Faculty Profile – Dr. Catherine Neubauer

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With her expertise in Human Factors psychology and her multifaceted combination of academic research and practical experience, Dr. Catherine Neubauer adds a high-tech edge to the accomplished faculty in the Applied Psychology program at USC Dornsife. Learn how Dr. Neubauer discovered Human Factors psychology, and find out how technology factors into her research, practice and teaching.

From Indiana Jones to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

When she first embarked on her academic career, Dr. Neubauer didn’t necessarily aspire to become a psychologist, let alone a specialist in Human Factors and Applied Psychology. Even as she started her undergraduate education, she wasn’t sure what she would study or where her career would take her.

“Growing up, I knew I’d either be some sort of doctor or Indiana Jones,” Neubauer says. “Then, when it came time to pick a major in college, I knew I liked to learn about people and try to understand them, which tipped me toward a clinical direction.”

Dr. Neubauer says that during her senior year of college, she made the fateful decision to ask whether she could assist any faculty members or graduate students with research projects. Her professor connected her with a lieutenant colonel who was in the process of earning his doctorate, and she decided to work with him on his Human Factors psychology research project.

After only a week of working as a research assistant at an Army research lab, Dr. Neubauer noticed that her understanding of the psychology field was beginning to shift. She began to understand how she could help hundreds of people by applying Human Factors psychology, which focuses on improving and adapting technologies and work environments to complement human behavior and capabilities.

Dr. Neubauer went on to earn both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology at the University of Cincinnati. She also gained critical experience researching physiological assessment techniques at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and worked as a postdoctoral research assistant at University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies.

Changing the Human Factors Psychology Field with Technology

Researchers in virtually every field are continually working to understand how technology can impact and enhance their work, and psychology is no different. Dr. Neubauer researches both the effects and the applications of technology in psychological studies.

“Automated technologies are becoming more widespread, so this area of trust is really popular right now because we want to measure how someone trusts an automated system, because if they don’t trust it, they’re not going to use it,” Dr. Neubauer says. “But if they rely too heavily on it, what happens if the system fails and the person using it needs to take over control?”

The concept of trust in technology isn’t new, but the techniques that Dr. Neubauer uses in her research are. For example, she and her team use facial recognition technology to assess how people react and to detect how they feel on a micro level. 

“We’re trying to move beyond some of the traditional measures of assessment that we see in research and really look at how we can assess them non-verbally, and of course without bias,” she says. Her techniques are aimed at eliminating research subjects’ tendencies to alter their expressions and other responses based on their awareness that they’re under assessment.

Bringing Field Work to the Classroom

Dr. Neubauer actively utilizes her field research to enhance her classroom experience. One of the courses she teaches in the USC Master’s in Applied Psychology program focuses on a different factor of human behavior in applied psychology each week. This access to current research helps students conduct their own required capstone research.

Her research can also apply to business and management settings. “I’ve studied stress in performance-related contexts like driving, but if you’re in business and HR, for example, understanding how stress can impact how employees are working and getting along with each other is also vitally important.”

She has also taught a master’s-level course on interactive media. Her knowledge of both technology and psychology helps her students and future business leaders recognize the dynamic technology-driven change plays in organizations, whether they have a focus on consumer or organizational psychology, both areas of concentration in the MS in Applied Psychology program at USC.

“Understanding your audience as a ‘user’ is very important, whether it’s pitching a proposal, trying to get a grant, trying to be hired to be the new lead on a design team or whether you’re a manager or the lowest person on the team,” Neubauer says.

Learning Through Real-World Experience

When teaching her students, Dr. Neubauer also draws from her professional experience. In addition to assisting the Army Research Lab with developing vibrotactile belts and physiological assessments, she has performed research with the support of Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education. In this and other work with numerous private companies, she has conducted human psychology research and applied her findings to business plans and development.

“For example, I’ve been hired [by] Honda Motor Companies to design studies to evaluate their systems and their cars,” Dr. Neubauer says.

Her work has interfaced with clinical psychologists, computer scientists, industry specialists and consultancy firms. Through her work, the theoretical becomes the practical for her students and she is able to demonstrate how broadly psychology can impact companies even on a global level.

“When I was an undergrad,” she says, “I thought becoming a therapist was the only option for using my psychology degree. No one told me there was a different route that I could take applying psychology to such fascinating problems.” Today, Dr. Neubauer seeks to open new worlds for her students and demonstrate just how varied and impactful the field of applied psychology can be.

Using Technology to Improve Online Learning 

In one of the most rewarding applications of her experience studying the interaction between technology and the user experience, Dr. Neubauer teaches in the online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program at USC. She says that while all professors request feedback from students, she makes it an essential part of the learning experience for her and for the course “users.” Her students provide their thoughts and concerns about the material and online courses multiple times throughout the semester, which helps to keep content fresh, engaging and practical.

Ultimately, Dr. Neubauer’s process reflects the overarching goals of USC Dornsife and the online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program. Dr. Neubauer strives to provide relevant, practical tools and contemporary problem solving and analytical skills to her graduate students, giving them the opportunity to make an impact and succeed in many professional organizations outside of the clinical setting.

To explore applied psychology further or to learn more about Dr. Neubauer’s work, check out USC’s online Master of Science in Applied Psychology degree.