Research Project

Fostering the Science and Technology Laboratory of the Future: Team Culture and Communication among Scientists, Engineers, and Managers as NASA’S JPL

Motivation/Research Problem
Teams form the basis for work in NASA; however, how teams are structured, operate, solve problems, and communicate is rarely examined from an ethnographic perspective. Many have studied leadership in relationship to teaming, focusing on the characteristics of leaders and styles of enacting leadership. Less has been said, however, about other dimensions of teaming such as the formation, socialization, and maintenance of teams, and the creation of norms, identities, and practices that are internal to team dynamics and the broader workplace, and which shape team productivity. 
Research Team


  • John Day, Manager, Engineering Development Office, Systems Engineering Division, NASA, JPL
  • Ann Devereaux, Deputy Manager of Systems Engineering Division (Division 31), JPL Center for Autonomy


  • Suzanne Scheld, Anthropology
  • Nhut Ho, Mechanical Engineering

Student Team:

  • Neil Thompsett
  • Michael Baumgartner
  • Susan Hann Doyle
  • Susan Hann Doyle
  • Daniella Contreras
  • Mychaela Langlois,
  • Gavin Saint Cry
  • Ann Margaret Price
  • Liz Knight

Alignment, Engagement and Contributions to the priorities of NASA’s Mission Directorates 

Based on JPL’s 2018 strategic plan, the center aims to become the “laboratory of the future.” This study will contribute insights that will help JPL to meet this goal.   This project proposes an especially innovative approach to examining teaming. The ethnographic perspective (modified for COVID-19), provides an on-the-ground look at teams and workplace culture and their internal “cultural” dynamics. This perspective combined with what is already known about styles of leadership, will contribute to improving the productivity of JPL work teams.

Research Questions and Research Objectives

The research is guided by several questions:

  • How do team members with diverse backgrounds, training, experience, and in different positions on work teams perceive and enact their roles and communication with others?
  • In order for JPL to become the laboratory of the future, how would team members with diverse backgrounds, training, experience, and in different positions on work teams like for team members to perform their roles and communicate with others?

Research Methods

There are three stages to the research and four methods that will be employed.

  • Stage 1: “Developing a Baseline Picture of Teaming”. During this stage, the research team will document information about the nature of teams at JPL through archival research. We will also conduct key informant interviews with select managers, facilitators of team development at JPL’s “A-Team/X-Team” (the center’s project incubator), and the leaders of JPL’s junior engineer support group in order to develop insights for structuring team observations.
  • Stage 2: “Observing Teams at Work”. During this stage, we will conduct semi-structured observations of work teams (e.g., Clipper, Psyche or other work teams) as they interact in teleconferenced review meetings. The team will focus on patterns in discourse and the flow of conversation.
  • Stage 3: “Team Members’ Perceptions of Teaming”. During this stage, the research team will undertake semi-structured interviews with team managers, lead engineers, and the variety of other engineers (e.g., systems, flight, and payload engineers) who comprise the work teams. We will seek to interview approximately eleven (11) members in each team (e.g. one manager, one lead engineer, three payload engineers, three flight engineers, and three systems engineers). The goal of these interviews is to understand team members’ perceptions and experiences of teaming at JPL.

Research Deliverables (Publications, Presentations and other Products)

Anticipated deliverables

  • Ethnographic portraits highlighting the features of teaming and an “organizational chart” of teams from a “folk” perspective
  • A list of suggested metrics for assessing effective team communication and productivity
  • A master’s thesis about teaming at JPL
  • A literature review on relevant social science and anthropological literature on teaming and NASA
  • An applied publication on teaming

Anticipated Publications
We anticipate submitting a publication about our research to Human Organization or another applied journal in anthropology. We will also consider submitting manuscripts to other journals that address managing human resources for STEM-related industries.

Conference Presentations
We had three abstracts accepted by the Southwestern Anthropological Association (SWAA) annual conference. Due to COVD-19, however, this conference was cancelled. Neil Thompsett presented our research proposal at CSUN’s Department of Anthropology’s Annual “Anthro Expo” conference on April 20, 2020, and at CSUN’s Department of Anthropology’s Annual Graduate Student Colloquium on May 11, 2020.

Research Timeline

October 2019 – May 2020 —

  • Develop a literature review covering the following topics: history of NASA and JPL; ethnographic studies of NASA and teaming; ethnographic case studies of STEM organizations; ethnographic methods for the study of STEM organizations;
  • Develop the research proposal and protocols with partners at JPL.
  • Submit research proposal for IRB approval
  • Receive IRB approval before Summer 2020

May – November 2020 —

  • Undertake the three stages of research including archival research, key informant interviews, semi-structured team observations, semi-structured interviews with managers and various categories of engineers (systems, flight, and payload engineers)
  • Compile data
  • Consult with JPL partners as data is collected

December 2020  —

  • Transcribe and code interviews
  • Analyze data

January 2021 —

  • Write a draft of final report
  • Neil Thompsett will submit a draft of his master’s thesis.
  • Begin writing up research for publication in a scholarly journal
  • Discuss Year 2 research with new team

February 2021 —

  • Elicit feedback from research participants on draft of report; finalize report
  • Begin discussing Year 2 plans with NASA partners

March-May 2021 —

  • Update/resubmit IRB
  • Updates literature review

June-September 2021 —

  • Data collection

October-December 2021 —

  • Transcribe interviews
  • Analyze data
  • Draft preliminary report

January 2022 —

  • Elicit feedback from research participants on draft of report

February 2022 —

  • Complete final report

Are there other activities (e.g., proposals or additional projects) that you have developed or anticipate based on your NASA ARCS project?

I was slated to teach a course on anthropological research methods in the Fall where I had hoped to engage the students in the course in a project related to NASA ARCS. Unfortunately, I am no longer able to teach this course. Instead, the Fellows have started to recruit associates to join our research group. They have interviewed approximately 6 potential students who will provide support for the research. Our research team also participated in a recruitment session with College of the Canyons and there is some possibility that students from this campus may also join us in the Fall.

Update: In Spring 2021, I will be teaching a 500-level course on Ethnographic Methods with a focus on Digital Anthropology (ANTH 575). I offered to teach this as a result of COVID-19 impacting the research methods of cultural anthropologists, which usually entails place-based, in-person observations. Several ARCS Fellows will be taking the course in order to prepare for their research.