Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Interview Recap

All of the interviews are finished! According to the HI-SEAS selection committee their last interview was Wednesday and I am now free to talk about what went on in the actual interview.

The interview was conducted via Skype and the panel consisted of:
  • Kim Binstead, University of Hawaii, 
  • Jean Hunter, Cornell University
  • Bryan Caldwell, Cornell University
  • Dean Eppler, Johnson Space Center Desert RATS program 
No surprises in the composition of the panel. Cornell and Hawaii are the host institutions for HI-SEAS, and NASA is the primary sponsor of the study. As I had worked with Jean Hunter in my time at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), she recused herself from the interview. 

Below are the questions I was asked during the interview and a summary of my answers, paraphrased to the best of my memory.

What do you hope to gain from this experience? 
My answer for this question involved examples on how experiencing a long duration isolation simulation first hand would be useful for my future research and career. I cited several examples such as the crew "mutinies" during the Skylab and Salyut projects where ground controllers had unreasonable expectations of the crews as they had never experienced the situation for themselves. 
What do you believe you can bring to the project? 
Here I focused primarily on my multidisciplinary nature, and experience in analog simulations through the Mars Desert Research Station. 
What are you doing now / can you explain for me why your resume stops in December 2011? 
I've been unemployed for the past few months, ever since graduating with my Masters degree in December. In my answer I discussed the reason for this, the 89 job applications I had filled out so far, and my plans for the immediate future. 
Describe a time when you failed, and how you dealt with it?
This question was the one where I felt most inadequate in my answer. When the question was asked, the interviewer added a footnote referring to health situations, but my mind was already crafting an answer to the question, so my answer came out a little jumbled. 
What they were probably looking for was an answer related to my experience as an EMT-Basic, but my answer primarily involved some failures and problems encountered while doing event management. Not a horrible mess up, but probably my weakest answer of the interview. 
Your experiment involves the voluntary participation of the participants. If someone suddenly decides not to participate, what will you do? 
Without going into detail, my experiment requires all participants to cooperate with the data collection. If they suddenly decide to opt out, the experiment is a lot less harder to complete. 
However as I brought up in my answer this does not mean that participants dropping out of the experiment mid way through the simulation would be a failure, as this would be a useful data point to use in analyzing stress factors and mitigation efforts in isolated environments. 
Do you have any questions for the panel? 
My main question for the panel was about the habitat construction and design. I had some concerns that no photos or diagrams of the habitat had been posted online yet, and asked them some questions along these lines. Not sure if I am allowed to reveal the answers yet, but I was assured that yes there will be a habitat and we won't just be locked in a broom closet at the University of Hawaii. 
Do you have anything else you'd like to say to the selection committee?
*insert generic answer about it being an honor to be considered and thanking the committee for their consideration*

Shortly before the interview we all received a reminder email about the interview from Kim Binstead stating:
Based on the application you submitted, you are highly qualified for this analog mission. Therefore, the primary purpose of the interview is to assess your fit for this particular crew, not to review your qualifications as such.

One of the items we would like to talk about is your project. Many of the proposed projects are not suitable, typically because they confound the primary study. This will not be held against you as a candidate, but it is something we need to resolve before the mission. Please be open to discussing significant revisions to your proposed work.
From the email, I was expecting more questions tailored toward my experiment, (more on that in a later post) but there was only one mention of it in the interview. I surmise from this that my experiment write up was detailed enough that they had a good idea what I wanted to do without needing additional details. Also since they mention that many projects were incompatible, but did not ask me for alternate ideas or if revisions would be possible, my project was likely in line with their goals.

Comparing notes with another finalist, (Ryan Kolbrick, Director of Yuri's Night) these questions were the same for each finalist, with a few "custom" questions based on the resume or experiment. 

According to the timeline we were given the final selections should be announced sometime today (Thursday) or tomorrow. Will tweet and blog as soon as I know! *fingers crossed* 


  1. My interview was very similar to yours, with a couple of differences. First, my alert e-mail didn't mention the possibility of changing my own project or indeed anything about my project at all.

    The only reference to my project during the interview was basically to ask if I'd be willing to help with others' projects, and how much time my own work would require.

    Rather than asking about a time when I failed, they asked me to describe a time when a situation really started falling apart how I handled it. In other words, they asked for a war story. Very risky around me.

    Also, they asked what would my family and friends would say is my most annoying trait. My first answer was, "my wife rolls her eyes whenever I start telling stories."

    I just learned from my spies (references) that they were contacted yesterday, and asked to provide an e-mail response. I have no idea what either one replied, but one guy said, "since they were asking about character, I assured them you are a character." Thanks a lot, buddy.

    You mentioned experience in the MDRS program. Do you have any blog posts or other info about your time there? I've known they exist, but never read much about them.

    Good luck. Shouldn't be long, now.


    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Ed,

      I was involved with the MDRS project from about 2007-2011. First as a participant, then on Mission Support, and finally as Chief Engineer for the 2010-2011 season.

      Unfortunately I do not have any blogs of that experience as most of my time there was spent fixing heaters, chopping through frozen urine, or repairing stuff. But MDRS has been running for over a decade with 10, 2 week crews per year, many of which keep blogs and other social media accounts. While I don't have any on hand at the moment, Google would likely provide many resources on MDRS.

      Your comment jogged my memory, I also was asked the friend question. My answer was along the line of my assertiveness.

      We're all checking our emails regularly today... Hopefully there's good news in the mail! About a 1/4 chance of being selected as either a crew or alternate!


  2. In my wanderings about the net, I figured out the standard MDRS mission was probably 2 weeks. This 4-month experiment will be quite different, I think. A new challenge!

