It is hard to imagine what computer engineering and anthropology might have in common. And even for Cherri Pancake who had separate careers in both areas, it was not immediately apparent.
For nearly ten years, Pancake was the curator of the Ethnographic Museum in Guatemala studying the culture of Highland Maya. In her field research she worked closely with native populations, becoming bilingual in Spanish, and planned that Guatemala would continue to be her home. Unfortunately, the political situation became such that it was safer for her and her husband to return to the US.
Once back in the states she discovered it was not the best time to get a job as a curator. Having dabbled in databases at the museum she settled on computer engineering as a promising career. Retraining meant starting at the beginning, so she took undergraduate courses and then became the first woman admitted to any graduate engineering program at Auburn University in 1982.
She began her second career researching how software tools could make it easier to design, test and verify embedded systems.
Then, one of her graduate students led her to a new area of research — high performance computing (HPC), like scientists and engineers use for developing simulations. She told her student to start researching the literature about HPC users.
“Lo and behold, nobody had ever studied HPC users. They’d only looked at business users or students. That made me realize there was this huge gap and I decided I would jump in,” she says.
Not only did she jump in, but she used her ethnographic research skills to shape a new field now called usability engineering.
For nearly ten years, Pancake was the curator of the Ethnographic Museum in Guatemala studying the culture of Highland Maya.
“If you’re studying another culture, the worst thing you could do is go in with a hypothesis,” she says, explaining that in both ethnography and usability engineering you endeavor to be an unbiased observer as you gather data and then look for patterns.
“What I try to understand is the task structure that scientists are using in their daily lives, what they think is the natural way to go about accomplishing things. And then what I try to do is make the software match their natural models,” Pancake says.
She is the founder and director of the Northwest Alliance for Computational Science and Engineering (NACSE), a leading interdisciplinary research center that has received national attention for its applications of usability engineering to diverse fields such as earthquake engineering, hurricanes, biomedical images, and lichens.
“I have a lot of fun because I get to interact with people who are facing important and interesting scientific challenges every day,” Pancake says.
Pancake’s work counters the stereotypical image of engineers that sit in a dark room in front of a computer all day, not interacting with people.
“All I do is interact with people! Once in a while, a computer in a dark room sounds good,” she jokes.
Both her careers fulfilled her desire to experience new things.
“One thing I really like is seeing how other people think. That’s the fun of working with many disciplines. Every new community you work teaches you so many new ways of thinking about the world and approaching problems — just like other cultures do,” she says.
—By Rachel Robertson