With his back turned to an overloaded bookcase and his eyes tunneled into a computer screen in his office in David King Hall, Dr. Raja Parasuraman leaned back in his black chair and then shot forward to make an imaginary right-handed throw.
His purple shirt sleeve made a faint popping noise as he followed through on his pitch – a toss he used to describe some of his most recent work.
“A Raven is a small [unmanned aerial vehicle] that you can launch,” Parasuraman said as he described his current work with both the United States Air Force and Army before he quickly switched topics to his other passion – the human brain.
“You can actually train multi-tasking,” said Parasuraman, a leading expert in human factors and applied cognition. He also has grants with the Air Force and Army to help each of them develop new ways to use UAV technology.
This intersection between his experiences as an engineer and his current work as a psychologist has made Parasuraman one of the nation’s most respected researchers and educators.
He was recently honored with the “Outstanding Faculty Award” by the State Council for Higher Education (SCHEV). Parasuraman is the College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ fifth winner of that award.
“We were obviously very pleased and proud for Raja, and for the University, for this recognition of unusually strong contributions to teaching and research in psychology,” Provost Peter Stearns said. “The summary of achievements made an obvious impression on everyone who attended the ceremony.”
Parasuraman’s research has been supported by $15 million in grants from sources such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He’s published 128 scholarly journal articles and 10 books, making him an internationally-recognized scholar in both engineering and psychology. But his recent SCHEV award was most gratifying to him because of the feedback he received from his students.
“It was particularly helpful because most of the criteria is based on what the students say about you,” said Parasuraman, who has taught at George Mason since 2004. “Especially those who have gone on to become teachers and leaders in the industry, and so most of the testimonials were from them, so it felt gratifying.”
The director of the human factors program at Mason – recognized as one of the nation’s top programs – Parasuraman has taught numerous undergraduate and graduate courses in psychology and neuroscience and currently oversees about 35 master’s and 15 Ph. D. students. To date, he has directed 42 masters and 29 Ph.D. theses and been external examiner for 10 Ph.D. theses in foreign universities.
In addition, Parasuraman has mentored 15 postdoctoral fellows.
Through both conventional and unconventional teaching methods, Parasuraman has both educated his students and opened doors for them.
“I’d say more than 50-percent of what I teach is not in the classroom because it’s in interactions, also social interactions, you know, just in the hallway and lab sitting down with students,” he said. “I have students over for dinner because I like to cook and entertain…At conferences, networking, introducing them to other people.”
Now an assistant professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University, David J. Hardy, Ph. D., noted Parasuraman’s teaching style and mentorship as unique and influential in his education.
“Raja maintains a personal interest in his students and a penchant for having fun (he plays a good game of racquetball!),” Hardy wrote in a testimonial that was included in Parasuraman’s SCHEV nomination packet. “Many of his students have achieved success. I count myself as one of them and thank Raja for his commitment and inspiration to research, teaching and mentorship.”
A current student, Ryan McGarry, was able to complete his own study on sleep cognition through Parasuraman’s mentorship. Because Parasuraman makes it a habit to share his grant money – often funding his students’ way to conferences – McGarry was able to present the results of the study at the 2008 American Psychological Society conference.
“Raja has also introduced me to other professors working in the field, thus enabling me to assist with numerous projects,” McGarry wrote in his testimonial. “I could continue to name instances where he has helped me in the field, but most importantly Raja has clearly separated himself from other professors by acting as an exemplar advisor, showing me not only how to act as a student of psychology, but as a person as well.”
Parasuraman has also won other awards and honors.
In 2004, he received the Franklin Taylor Award for Lifetime Achievement in Engineering Psychology from the American Psychological Association. In recognition of his teaching contributions, Dr. Parasuraman received the Paul Fitts Education Award from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in 2006.
“You can’t really teach anybody,” Parasuraman said. “You can just show them the ropes and give them the tools to help them. And then expose them to opportunities and that’s important.”
March 31, 2009