By Molly Manchenton
In nearly 25 years at MITRE, behavioral scientist Chrissy Vu has taken on challenges that illustrate the breadth of innovation and expertise possible in a career here.
Vu joined MITRE as an intern in 1998. Since then, she’s earned an undergraduate degree from UVA for biochemistry, a master’s degree in biomedical sciences, and a doctorate in science and technology studies.
Some of Vu’s recent work involves working on a team with researching “nudges”—decision prompts that encourage desired behaviors. She shares authorship of two journal articles that describe how to help parents of hospitalized children prepare for their return home.
But one project that made a particularly lasting impression on her took place in 2011. The new World Trade Center complex was then under construction, and at the center of the complex was the Oculus, a hub connecting 12 subway lines, the World Trade Center PATH station, and dozens of retailers. The design called for sensor systems to protect people from chemical attacks.
So, before the Oculus opened, Vu led a study analyzing chemical vapor sensor technologies. Based on that research, she and a MITRE team advised the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on what sensors to use and where to locate them to protect commuters and building visitors.
“The World Trade Center project is a classic example of MITRE work, taking a systems engineering approach, using research from independent research projects, pulling expertise from across the company, and identifying new ways to use chemical detectors to improve the safety of the facility itself,” she says.
“We had experts in chemical detection, homeland security, fluid dynamics, systems engineers, and beyond working to provide subject matter expertise to our government sponsor.”
Since its opening, the building has hosted myriad programs, including art exhibits and farmers markets. And (except for lulls during the recent COVID shutdowns), millions of people pass through it safely every week.
Vu says the work represents MITRE’s position as a trusted adviser whose input has far-reaching impact.
“It’s a testament to the amount of trust that the Port Authority had in us. They gave us all this information so we, as a multi-disciplinary team, could make the recommendations for placing the detectors.
“In the end, we created a document of best practices for sensor placement specific to their project that they could also use to guide future projects.”
Vu says that when she sees friends’ photos and social media posts about visiting the World Trade Center, she is proud of the work MITRE has done to help keep them safe.
“I don’t worry—because we did a good job. We provided the input that has these sensors on duty, keeping watch over people—locals, people from out of state, international visitors, whoever it may be. Having done work to protect them, it’s a high point of my career.”
Much of the work Vu does now involves projects that people don’t hear about. “It’s the silent little things that we do throughout the organization. No one may ever know, and I don’t care.
“I take pride that I do my best, and I take pride that it helps make the world safer.”
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