Career Notes 6.13.21
Ep 53 | 6.13.21

Margaret Cunningham: A people scientist with a technology focus. [Behavioral science]


Margaret Cunningham: Hello. My name is Margaret Cunningham and I am a Principal Research Scientist for Human Behavior at Forcepoint.

Margaret Cunningham: Strangely enough, I grew up wanting to be an English professor and, uh, pursued that through my undergraduate where I was a double major in English and psychology at George Washington University. I finished a master's degree in mental health counseling and quickly figured out that I am not the best person to, um, provide therapy on a one-on-one level. Primarily because I had a hard time leaving it at work. I went into a PhD program in applied experimental psychology, and you know, that transformed my life because I realized that I could provide helping services and good work services at a broader scale.

Margaret Cunningham: I originally started working in healthcare human factors, looking at how different types of technology like electronic health record systems, um, impacted care provider performance, as well as patient safety factors.

Margaret Cunningham: I took a role as a consultant for a company called BMT Designers and Planners, which was, uh, originally British Maritime Technologies. I did some work for Coast Guard and Navy, but where I really found my footing was supporting the Human Systems Integration Branch at Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Department. And what my role there was, was to be the person who, you know, went out when we tested new technologies to figure out how to measure how these technologies impacted human performance.

Margaret Cunningham: There are a lot of parallels across the industries that I've worked in and I find it fascinating because so many things carry through. A lot of times we are leaving the human part til last, and I think that's an enormous mistake. Once you put something out in the real world, people will do surprising things with your technology. And often, these things are unanticipated and they can create problems.

Margaret Cunningham: I think that one of the most critical things that I have done is make connections. Find people who are working on things that you're interested in and show them that you're interested. Talk to people. Never underestimate the amount of reading that you can do. Um, you know, I'm, I'm always trying to keep up with the current, uh, science behind, uh, human factors, cybersecurity, threat detection, behavioral anomaly detection, um, and, and being a voracious reader and someone who is willing to connect with others in the field,  really can create avenues and opportunities that are unexpected. Um, I would also say don't be afraid to do things.

Margaret Cunningham: I really consider myself generally a people scientist, uh, with a technology focus. A lot of behavioral scientists, including myself, have a very strong background in statistical analysis.  That's been a huge advantage for me. Understanding how to make meaning out of behavioral data. I wouldn't underestimate the power of having some quantitative skills.

Margaret Cunningham: We have to almost make the space for ourselves. You've gotta be creative in what you're looking for, but you also have to find the organization that's a good match where your skillset, what you're offering, benefits, what they're trying to build or sell.

Margaret Cunningham: I hope that I've created some champions for human behavior and performance in the world of technology. And what I mean by that is that I hope that by working in teams with people who don't expect to work with someone like me, I will have those people I've worked with when I'm gone seeking another one, seeking someone else to fill that gap because they find that what I've offered has made what they're working on better.