A doctoral alumna of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering has received the 2010 Outstanding Dissertation award from the Aerospace Human Factors Association.

Kristen Casto, currently of Enterprise, Ala., received her Ph.D. in August 2009 at Virginia Tech in Industrial Systems and Engineering-Human Factors in the Auditory Systems Lab.

"Kristen Casto is an outstanding person, now has a very high position with the Army, and will be an important contributor and exemplary alumna for years to come," said John Casali, the John Grado Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech.

A native of Morgantown, W.Va., Casali served as Casto's Ph.D. advisor and nominated her for the award. The honor, officially called the Stanley N. Roscoe Award, is given for the best doctoral dissertation written in a research area related to aerospace human factors. It includes a plaque and an honorarium of $500. The award will be presented at the association's annual business meeting in May.

Casto's winning dissertation was entitled "Workload and Communication Signal Quality on Black Hawk Helicopter Simulator Pilot Performance."

Her topic focused on the intense noise generated from Blackhawks as a serious occupational hazard to which Army rotary-wing aviators are exposed to whilst on the job. Among the potential results: permanent hearing loss and difficulty communicating in helicopter noise. Her results supported a recommendation requiring hearing-impaired pilots to use assistive communication technology and not be permitted to fly with passive headset devices.

At West Virginia University (WVU), Casto earned a bachelor's degree in speech pathology and audiology and a master's degree in audiology. She also has a clinical doctorate in audiology from Central Michigan University. Of her choice for Virginia Tech's doctoral program, Casto said, "I wanted to attend [Virginia Tech] because of Dr. Casali's outstanding reputation and because I thought the human factors program aligned well with the Army's Hearing Program mission."

Casto was commissioned as a second lieutenant through the ROTC program at WVU in 1991. She has been on active duty since 1995, and was assigned to Ft. Rucker in Alabama from 1997 to 2000 as the installation's audiologist/ hearing conservation program manager.

"I was on flight status at the time and acquired a first-hand perspective on the communication difficulties pilots face in their operational environment," Casto said.

She is now a lieutenant colonel and the branch chief for the Sensory Research Division, Acoustics Branch at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory at Rucker.