A Career on Key

March 2009
Steve Scott
Steve Scott

An accident of geography—and timing—led Steve Scott to a career in computer science. In the early 1980s, Scott was pursuing his master's in music composition at the University of North Texas (UNT) outside of Dallas, an area undergoing a technology boom. Texas Instruments and other tech giants began recruiting entry-level programmers by the dozens, and UNT's music school provided a pool of willing and able recruits.

"I think music students are detail-oriented, in general, and they're used to working within a set of rules," explains Scott, a principal information systems engineer in MITRE's Command and Control Center. "Programming requires these skills, so it wasn't such a stretch." On a friend's recommendation, he took a few computer science courses and accepted a job with a large data processing center as he completed his master's degree. Though he studied to be a band director and is an accomplished trumpet player, Scott's increasing interest in computers set him on a very different path.

He relocated to Northern Virginia and earned a master's in computer science with a concentration in software engineering and artificial intelligence from George Mason University (GMU). He then spent 10 years at a defense contractor, where he supported a variety of aerospace application development projects, including NASA's Earth Observing System Data and Information System. After several colleagues came to MITRE in the late 1990s, Scott decided to join them, making the switch in 2000.

Eye on Pandemics

In his more than eight years with MITRE, Scott has provided software and systems engineering support for a number of sponsors and customers, including the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Treasury Department. "There has been such diversity in my work," he says. "In music, we would call it a theme and variations."

One of Scott's most challenging and rewarding opportunities has been his recent work as a lead system architect on the Argus Project (named for the multi-eyed Greek god), which helps identify emerging infectious disease events. Building on the successes of a series of prototypes developed by MITRE researchers, Scott led a team of 10 engineers charged with developing a new prototype system using an advanced parallel distributed architecture—essentially a network of several small systems working to process large volumes of information in parallel instead of using a single large system to do so sequentially. This approach helps biosurveillance analysts and researchers at Georgetown University School of Medicine's Center for Integrated Biodefense sort through data far more rapidly than traditional methods, supporting their efforts to detect worldwide outbreaks of plant, animal, and human diseases.

"The enthusiasm, the sense of accomplishment, and sense of pride of all who worked on Argus was incredible," he says. "It gave us an opportunity to make an impact on a worldwide scale."

The Pursuit of Knowledge

Scott's work on Argus piqued his curiosity about how epidemics are spread, how they're contained, and how people respond to outbreaks and disasters. In 2006, he took an introductory computational social science (CSS) class at GMU. (CSS marries advanced quantitative methods with social science research.) "The class opened my eyes to the many applications of behavioral modeling, not just for our DoD sponsors, but also for civilian agencies," he explains. "By modeling how people react collectively to a certain event—Hurricane Katrina, a virus outbreak, or the home mortgage crisis, for example—agencies can use the data to better understand what happened, hypothesize reactions to future events, and develop effective interventions."

He is now pursuing a graduate certificate in CSS (which includes the core courses required for a doctorate). MITRE is supporting his studies through the company's educational assistance program. "It's a great benefit of working for MITRE. There are so many opportunities available here."

In addition to formal study, Scott has been pursuing other interests. He took Greek and Spanish language classes through his county's adult education program, and he spent several years studying art. When time allows, he enjoys running and biking. Music continues to play a role in his life. Scott plays electric bass in a neighborhood garage rock band?one that incidentally includes a co-worker from MITRE's Center for Enterprise Modernization, Kevin McCarthy, on rhythm guitar.

"I'm not composing much these days," he notes. "But I had a piece published in the '90s, so every year or so I receive a royalty check of $2 to $3, about enough to buy a fancy coffee drink." While he enjoys the recognition as a composer, Scott adds, "I'm not planning on quitting my day gig anytime soon."