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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Brandon Pitts

“I found what I love and I’m running with that. When you find something you love, it will chase you; you don’t have to chase it. Opportunities come to people who put themselves in the position to receive them.” Brandon has perspective that has been hard earned during his years in graduate school. And eight months away from finishing his Ph.D., he’s got this sense that “something is just pulling me towards the finish line.”

He came to U-M for graduate school because he wanted something different. After spending his entire life in Louisiana (where he attended Louisiana State University –LSU – for his undergraduate degree), he felt, “I wanted to live up north. In Louisiana, we consider this North, not Midwest. I have family in Detroit and it’s good to go somewhere you know other people.”

Of course, it was more than that that drew Brandon to U-M: his program, Industrial and Operations Engineering, is ranked number two in the country. That definitely was a significant factor, given the caliber of graduate faculty and students attracted to the program. And of course the National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship, that brought him here, helped as well.

Michigan required some adjusting, and it took him a couple of years getting comfortable living away from his family. “I had a lot of uncertainty about getting a Ph.D. First, I didn’t know what to expect and I wasn’t sure what would happen if it didn’t work out. I had many, many questions: what really is graduate level research? Did I make the right decision? Is this the field I really want to pursue as a career? Did I jump into it too quickly after undergrad? All of these thoughts and concerns came to mind. But now, after having spent a few years going through the Ph.D. process and allowing it to help me grow, I feel like I’ve redefined myself. Many of these questions no longer haunt me. I’m older and have a much clearer perspective on how I should live my life,” Brandon shares.

Not disillusioned by Michigan’s climate, Brandon enjoys the cold and finds more than anything that the difference in culture, food, and people stand out to him. He’s lost a little weight without the constant exposure to fried foods and freshly sweetened lemonade that were such staples of his youth. Brandon has found support in being close to family and friends in Detroit, whom he sees on holidays regularly. “They’ve shown me around southeastern Michigan and have taken me to festivals like the Jazz Fest in Detroit, Arts Beats and Eats in Royal Oak, and the State Fair in Novi this year. I feel like I’ve taken advantage of the many things that Southeastern Michigan has to offer, but I don’t want to leave the state without getting to see The Great Lakes.”

Meanwhile, Brandon is hard at work. “I love this university, my department, and the people around me.” That’s good, particularly since he’s in the throes of last rounds of his experiments and writing his dissertation.

Brandon’s research focuses on ensuring that the design of current and NextGen in-vehicle displays are appropriate for use by older adults who drive throughout later stages of life. He works in The Human Automation-Interaction and Cognition (THInC) Lab, with Dr. Nadine Sarter, a national expert in aviation and human-automation interaction. With her, he has studied challenges that instrument-rated pilots face when interacting with complex automated flight systems and performance decrements that have resulted from these interactions. He describes, “In our lab, we study human-automation interaction issues at the genotype level, understanding that what we learn from one safety-critical domain can be applied to a similar environment. In other words, if we discover the difficulties that pilots experience with automated technologies, then the same may apply to drivers of vehicles and doctors who use advanced surgical technology.”

“In my thesis, I am investigating how well adults, age 65 and older, can benefit from multimodal displays and systems (which present information in visual, auditory, tactile forms) and can cope with these kinds of in-vehicle systems when they present separate warnings at the same time. Examples of these types of systems include visual GPS notifications, auditory blind-spot alerts, and tactile collision warning notifications. Our overall research question is whether older adults can perceive, interpret, and respond appropriately to multiple simultaneous warnings? I am interested in what types of information people miss (not pay attention to) and what display adaptation techniques can be developed to help them overcome the failure to notice critical information.”

As a child, Brandon was always fascinated by aviation. He had an interest in chemistry and math after high school and looked into chemical engineering, but that wasn’t the right fit. He recalls, “All along, I had this indescribable fascination for airplanes and airports, and I felt that my conscious kept repeating ‘airplanes, airports.’ Some people struggle to find what they want to do in life because they might be interested in so many different things, but there really is not enough time to do them all. Anyone can see how fast a day goes by, which becomes weeks, which turns into years. The secret is to listen to what speaks to your heart most clearly, and often times, the people around you can help you identify this. Industrial engineering was the only discipline that did this for me. I wanted to work more with the designing and improving of systems of people, information, and machines, and I loved operations, such as those involved in the airline industry. When it came to grad school, really, it was my advisor that made the difference: she was doing exactly what I wanted to do. I have learned a lot from her.”

He hopes to pursue a faculty position at an R1 institution. He says, “I’ve fallen in love with research and this is really what I want to do. I’m 100% about pursuing an academic career. There’s something special about the university environment and the diversity of the job – the research, teaching, service, and mentoring. People have always said that I asked a lot of questions, and that hasn’t changed. To me, that’s the basis of a scientist or professor.”

As anyone who has walked this road knows, accomplishing this goal requires a lot of hard work. Brandon expands, “It seems like getting a job is like applying to grad school times 2.5. You need to read enough, make sure what you want to do fits with the department, determine if there are suitable mentors there and so much more, which is a lot to consider. It’s plenty of work, but there is some energy in me that’s getting all of it done.”

Proud to be a 2015 inductee in the Bouchet Graduate Honor Society, Brandon says, “It was like taking the core of who I am and putting it into something that’s already built for me.” Honoring the legacy of Edward Alexander Bouchet, the first African-American to be awarded a Ph.D. in the United States, the society ‘seeks to develop a network of preeminent scholars who exemplify academic and personal excellence, foster environments of support and serve as examples of scholarship, leadership, character, service, and advocacy for students who have been traditionally underrepresented in the academy.’

Out of that experience, Brandon says, “Bouchet has been a good experience because now I understand that the goals and purposes aren’t exclusive, but rather seek to represent diversity in number of areas in our personal and professional lives. It has been great to meet people inducted new and old, and I realize that the people in your circle are always going to be in your circle. For me, this has been a very important network to build. I consider myself a very spiritual person, which has been the driving force behind helping me to gain clarity in my life and to accept things that are out of my control. I know that there is a higher power orchestrating all of pieces of my life.”

He became a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Inc. last year, and Brandon says, “This completed that other part I was missing in my life. I joined a brotherhood that is forward thinking, similar to me, and whose membership has committed itself to look out for one-another until the day they close their eyes.” Being from a large family predominantly of women, Brandon credits this brotherhood with helping to give him a different outlook on life.

Brandon hopes to spend time this fall visiting the Great Lakes and enjoying time outdoors kayaking before the weather turns cold and he squirrels away to finish running experiments, write his dissertation and actively look for jobs.