Dr. Valerie Sitterle brings her background in engineering science – integrating engineering, natural, and physical sciences – to the study of systems and systems engineering for the SERC. Two primary areas of her work revolve around the design and assessment of defense systems alongside concepts of operation in theater environments, and the synthesis of architectures with decision methods, processes, and tools to meet the next generation of systems engineering challenges. In addition to serving on the Research Council for the SERC, she is currently a Principal Research Engineer and Chief Scientist for the Systems Engineering Research Division in the Electronic Systems Laboratory at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. She earned a B.M.E. and M.S. in mechanical engineering from Auburn University, an M.S. in engineering science from the University of Florida, and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Tell us about your current research – what excites you, what is challenging, and what impact are you motivated to achieve?
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time collaborating with the architecture experts in my division at GTRI and learning what a powerful tool they can be as a type of backbone to guide how various groups approach digital engineering. Specifically, we (including but certainly not limited to me) are working to improve decision making processes through effective application and development of solutions that unify data models, model-based systems engineering, and digital engineering. The real crux of the work is how digital practices and capabilities can truly transform what we can understand and do, not just digitize existing methods and processes. This requires a strong commitment to considering an organization’s needs; the people, processes, and technologies must come together. This can sound abstract at times, but I do come from a background in analysis of platforms and their use in theater environments. Consequently, I deeply internalize the end results we need for our folks out in the field. Morphing current practice to ensure more effective and efficient solutions reach our stakeholders is tremendously motivating.
As a researcher and member of the SERC Research Council, what has been your experience of collaborating with colleagues across the SERC network?
It is simply fun. I love the diversity of thought, the varied backgrounds, the input from faculty and students at so many different universities, departments, and areas of study. One of GTRI’s past directors, Dr. Steve Cross, once gave a seminar where he highlighted how teams with different lenses – how they saw the world based on bringing different and distinct backgrounds to the group and problem space – was a vital ingredient to innovation. I feel the SERC really brings this to life. Additionally, the students I have had the pleasure to meet at various SERC events have been insanely smart, thoughtful, and truly make you smile about the future of our field.
Who most inspired you in your career, and what did you learn from them?
I am so fortunate that there have been so many. Perhaps first and foremost, Dr. Sushil Bhavnani, my undergraduate and master’s advisor who is now a Professor Emeritus at Auburn University, will always be an inspiration. He had this way of filling his students with the desire and motivation to rise to achieve what he believed we could. Along the way, we discovered that through his faith in us, he had ensured we developed faith in ourselves. Educationally and professionally, this has been invaluable. Then, I learned measure and stepping back to consider what is driving or influencing others from two of my early and long-time supervisors at GTRI, Mr. Randy Case and Dr. Ron Bohlander. The measure part was the hardest for my Scottish and German blood! These two aspects combined, however, really help you understand how to balance needs across diverse stakeholder groups. And, within the SERC network, the magnificent and beloved Dr. Barry Boehm was a fantastic mentor. Barry taught me so much about how to see different sides of a problem, including that effective interdisciplinary collaboration – and hence meaningful advances – need these different sides. Moreover, he was the walking epitome of kind.
Please give the SERC network a recommendation for an interesting book, film, podcast, or article you’ve come across.
I’m a history buff at heart. I’ve really enjoyed and learned an enormous amount from several books by Collin Woodward, especially American Nations, Union, and The Republic of Pirates. Another of my all-time favorites is The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. They were a husband and wife team who wrote a ten volume set on the history of the world. After they were done, they asked themselves what they had learned. The Lessons of History is that journey of connecting thoughts, a truly amazing and compact examination of the forces and cycles that continue to shape society. They start the book with a hilariously pointed disclaimer: “Only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.” It’s magnificent.
What do you look forward to about the future of systems engineering?
If we think about the nature of systems today and how they are evolving capability-wise, we have some important areas of need that will require new approaches sooner rather than later. First, capabilities of many modern systems are increasingly software-defined. Many of these systems are envisioned to be functionally adaptive from the outset, but our traditional approaches aren’t well-matched to this type of problem. Classical systems engineering architectural descriptions have been largely static artifacts, focused on open standards interfaces, or at a higher level of abstraction to capture any reconfigurability of system functionality. We need the ability to characterize and analyze systems that are envisioned from the outset to be dynamically reconfigurable, with respect to where and what functional capabilities are executed, at a level of description that informs use and design. This extends from MBSE representations to analysis methods that support this level of expanded dimensionality. Second, and especially important given the advances in AI, are methods that support our confidence in fielding when the systems themselves are mutable and the analytical space is intractable. And strongly related to both concepts, systems engineering needs to consider from the outset that these AI-based systems will be fielded in concepts that rely on collaborative relationships with people. Namely, using systems as human-controlled tools to accomplish a specific task and using systems designed to “cooperate and partner” with humans to achieve capabilities beyond either alone are different. We need new approaches and a strong collaboration with the human-based sciences as well as data science and mathematics, to intentionally design, analyze, and make decisions on these types of relationships and forms of interaction. Our notion of “system” is expanding.
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