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AFIT student first to graduate with all-female thesis team

Taylor Flaxington earned her master’s degree from the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Graduate School of Engineering Management in March 2020 and was the first AFIT student to have an all-female thesis team. (Courtesy Photo)

Taylor Flaxington earned her master’s degree from the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Graduate School of Engineering Management in March 2020 and was the first AFIT student to have an all-female thesis team. (Courtesy Photo)

Left to right, Taylor Flaxington and Lt. Col. Amy Cox in Philadelphia, PA for the American Society for Engineering Management 2019 Annual International Conference. (Courtesy Photo)

Left to right, Taylor Flaxington and Lt. Col. Amy Cox in Philadelphia, PA for the American Society for Engineering Management 2019 Annual International Conference. (Courtesy Photo)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio - Taylor Flaxington was one of 229 students to complete her master’s degree from the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Graduate School of Engineering Management in March 2020. But she was the first AFIT student to have an all-female thesis team.

As an Air Force civilian employee, Flaxington attended AFIT through the PALACE Acquire program to study systems engineering.  Her thesis committee members included her advisor, Lt. Col. Amy Cox, Assistant Professor of Systems Engineering, Dr. Christine Schubert Kabban, Professor of Statistics, and Dr. Alice Grimes, Director of Faculty Development.

“In an environment where there are very few women, it is great to be part of a team where you can look up to and be mentored by people who look or think like you.  That doesn’t necessarily have to be female to female mentorship - just people who you can look up to and can see yourself as.  It was great to work with these very smart women who have excelled in an environment that I am also in,” said Flaxington.

Flaxington’s thesis topic took a cue from senior leaders who want to push the Air Force to move at the speed of relevance.  Her research focused on characterizing the communication networks technical organizations rely on to carry out their mission.  Knowing where information does or does not flow can guide efforts to improve organizational performance.

Moving from traditional survey and interview methods, she instead leveraged e-mail log files to characterize work-related communication networks.  She laid the groundwork for future efforts. She analyzed methods to capture communication networks containing hundreds and thousands of people with simple log file retrievals. 

“There are hundreds of program offices in the Air Force, with hundreds of thousands of people working in (or supporting) those offices.  To study something so big, I started with pulling data of people’s interactions off of Outlook.  How you communicate and interact with people is really important when you look at innovation and how ideas spread,” Flaxington said.

“Dr. Schubert Kabban's familiarity with graph theory made her an ideal committee member for the methods considered.  Dr. Grimes has a doctorate in Human Development, so her experience with organizational behavior added needed expertise in that domain.  This was probably one of the more intellectually diverse committees this year,” said Cox.

Flaxington chose to attend AFIT because of the defense focused degree and research programs. “It was a different opportunity to get your master’s but still be in an Air Force environment and directly applying your education to Air Force needs,” she said.

As a civilian attending AFIT, Flaxington was intimidated at first to be in a class of primarily military officers.  “Just like any situation that is new where you are different it’s intimidating at first until you realize that there are people around you who want you to succeed and will help you succeed,” she said.

The time spent at AFIT will have a lasting impact on Flaxington’s life and career. “My experience at AFIT has been incredibly positive.  My advisor Lt. Col. Cox was the greatest mentor that I have had in my time working for the Air Force,” she said.  “The people that I have met here have become really great friends that I will stay in contact with for the rest of my life.”

Flaxington will return to Hanscom AFB, Mass, in April to work as a systems engineer for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center.  “I love working for the Air Force and plan to continue my career here.  It’s kind of a running joke but I want to be the Secretary of the Air Force one day, so that is the direction that I am headed,” she said.