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Her Passion for Science Has Not Disappointed

Posted on Tuesday, October 11, 2022

ARCS member Patty Jones had no role models of women in science when she was growing up, but her desire to learn was unstoppable and mirrored by her twin sister Cathy. The twins were the first ones in their family to go to college, and they have continued careers in science, each focusing on the science that most fascinated them.

Patty found her passion as an undergrad by combining an interest in psychology and engineering. In graduate school at Georgia Tech, her advisor introduced her to human-machine systems engineering. Her advisor also introduced her to NASA projects. “We were working on basic concepts to help human operators and Mission Control to be more effective,” Jones says.

After graduate school, Jones returned to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and became a tenured associate professor in engineering. NASA lured her to the AMES Research Center in California, where she focused on complex systems risks and proposed new interventions and technologies for human operators. Automation is standard in complex systems, but how does it limit the capabilities of human operators? What happens when a gravity switch is installed backward in an automated system? (A parachute fails to deploy.) How do operators train for emergencies?

Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, at Urbana Champaign, enticed Patty away from NASA. The institute’s goal is to support interdisciplinary collaboration. Their building, financed by a gift from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, brings together professors and students from about 40 different departments on campus. As Associate Director for Research, Patty’s role is multifaceted.

The institute blends graduate students, undergraduates, postdocs, and scientists, all working on diverse engineering, neuroscience, chemistry, imaging technology, and psychology projects, to name a few. The institute “is meant for people to bump into each other and interact. My job is to be the concierge of all of this,” Jones says. That includes giving input to the scientists who will join the institute, directing facilities to equip labs appropriately, and managing the institute’s core facilities -- knowing what new technology or machines scientists will need for emerging research. Jones also helps to oversee the annual external review process of Beckman’s research portfolio.

Jones was honored in 2019 with an “Outstanding Service Award” from the University of Illinois Office of Sponsored Programs and Research Compliance for her contributions in support of research at Beckman.

Patty met some of the ARCS Illinois members when they came to Beckman for a tour a few years ago. It was a natural fit, and Patty is now on the ARCS Illinois chapter board as treasurer.

Jones and her twin sister Cathy remain close to each other and to science.

Cathy Murphy is chair of the chemistry department at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, the first woman to hold the position.

In this video, they talk about what drew them into science.