It is human nature to turn to people in our inner circle when we are in trouble.
But what if that trouble occurs 128 million miles from Earth while you are hurtling toward Mars in a spacecraft? And what if the person you most need is the one you least trust?
These questions are at the center of new research by APA member Dorothy Carter, an assistant professor of industrial/organizational psychology at the University of Georgia (UGA). Just one year after completing her Ph.D., Carter snagged a $1 million NASA grant to research team dynamics during long-duration space exploration missions.
The three-year, collaborative study, called Project FUSION (Facilitating Unified Systems of Interdependent Organizational Networks), aims to help NASA successfully complete a mission to Mars by the year 2030 by accelerating knowledge of multiteam systems (MTSs).
“Astronauts on a mission to Mars are very likely to run into challenging and unexpected situations,” explains Carter. “The people involved—on Earth and in outer space—may have the natural human inclination to turn to similar others, such as teammates. However, in order to save lives of the people on the mission, NASA personnel may need to be prepared to seek help from dissimilar others.”
MTS research is a growing area of psychology that deals with intergroup dynamics in complex organizational settings. These networks of interdependent teams work on proximal goals in service of a common, overarching goal—like disaster-response efforts, global healthcare initiatives, and even pharmaceutical launches.
The human pitfalls of such tentacled organizations are obvious: potential competition among teams, inadequate communication and collaboration, hierarchical obstacles, and leadership challenges, to name a few.
NASA’s task in putting together an MTS for the Mars mission will be complicated. Not only will astronauts operate at the intersection of multiple teams doing highly specialized tasks, membership in those teams will rotate over time.
Additionally, “communication with family and coworkers on Earth will be severely limited and conducted entirely via technologies that have inherent communication delays,” Carter says.
To pinpoint what Carter’s research proposal terms the “hard truths and inherent complexities about teamwork,” Project FUSION is building a sophisticated agents-based mapping system that predicts the social networks that are likely form among MTS members across a variety of situations during space missions.
This computer-modeling approach allows Project FUSION to program a set of behavioral rules for stand-in human “agents” to see how their relationships play out in different circumstances. Who will interact with whom? Who will be trusted? Who will accept influence from whom? What are the basic human tendencies that will lead them to behave in a particular way?
“We call these explorations ‘virtual experiments’ . . . and it’s how we are speeding up the science,” says Carter. “We want to be able to identify the different factors that are going to have the most impact on the formation of affective, behavioral and cognitive relationships. And we don’t have the luxury of being able to study this for the next 100 years.”
The project has processes to ensure they are accurately feeding NASA-specific information into the models. They use qualitative interviews with NASA personnel, such as managers, mission control members and former astronauts from the International Space Station, to get a better handle on common disconnects that occur, as well as instinctive responses to unexpected events.
Project FUSION also is conducting laboratory studies at UGA and Northwestern University that include role-playing sessions between student subjects and professionals at HERA , NASA’s analog-simulation habitat for studying and training humans for extreme space environments.
“The students act as mission control,” says Carter. “Hopefully the professionals who are in HERA for several months will play our game three or four times with ‘mission control.’”
Ultimately, the project is expected to identify likely patterns of group dynamics and behavior and help NASA develop best practices for optimal team functioning during many situations that can go right—and very wrong—during long-distance space exploration.
Carter’s launch into teams and leadership research—and into academia at all—followed a unique trajectory.
Originally from Houston, Carter desired to be a ballerina. She left high school to be part of a professional dance training program, completing her degree through correspondence. After pursuing dance professionally for several years, she decided to go to college at age 21.
“My initial plans did not involve college,” she says. “I ended up at Wright State University (WSU) in Ohio where they had an open-door policy. I walked in a week before classes started and signed up. . . . However, this was one of the best decisions of my life. As an undergrad, I received fantastic one-on-one mentoring in research from the faculty at WSU.”
Excited by the psychology classes she took, Carter was encouraged by her mentors to pursue research. She says was drawn to study leadership and MTSs to some degree because of her background in dance.
“Large groups of people, made up of different teams, having to coordinate their behaviors to achieve a common goal. Hmmm . . . sounds like a ballet company!” she exclaims.
Once she got to graduate school at Georgia Institute of Technology, Carter was able to work with Leslie DeChurch a leader in MTS research, with whom she copublished several articles on the topic. Her award-winning dissertation research, advised by DeChurch, leveraged social network approaches to understand leadership in MTSs.
Her work on the FOCUS grant builds on this prior research, as well as other NASA projects led by members of the Project FUSION research team.
“We’re expanding on these previous projects that I had the pleasure of working on in grad school,” Carter says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh Dorothy Carter independently developed all these ideas by herself and got a million dollar grant just out of grad school!’ Project FUSION is a collaboration across a big team of incredible researchers who are at both senior as well as more junior stages in their careers.”
“I think my personal experiences reflect the way that science is actually conducted these days,” she reflects. “It’s a group effort across multiple laboratories. Understanding multiteam functioning doesn’t just apply to the organizations we’re studying, it applies to the researchers ourselves. A lot of scientists work in MTSs, so science itself can be advanced by this research.”