Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Safety in the airspace

Claire Marrison’s photo taken with residents of Warrane after her formal dinner talk

A career in the psychology of air safety with Dr Claire Marrison
On Wednesday 9 May 2018, Dr Claire Marrison had words of wisdom to share with the boys as the formal dinner guest at Warrane College. The Standards & Systems Manager at Air Services Australia, she told the boys about her work – oversighting how Airservices’ approach to both safety and environment management  – and how she got there.

Overall she had three main lessons for the boys; on risks, opportunities, and priorities.

Taking risks
Marrison told the boys how she started out studying psychology, something her parents nicknamed a “Mickey Mouse degree”. True, she didn’t really have a career path in mind – but psychology interested her and she was keen to go to university.

After completing her honours degree in psychology, she was still unsure where she was headed. She travelled to Australia, backpacked, and headed home to the United Kingdom just as undecided as to what the future held for her.

But as she told the boys, not everyone will have it figured out from the start, and that’s okay. “One of the things I want to say to you today – there are points in your career where you need to take risks,” Marrison said. “Only by taking risks will you get to see what your real potential is.”

Grabbing opportunities 
Back in the UK, an opportunity arose – she was asked to do a Masters course, and it didn’t hurt that she would be paid for it. An airline wanted some research done on the psychological welfare of their staff, so she was trained to be an air hostess and she travel with them in order to complete it. After a year of this, she got asked to look into passenger responses to aircraft emergencies – which turned into her PhD.

It was from this place that her career in air safety took off, so to speak. “As I said at the start, I’ve never really had a firm path of where I wanted to go; opportunities arise and you just grab them,” Marrison said to the boys. She learnt that airplanes need certification to do with evacuation safety, but that there had been instances where supposedly certified planes didn’t have successful evacuations, resulting in many deaths. She began to study what was going wrong by simulating emergency situations, and it turned out to be that the competition between the passengers involved was the mystery factor. From this she had to think about how to change evacuation situations from a psychological point of view; which led to a change of regulations.

With this specific area of expertise under her belt, Marrison found herself in great demand and was able to come to Australia as an air accident safety investigator. She spent time looking at human performance, with questions such as why pilots make errors, and also studied survival factors in the US. It was after about four years of this kind of work that she started working for Air Services Australia, where she felt she was at the end of the chain where she could have more practical impact.

Keeping your priorities straight
Marrison finished up with some advice for the boys. “There were a couple of things I’d like to say about my experience,” she said. “What it shows is that life can be taken away from you very, very quickly. And I suppose one of the things I did take from that is that I don’t think that if my life flashes before me – like some of the people I was then dealing with – I don’t think I’m going to be actually thinking about “I wish I’d worked a bit harder”… I think I would be thinking about the friendships I made, the relationships, and about the contributions I had made to society… So I think for me it’s one of the key things I’ve kept with me.”

She continued: “It’s about, you know, making that contribution to the world and actually having really, really good relationships, because those are the things I think you’ll be thinking about when you pass on into the next life.”

She also encouraged the boys to do what they love. “I think you need to be true to yourself – in saying that, money is important and the higher up you are in the organisation, the more money you’re going to get. But if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then you’re not going to have that quality of life.”
(Photographs from the evening are available here)

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