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Incorporating humanity into a systems mindset

Grad student and Air National Guard officer Elizabeth Bieler combines systems design and management studies with engineering and volunteer projects.
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MIT grad student Elizabeth Bieler sits with her Dalmatian Hercules, who she plans to train as a therapy dog.
MIT grad student Elizabeth Bieler sits with her Dalmatian Hercules, who she plans to train as a therapy dog.
Photo courtesy of the Office of Graduate Education.
Elizabeth Bieler spends time volunteering at a veteran's hospice near Hanscom Air Force Base to provide end-of-life companionship to its patients.
Elizabeth Bieler spends time volunteering at a veteran's hospice near Hanscom Air Force Base to provide end-of-life companionship to its patients.
Photo courtesy of the Office of Graduate Education.

Elizabeth Bieler would like to complete her two-year MIT master’s degree program in one year, and she probably will — while also a dedicated volunteer and officer in the Air National Guard. In manners both public and personal, Bieler seems drawn to service.

Normally completed in 18 months to two years, Bieler’s master’s program, Systems Design and Management (SDM), is administered jointly between the MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT School of Engineering. Bieler was attracted to its unique interdisciplinary perspective: SDM prepares its students to apply “systems” thinking to both engineering and management. Essentially, it encourages viewing a system that has many subsystems (say, a hospital or an airplane) holistically, with attention to how altering a subsystem may impact the integrity of any other subsystem. When unexpected qualities arise from the combinations of such subsystems, they are referred to as “emergent characteristics.”

Bieler’s own life similarly involves the coordination of many seemingly distinct roles: Since starting college, she has managed being a full-time student, a working civilian, a part-time officer in the Air National Guard, and a dedicated volunteer not only in STEM education initiatives, but at a veteran’s hospice — often all at once. Partly thanks to her military background, she does not struggle with procrastination.

Making her home at Hanscom

Bieler doesn’t live the typical graduate student lifestyle. Rather than making her home in Cambridge, she lives on the Hanscom Air Force Base near Lexington and Concord with her husband Greg, who is an active duty Air Force Officer. In her rare free time, she likes to run with her one-year-old Dalmatian, Hercules, read books, and try out healthy cooking recipes.

While her 45-minute commute can be a burden, a bus runs to MIT every few hours, and Bieler has become close friends with many of the other military members that ride the bus to their programs at Harvard and MIT. In fact, many of those living on Hanscom are in degree programs in Cambridge: “We have a few neighbors, and actually quite a few of them go to MIT… I joke that I’ve gotten to know more of my neighbors from going to MIT and from the bus than from [military] work every day!”

A morning person, she wakes up between 5 and 6 a.m. every day, making student commitments such as evening group meetings a challenge, especially with her accelerated course load. Despite her shifted schedule and distance from Cambridge, SDM-related activities such as the fall Sloan Olympics keep her feeling connected to MIT.

From the Air National Guard to SDM

Motivated by a desire to help others, Bieler joined the Air National Guard in college in her home state of Ohio: “I liked it that you get to be part of the homeland response. ... If there’s a hurricane or tornado, or something like that, you have the opportunity to go and help people.”

Bieler has remained with the Air National Guard ever since, and is now an officer in its Bioenvironmental Engineering group. The division has a range of responsibilities, including measuring sound exposure and water safety, and even planning for a chemical or biological radiation attack. Most of the time, however, they’re keeping air personnel safe from occupational exposure on military jets. Due to her passion for helping others, Bieler most values the opportunity to be deployed to areas with local emergencies — for example, the recent flooding in Texas and Puerto Rico — which allow her to make an immediate impact with Americans in dire need.

After completing an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and working at a manufacturing consulting firm, Bieler was awarded a Science and Engineering PALACE Acquire Fellowship. The fellowship fully funds one year of graduate school, which led Bieler to apply to the SDM program at MIT. She will complete her graduate studies between stints of work for an Air Force aircraft office as a government civilian. 

Bieler expects her thesis will be an evaluation of the Air Force’s use of Agile (a method of assessing and maximizing the efficiency of a system’s design) in development operations. For her thesis, Bieler will evaluate the use of this method in the implementation of new airplane software or equipment at the Air Force aircraft office where she plans to work after graduating. “I wanted to do something where I improved my own understanding, but also I liked the idea of a thesis that can hopefully have some impact.”

Eventually, Bieler aims to be the director and chief engineer of a similar aircraft office, managing a single type of airplane — for example, an F-15 or JSTAR — used by the Air Force. Such a role is a perfect example of systems engineering and management, where Bieler would coordinate the interactions of many groups, including legislative liaisons, design teams, and engineers.

Seeing beyond herself

Bieler’s diligence and organization make her a remarkable fit for the SDM program and the military. However, she also leverages these skills while integrating her passion for helping others into every aspect of her life. Bieler particularly enjoys undertaking projects that reflect her interests; for instance, as a female engineer and military member, she often finds herself to be the only woman in the room, and so she enjoys educating girls about opportunities in STEM fields.

In college, Bieler participated in an internship that included service to refugee families, solidifying her personal belief in giving back. Most of the refugees were fleeing from the Middle East. Bieler recalls spending time with one family in particular from Afghanistan; the father had been a translator for the U.S. military. On the days she helped the family by driving them around the area, they would have lunch on an elaborately printed cloth placed on the ground, and they would tell her about their family experiences. Even after making it into the U.S., the magnitude of the bureaucracy that they had to immediately navigate was daunting: “Going to apply for green cards, apply for food stamps, going to get initial vaccinations... It was overwhelming to me, the amount of paperwork and different offices to coordinate appointments with, and all I was doing was driving them!”

Bieler says volunteering allows her to “give back for what we have here in the U.S.,” and to see beyond herself: “It changed my view and made me look at things a different way than I would have before.”

Most recently, Bieler has spent time volunteering at a veteran’s hospice near Hanscom to provide end-of-life companionship to its patients. While she admits that this is difficult work — deliberately forming a bond with someone who will shortly pass away — she approaches it with deep empathy and sees her own grandmother in those she visits on Saturdays: “I especially found that I liked going early Saturday mornings, and just taking the guys down to the vending machine and getting their coffee or taking them out so they can go smoke a cigarette. ... I liked it because I don’t smoke, but my grandma does, and I know if she in were in some place like that that would mean a lot to her.” Soon, she’d like to integrate another aspect of her life into her visits: after she graduates, she’s planning on training Hercules as a therapy dog to join her.

Emergent characteristics appear when a system is more than the sum of its parts; similarly, Bieler’s volunteerism, military service, and systems engineering, far from existing in isolation, bring humanity to the forefront.

All opinions in this article reflect Bieler’s own and are not the opinions of the Air Force.

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