painting by Kirsten Johnson, 2000

John W. Senders is one of the pioneers of the field of Engineering Psychology, with a long and influential career spanning six decades as a psychologist and human factors engineer. He was one of the first scientists to apply mathematical models to human behavior in applied settings, making many important contributions to the field throughout his varied and often eclectic research history. He has worked in many different capacities ranging from academic (as a psychologist, engineer, and even professor of law), to scientist in both industrial and military research labs, to private consultant, to expert witness.

His work has contributed to the advancement of theoretical understanding in areas which are fundamental to the field, including mental workload, attention and visual sampling, eye movements, queuing theory, control theory and human error modeling. The application of his work has had an impact in a diverse range of domains including the design of space vehicles, modeling of driver behaviour, highway safety, pilot behavior, airplane cockpit design, medication errors and patient safety, nuclear power plant safety, and even electronic publishing.

Amongst his many achievements are:

  • Being the first to postulate in 1955, and later demonstrate in 1965, the mathematical relationship between the bandwidth of a signal and the frequency of visual attention to that signal.
  • Inventing in 1963, and demonstrating in 1965, the occluded vision paradigm as a measure of attentional demand (now a part of the ISO protocol for assessment of distraction. This technique is still used today in driving studies, and has had a long history of application including its use in the assessment of instrument panel design in cockpits and nuclear power plants.
  • Being the first to conceive of and write about the fully functional electronic journal, including the organization of a test journal. For this, he was later awarded the KMDI Pioneer Award for an outstanding contribution to the field of electronic publishing in 2008 by the University of Toronto. This work followed on from earlier research working with JCR Licklider in the 1960s estimating the digital storage requirements for all of the world’s libraries!
  • Establishing the first conferences on human error in the 1980s, thereby bringing together the key researchers in the field, and helping establish this as a growing area of importance for Engineering Psychology. He has also published widely on the theory and modelling of human error.
  • Later in his career, becoming a key figure in patient safety and medication errors, and helping to establish for example, the Institute for Safe Medication Practices in Canada. Prof Senders also introduced the Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) technique into medication and medical safety through the American Institute for Safe Medical Practices (ISMP) in 1994. He has been recognised in various ways for these achievements, being a much sought after expert witness in cases of human error in medicine, becoming Professor of Safety Science at the University of Miami Medical School, and the James March Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont, and receiving an award from the ISMP in 2001.

In addition to these important contributions, Prof. Senders has an extensive record of service on advisory boards, editorial boards, and research councils. He has been an avid teacher and mentor to countless graduate students in Engineering Psychology and Human Factors Engineering, and has helped to launch many careers in the field.

Having just celebrated his 90th birthday, Prof. Senders is still going strong and continues to write, speak, teach, mentor, advise and consult.

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