    At least on Hawaii the urinal won't freeze up.

    I'm also checking my email every 20 minutes or so.


  3. Odd that you expect them to be on time with the notifications. :-)

    1. Good point. Maybe I should breathe,just a little.

      They were obviously overwhelmed by the initial response. When they got the list cut to 150 "highly qualified" applicants in mid-April, they were finally where they expected to be on March 1. They lost a month and a half at the very beginning, and have been desparately playing catch-up ever since. Judging from the time stamps on their emails, they've been working a lot of nights and weekends to get it done.

      Ed Fix

    2. Remember with those time stamps that the study organizer, Kim, is in Hawaii, 5 hours behind the East Coast.

    3. When they were sending out hundreds of emails at a time, I attributed the midnight (or later Hawaii time) timestamps to an effort to keep from overloading the university's servers--sending during low traffic times. One was sent out Saturday night. Now they're only sending 30 or so at a time, but this morning's greetingwas also timestamped just after midnight Hawaii time. Makes me thing they really are burning the midnight oil.

    4. And on re-reading the previous comment, I thing I need more practice typing on my pad's touchscreen keyboard.

  4. This morning I woke up to the HI-SEAS email stating they're still reviewing the interview recordings. Methinks they may be over-thinking this. If I were to give them one bit of advice, it would be, "Stop trying to be fair to the applicants."

    They could throw darts at the list of finalists and have a fully qualified crew. They need people who can work and live together in their habitat without bickering, squabbling, or fisticuffs. That's much harder--probably impossible--to predict.

    At some point, they have to leave it up to the self-discipline of the test subjects themselves disagree without being disagreeable, accept disagreement or criticism without being defensive, and above all, to not insist on exercising their constitutional right to be annoying.

    Ed--still holding my breath

    PS. When I said they don't have to be fair to the applicants, I didn't mean me, of course.

    1. Ed,

      It is probably a lot less "trying to be fair" than it is trying to strike the right balance in the crew to ensure the mission is as successful as possible.

      They need to consider lots of factors including:
      - Age ratios (Can't put an 18 year old in charge of a 40 year old!)
      - Experiments (Want to assure everyone isn't researching the same thing)
      - Gender ratios
      - Backgrounds (At least 1 geologist, 1 person with medical background, 1 engineer, etc..)
      - Skillsets (Who can cook?)
      - Personalities (I am surprised they didn't have all finalists take a Myers-Briggs personality survey. While far from perfect, helps identify which people will have conflicts)
      - Affiliations (Should they all be NASA employees? US Nationals? How many people from the host institutions?)

      In my experience any of the above can cause big problems if they're not taken into consideration during crew selection.


    2. Hi, Josh,

      I certainly understand they've taken on a very difficult task in selecting this crew. NASA would have years of observing their astronauts, and the astronauts years of working with each other, before selecting a crew for a Mars mission. HI-SEAS is limited to working through e-mail, resumes and Skype. But the crew really will be living on top of each other in a tin can for several months, and a mistake in crew selection jeopardizes the whole enterprise.

      You mentioned that Dr. Hunter recused herself from your interview because she knows you. If that also means she's recusing herself from your selection, I think that's a mistake. You're a known quantity, and having her personally make the determination to accept you or not on the basis of past association takes one variable out of a very complex process. Now that might be unfair to me, for instance, because I might have a better chance in a more blind process, but so what? I'll get over it.

      The act of recusal is an attempt to remove bias and make the process more blind, and therefore more fair. It's laudable, but in this case might not be the right move.

      I'd guess they have already figured out most of the bullets on your list, and are now working on personalities. That's most of what the interview was about. I'm skeptical of the usefulness of personality surveys in general. They might be useful to help a person decide what kind of work they'd be most likely to do well, but I think they'd be completely misapplied in trying to predict the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. I've seen people who couldn't be more different personalities that work very well together, and even become good friends. There will inevitably be conflicts and disagreements, regardless of personality types. It's how they resolve those disputes that's important. I'm not convinced that any personality survey can successfully detect a personality type that must always be right, and can never admit error or compromise under any circumstance.

      Bottom line is I don't envy them the task of picking a crew for this experiment. There's a lot of risk invloved, and no way to know for sure until the crew is installed and the experiment starts.


  5. Quick comment regarding the process: we committed to it months (over a year now!) ago, when the various Institutional Review Boards approved it. As Ed suggests, it was not designed for the large number of applications we received, but we have had to stick with it regardless - thus the delay.

    1. I wondered whether the HI-SEAS folk might be lurking. I see your comment was posted well after normal office hours. Do you see application forms and scoring spreadsheets in your sleep--or do you just not get enough sleep to notice?

      The fundamental difference between private sector and public sector hiring and procurement is that government agencies must be fair to all comers, while commercial hiring and buyers can concentrate primarily on the needs of the company and project. The University of Hawaii is state-owned and governed. Assuming this project's relationship to NASA is via contract rather than a grant, you've got a double whammy of procurement-regulation fairness you're required to apply.

      In the end-game, with an oversupply of fully qualified applicants, the process can force you to quantify tinier and tinier discriminators between applicants--even if the qualities you need are fundamentally unquantifiable. And you can't ask for more from any of the remaining applicants, because that'd be unfair to those already eliminated.

      I'd never advise you to pick whoever you need, and find a way to justify it for the record :) And certainly, no one still in government would say they've ever done that. But who's gonna protest a non-selection?

      Hang in there. This phase, too, shall pass.

  6. Ed - last night I dreamt that the selected crew hated each other on sight!

    1. Hopefully you won't have a repeat of the SFINCSS '99 disaster! ;-)

    2. Don't even put the thought out there! [shudder]


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