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Human factors grad ready to get comfortable in her new field

Maddie Niichel graduates this December from one of ASU's newest programs

Madeleine Niichel ASU Poly grad
November 30, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2018 commencement. Read about more graduates.

Maddie Niichel is graduating this fall with a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Systems Engineering from Arizona State University. A Mesa native, Niichel spent her time at ASU as a Barrett, The Honors College mentor and peer adviser.

Niichel was excited to discover a field that combined her passions of engineering and psychology: human factors. The application of psychological and physiological principles to the engineering and design of products, processes and systems is a relatively new field. The goal is to reduce human error, increase productivity and enhance safety and comfort by focusing on the interaction between the human and the product.

After graduation, Niichel wants to work with a consulting or engineering firm to get involved in the design process. “I really want to start applying everything I’ve learned off the bat,” she said.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: I loved psychology in high school. I just knew I didn’t want to be in clinical; I wanted to do some research with technology. I was also in the robotics club in high school. I wanted to incorporate that somehow, but I didn’t want to be an engineer either, so this is a good combination of both my passions in psychology and engineering, and a great boundary with human factors. Human factors is really upcoming in our industry. A lot of professionals start in engineering and then find out human factors is important, so we’re kind of starting from the bottom and saying, "Human factors and all this research with user experience should come in before we design the product." That’s where my interests lie.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: A lot of times you find your passion along the way. In high school they tell you, you want to find a job that makes it not work; find what’s fun for you. I’ve kind of found going with my gut and taking opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise taken has really opened a lot of doors that surprised me. I didn’t know I was going to be studying human interaction when I started. In high school I just knew what I didn’t want to do. It surprised me about all the doors that open when you’re willing to shake someone’s hand or say hi to someone.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I’m from Mesa, so I’ve always wanted to be a Sun Devil. … When I found out about this program here at the Poly campus, it really sparked my interest. I thought, "If I end up staying in state and going to ASU, that’s my program." I looked around at other universities, and it’s such a neat program and it’s in the engineering school, which was different. It was a new program I was excited to be involved in. The idea that it’s a new major kept me interested and brought me here.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Nancy Cook is the director of our grad program here. I went to high school with her daughter. She gave the spiel about her program to my psychology class in high school. Being such a powerful woman in her field, everyone knows her research. She’s always known that this is an issue, that people need to solve how teams work together, and the way she’s come about it has been so inspiring, persevering through a lot of naysayers. She’s always pushed me. Every time I go talk to her she’s always supportive and attentive, but also willing to push my boundaries a little bit too, to give me the extra nudge that keeps me going. … She’s been a huge support throughout my career.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Take networking seriously. In any major, it’s about who you know. I have a friend in accounting, and he has a job because his dad’s friend had an opening. Being able to take that step out of your box and take your resume and just give it to someone is a big step for a lot of people. It was a big one for me; I didn’t want to see my resume on paper. It’s all the things you’ve done people are going to judge you on. … You have to be an advocate for yourself. … Even as a freshman it’s important to see what people in your program are doing.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on this campus is the fountain by the admin building. It’s a peaceful little place. It’s been here since it was a base, that little spot, so it’s kind of cool to see the history in that area.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: It’s really important to give back to schools like ASU and programs that ASU works with, like Mayo Clinic. I think what I would do is I would give the majority of that back and I would use the rest to fund private projects by students.

Top photo: Maddie Niichel, pictured at the Polytechnic campus, is graduating in human systems engineering, looking at how humans interact with robots. She plans to return in the spring semester to begin her graduate work, specializing in how people use drones — recreationally and commercially. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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