent researchers, “makes me excited to go to work every morning,” she says, her enthusiasm defying the onset of a cold at the end of a long week. Though grounded, she’s soaring.


Mark Matthews is editor of Prism.



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