Alumni Profile: Mark S. Pfaff

Jennifer Cifelli
November 05, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mark Pfaff, lead human-centered engineer at the MITRE Corporation, leveraged his doctorate in information sciences and technology (IST) to transition from a career in photography and later in media production, into his current work at MITRE, a nonprofit research company that runs several federally funded research and development centers across the country.

Pfaff, who received his doctorate at Penn State’s College of IST and is a State College native, started teaching sound, Web and graphic design for Duquesne University after receiving his master of science in multimedia technology.

“I really enjoyed teaching and decided to get a Ph.D., and that’s when everything changed,” he said. “I’d never done research in my life, but once I was exposed to experimental design, data analysis, etc. in IST, it turns out I was very good at it!”

After earning his degree, Pfaff took a faculty position at Indiana University in Indianapolis School of Informatics and Computing where he continued to teach audio production to undergraduate students while continuing research on decision support. This research was funded by MITRE, who Pfaff had been working with occasionally for years.

The decision to join academia instead of industry wasn’t especially popular, according to Pfaff, who said he was the only student in his lab who chose to take a university position after graduation. His advice to other grads interested in teaching is to carefully consider the institution they’re seeking to join and to weigh their prospects for tenure and their fit within the department.

Though he enjoyed teaching, in 2014 Pfaff left Indiana University to work at MITRE, in their Social and Collaborative Computing department, where he works as a specialist in experimental design and data analysis involved in research topics ranging from improving the usability of electronic health records for the Veterans Health Administration, to improving strategic decision making for the U.S. Air Force, he said.

“I apply all the skills I learned at IST in my jobs after graduation,” Pfaff said. “I think IST did a good job of giving me broad exposure to the kinds of approaches to research that are necessary for today’s interdisciplinary problems, rather than pigeonholing me into a specific set of skills relevant only to a single discipline.”

What’s next for Pfaff? He says he’s looking forward to spending many years continuing to do research in the public interest for MITRE, a company that he said has a great reputation for staff retention and on-the-job happiness.

“I get excited by the fact that my company is addressing the most pressing problems faced by our country right now,” He said. “I’m surrounded by scarily smart people who keep me on my toes and encourage me to deliver my best. MITRE values me for what I learned at IST and encourages me to continue growing as a scholar.”

Last Updated November 12, 2015