Nadia Doutcheva, of Reston, Virginia was born in Bulgaria and moved to northern Virginia with her family in 2000. When attending South Lakes High School she made the discovery that she loved math. Her dilemma was how to make use of the subject in her life.

Her colleague, Missie Smith, of Columbus, Mississippi, stumbled upon a field called industrial engineering while reading one of her favorite books, Cheaper by the Dozen. The book was entertaining but she did not realize until later in life that it was really about this concentration within engineering.

Jill Streeter of Danville, New Hampshire, started her engineering track in eighth grade, growing up in the Boston, Massachusetts area, and at one point thought maybe she would build structures.

Smith attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia, and then finished at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. Both high schools are designed to meet the needs of the most academically gifted students. She moved into the study of human factors engineering while she was studying engineering at Mississippi State University (MSU).

At MSU, she spent four years as an undergraduate researcher with former Virginia Tech faculty member Kari Babski-Reeves. "Dr. Babski-Reeves became my boss, my professor, my adviser, and a counselor. She offered me a spot in human factors engineering for my master's, and I was not ready to leave school," Smith said.

After her master's she took a job with International Paper Company of Memphis, Tennessee, and within six months was applying for her Ph.D. "Dr. Babski-Reeves had always spoken highly of Virginia Tech, and so I thought of applying there," Smith explained.

Streeter explained she "stumbled upon Virginia Tech and just fell in love with the gorgeous pictures of campus that were on the Internet." As a freshman, she joined Hypatia, an engineering learning community, and met others in her major who would become her friends and future roommates. At an Open House about the various curriculums she met another female who was working on cars. "It was one of the coolest things -- the human factors aspect about designing cars," she recalled.

Following a Women in Engineering conference and a visit to Virginia Tech, Doutcheva used the same words as Streeter: "I fell in love with Virginia Tech after a visit to campus, and everything fell together. To help pay for her education, she worked an internship and secured a co-op position. It was the former with Volvo that introduced her to the human factors aspects of manufacturing automobiles. "I was asked to optimize three work stations, and I was able to balance the line and the operations so that the assembly became more efficient," Doutcheva said.

"I have always been passionate about the environment, and I really wanted to apply it to engineering. After speaking to many industrial engineers, I realized that system efficiency and process optimization reduces energy, and saves time and waste. It excited me the most," Doutcheva added.

A merger of talents goes international

All three, coming from very diverse backgrounds, met at Virginia Tech when they applied for a competitive research experience in the United Kingdom at the University of Nottingham. By the time of their applications, they had formulated much more specific career plans. They shared the idea of working on future electric transportations systems as part of the International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) project.

[ Video: Virginia tech students talk about the project ]

Streeter was already enamored with England, spending the summer of 2013 in London through a Virginia Tech English department program. So when she received an email about the IRES program, working with cars, human factors, and returning to the Mother country, she was hooked.

Doutcheva, sporting a Harry Potter sweater when she was interviewed, admitted her love of this franchise, as well as Sherlock Holmes, English tea, the Beatles, and the British culture, especially the humor, in general. These affinities flamed her desires to go to Nottingham. A visit to Stonehenge and a trip to "see" the Loch Ness monster was also on her dream destinations list.

When both Streeter and Doutcheva were accepted into the IRES program, Smith, the graduate student, took them under her guidance for the ten-week summer program, a bonus to their resume building.

In turn, Smith was under the tutelage of Joe Gabbard, a Virginia Tech engineering faculty member who focuses on augmented reality and human-computer interaction. With Smith's specific interests in everyday objects like vehicles, she was learning about how the relationship between augmented and virtual reality affects the way engineers design heads-up displays for automobile apps. For example, what are the perception, cognition, and attention challenges to driver safety; what methods might promote environmentally-friendly driving styles?

Augmented reality is a view of a real-world, physical environment, supplemented by computer-generated sensory input such as audio, visual, or other types of data. By contrast, virtual reality is a computer-simulated environment that can mimic physical presences.

At the University of Nottingham one of its world-renowned research groups is its human factors group, similar to the international reputation Virginia Tech holds in this field. Nottingham faculty member Gary Burnett is Gabbard's counterpart in this IRES program. Burnett specializes in the development of technology for road-based vehicles.

Smith first met Burnett when he presented a fall 2013 seminar in Blacksburg as a visiting scholar. "His research sounded like fun. And a few weeks later I got the IRES email about the program and realized he was the professor. With Dr. Gabbard as the contact at Virginia Tech, it was a natural fit for me," Smith said.

By May of 2014 she had initiated a literature review of relevant research. She found that Nottingham already had numerous physical set-ups for the future in transportation systems, so she spent some of her time replicating similar facilities at Virginia Tech. By this time Streeter and Doutcheva had started working with Smith.

The IRES program started with three weeks at Virginia Tech followed by seven weeks at Nottingham. While in Blacksburg, they would Skype with Burnett from their lab setting on the Blacksburg campus.

"Jill started comparing head-up and head-down displays, using eye-tracking. We wanted to see how performance changed and what changes were needed," Smith said. The heads-up display might be shown on the windshield of the car so a driver could be watching the road while driving.

"No simulated wrecks occurred, but there were some close calls," Streeter acknowledged. When she returned from Nottingham, she went straight to work for BMW in an internship position, and discovered they were already involved in some of the same designs.

With IRES, "Nadia was also looking at the depth perception," Smith added. "Actually, my responsibility," Doutcheva said, "was to determine the effect of augmented reality on depth perception of a real world object. What was the difference between perception of the virtual graphic versus the real-world object. We had a cardboard cut out of Hugh Jackman. He was our "pedestrian-like object"" she smiled. "We would track depth perception responses as the pedestrian (the cardboard Jackman) approached the vehicle simulation."

Students work on a first of its kind

This study about depth perception using augmented reality, not virtual reality, was the first of its kind. "We found that there was a lot more variability. In the augmented reality simulation, the driver was wrong more often regarding how close the pedestrian was," Doutcheva added.

"It was a rough study and we have a long way to go," Smith predicted. (Smith will be headed back to Nottingham for a second IRES experience.)

The seven weeks the three spent in Nottingham fluctuated in intensity, depending on how the research fell into place. But on the weekends, they had opportunities to travel, and Smith and Doutcheva managed to make such side trips to Rome and Amsterdam for some weekends, watch the start of the Tour de France in Leeds, and visit other locations in England such as Bath and Cambridge. Streeter spent more time in the Nottingham area, exploring everything she could.


    Share this story