By Dolly Rairigh Glass

“Living in Panama really impacted my career choices,” Raybourn said. “I’ve always been most comfortable at the interface of diverse cultures and language communities.”

Elaine Raybourn was born and raised in the Republic of Panama in the former Canal Zone and lived there until she was 19. She attended American schools and was raised speaking both English and Spanish. “Many of us who grew up on the edge of two cultures were bicultural and bilingual,” Raybourn explained.

She lived in Panama during the regimes of two Panamanian military leaders. “Both Panamanian and United States militaries were very present,” Raybourn said. “It was something that my friends and I, at a very early age, were exposed to, and I have a number of friends today that work for the Government or have become Panama Canal pilots. These were not uncommon career choices for us.”

Raybourn is a Principal Member of the Technical Staff for the Sandia National Laboratories Cognitive Systems Department, and is currently on assignment in Orlando with the Advanced Distributive Learning Initiative. After earning her B.A. in Visual Arts, and her Master’s Degree in Human Communication, Raybourn earned her Ph.D. in Intercultural Communication with an emphasis on Human-Computer Interaction.

One of the reasons that Raybourn became a social scientist and studied intercultural communication was because she grew up in a place that was always on the edge. “Living in Panama really impacted my career choices,” she said. “I’ve always been most comfortable at the interface of diverse cultures and language communities.”

“I really love interacting with new cultures, working with different people, and helping them tell their stories,” Raybourn explained. “That’s what I do as a social scientist.”


Raybourn enjoys the opportunity to share her passion for games and was invited to present at the Game Developers Conference in March.

Raybourn had already begun to develop her interests in science and art, and her desire to help people, when in the eighth grade, she was given an opportunity to help the police department forensics unit. They had uncovered some remains and needed a sketch of what the person might have looked like for the newspaper. Raybourn was given certain information and a fragment of clothing. Based on Raybourn’s drawing, family members came forward to help the police positively identify the remains of a young girl who had been missing.

This early experience guided Raybourn to enter college as a chemistry major with the intent to become a medical illustrator. “I had always wanted to combine art with science in my career,” she said. “While at my undergraduate institution, I developed great relationships with mentors who fostered my creativity, so after two years I decided to become an art major, but with the same goals of pursuing a career that allowed me to focus on both disciplines.”

Later, Raybourn went to Italy on a Rotary International Scholarship and studied printmaking, and became licensed to practice printmaking in Florence, Italy. While in Italy, she learned to speak fluent Italian. Raybourn found that she enjoyed working with technology, learning languages, and studying cultures, so she earned her graduate degrees to become a social scientist.

“I grew up in a place that was influenced by several cultures and I lived in an environment shaped by different ideologies,” Raybourn said. “All of these experiences made me want to study the interfaces of human culture, and to help or make changes if I could.”

That’s why she was attracted to do work for the government, and for Sandia National Laboratories. Sandia, a multi-disciplinary national security laboratory, is one of 17 Department of Energy labs across the nation. At Sandia, Raybourn is part of the Science and Technology Division, and one of a very few social scientists. Up to about 30 now, she was the lone social scientist in a group of 150 when she was first hired. “I was intrigued and joined the lab,” she said.

One of her most exciting experiences was working for two years for one of Sandia’s Vice Presidents and chief scientist in the Advanced Concepts Group. This12-person team was hand-picked from around the labs.

She was the youngest member of the group invited to join this new initiative. “I was practically a new hire so I really learned a lot from my colleagues,” Raybourn said. “The experience came at an early stage in my career and really helped me understand national security.”

Later she earned a fellowship from the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics (ERCIM) to conduct research in German and French laboratories. She also worked as a guest researcher in the UK.

Raybourn has always been more attracted to collaborative, group technologies, and admits her passion lies in helping teams and groups understand themselves and each other, with a focus on multiplayer gaming. “A lot of technologies used in training help the learner to understand the ‘what,’” she explained. “I care about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ because the how and why gets at who you are as a person, your strengths and weaknesses, and when you may need to leverage someone else’s capabilities.”

There are a lot of games played in the field of intercultural communication because game play can elicit emotional responses that help people understand complex social phenomena. Most of these games are still played face-to-face.

Raybourn began to develop her interest in computer gaming while working on her Ph.D. and because she was interested in technology, her dissertation asked the question, “Can intercultural communication training that occurs in a virtual environment be as robust as face-to-face?”

“Although face-to-face communication is still really the benchmark, there are circumstances where communication in a virtual setting is also useful and productive,” Raybourn said. “What I saw while working on my dissertation was that anonymity can help in some situations to facilitate honest, safe exploration of complex cultural dynamics.”

“That’s why for the work I’ve done on games for training, having the background I do has been helpful,” Raybourn said. “I can focus more on eliciting emotional responses in a training environment because a lot of being culturally fluent involves understanding how to be emotionally prepared for certain situations.”

“Training is really about expanding your comfort zone – stretching it a little further, little further and a little further,” Raybourn said. “Stretching your comfort zone and discovering who you are, or what you are made of, is high adventure. Being at the edge of an unfamiliar environment, speaking several languages at a time, and making sense of ambiguity is my idea of fun.”

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