Even though it’s hot here, a lot of students still think Austin, Texas, is the coolest place to be. Ambarish Banerjee loves the heat.“I like Austin and Texas in general,” said Banerjee, who works with transportation associate professor Jorge Prozzi on asphalt emulsions as part of the program at the Center for Transportation Research (CTR). He is here from Kolkata, India, a country he admits is hot and humid. “I like the summers in Texas very much. I know many people won't agree with me!”
At UT CAEE, research and education go together like Austin summers and tubing on the river. The graduate students who participate in CTR’s research program exemplify this. Each year, more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students work with transportation faculty, professional researchers at CTR, and program sponsors like the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to research real-world transportation issues. They are expanding transportation knowledge in a world hungry for ideas on how to reduce congestion, increase energy efficiency, improve transit safety, and plan complex systems that move goods and people around the world.
The field of transportation study is broad, allowing students to choose among many research opportunities to contribute to a better future. Saamiya Seraj, who is working with professor Chandra Bhat, studies parents’ attitudes about children using non-motorized travel modes to and from school. The study may play a role in policies affecting schools and student mobility.
“With the growing epidemic of childhood obesity and the increasing threat of global warming, I think this is a very important topic — especially if it helps to make future generations less dependent on automobiles,” Seraj said.
In addition to funded studies sponsored by organizations like TxDOT, the Advanced Institute and University Transportation Center (UTC) also supports student research.
The participating graduates are a diverse group. Some are Texans. Some come from Alaska, Alabama, and Arkansas. Others hail from Iran, Bangladesh, China, and India. They received undergraduate degrees from UT Austin, University of Wisconsin, A&M systems, Auburn, Gonzaga, Indian Institute of Technology, and universities in Tehran.
A strong motivator to apply to CAEE was its reputation as having one of the most respected transportation engineering programs in America as part of its civil engineering program, with faculty and research facilities that are top-ranked.
After graduating from Texas A&M University-Kingsville and landing a job with TxDOT, Epigmenio “Epi” Gonzalez paid a visit to UT Austin. While visiting, he met associate professor Zhanmin Zhang, a transportation faculty member who researches infrastructure management.“Immediately, I was fascinated,” Gonzalez said. He decided to apply to graduate school and Dr Zhang is now his mentor. He added that TxDOT’s program has a wonderful incentive: it “allows you to obtain a master’s degree while still being employed full time.”
Arash Motamed, who studies fatigue life and endurance limits of asphaltic materials, is mentored by assistant professor Amit Bhasin. He has gone deep into the technical side of research, studying fracture behavior of binders and devising methods of improving test accuracy.
The students are a tightly knit cohort, bound by mutual respect for intellect and shared hard work. The group is shepherded by warm, talented administrative associates who make up the support staff for the transportation faculty: Vicki Simpson, Lisa Macias, Annette Perrone, Mandy Weyant, and Lisa Smith. They nurture the students as much as the transportation faculty does, providing advice, counsel, and resources which help guide students through study, research, writing, and preparations for professional life. Thanks to staff support, the students are able to manage the complexities and challenges of such a large program.
The size of the program provides intangible benefits, such as cultural diversity and the opportunity to make new friends and build strong relationships inside of a community of transportation students and teachers.“I have had the pleasure of meeting people from all over the world who share the same interests and who have made great contributions in their fields of study,” Gonzales said.
“Getting a good group together and heading out to the Salt Lick tops the list for me,” said Dan Fagnant, who is researching transportation project impacts with professor Kara Kockelman. The student chapters of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) and Intelligent Transportation Society (ITS) have a tradition of taking new members to places like the Salt Lick in Dripping Springs for family-style Texas barbeque dinners as part of the orientation program. The students return there to celebrate and share good memories.
Donna Chen came to graduate school after four years of consulting work in engineering design. Now, she is studying transportation economics crash safety with Kockelman. She has found much in the program to inspire her.“Being exposed to such a wealth of ideas, whether it's from your professors, fellow students, or visiting speakers has been the most rewarding part of graduate studies at UT,” Chen said.
Transportation has many different aspects; some sub-disciplines are very math-oriented, while others relate to planning and economics. The students describe CTR's research program as extensive, thorough, and dynamic. And they have advice for others interested in joining the program. Fagnant recommends investigating the research specialties, identifying projects that meet one's interests, and petitioning to become involved. He feels this will put students on the path to an enjoyable career.
Alison Mills, who works with Professor Randy Machemehl, her transportation faculty mentor and director of CTR, urges students to write papers about their studies and submit them to conferences. “It’s exciting to get a paper accepted by the prestigious Transportation Research Board (TRB) for its annual conference,” she says. “It’s even better when you find out that there are funds available to pay for your travel to the event.”
Banerjee was thrilled when he was awarded “best paper” on LTPP data analysis by FHWA at the 2011 TRB Conference in Washington, DC.
Daniel Evans, who studies freight, mentored by Professor Mike Walton, describes the 2011 TRB conference, with its many sessions and presentations spanning the transportation field. “TRB demonstrated to me the extent of transportation's impact. Thousands of professionals in academia, government, and industry converged to discuss and learn about transportation issues,” he says.
Mills also attended a TRB-sponsored conference in Winnipeg, Canada, and presented her paper on an award-winning bicycle study. “You learn a lot, travel, and get to hear about other research in the field of transportation,” she says.
In addition to the possibility of presenting a winning paper in one's field of study, the program offers leadership opportunities as students work with sponsors. Mills recently conducted a pilot workshop for TxDOT’s roundabout design and evaluation.
Evans decided to apply to graduate school after participating in the Undergraduate Summer Internship in Transportation (USIT) program in 2009. His experience in USIT taught him about more than just transportation theory. The faculty, blending teaching and research, work hard, and are well respected in their field of expertise. But they also enjoy life outside of work. “This balance between work and life is very appealing to me,” he said.
Seraj talks of dedicated, hard-working faculty who are also warm and approachable. She was drawn to the program, based on the “exciting” work she performed as an undergraduate research assistant.
Fagnant is developing a project evaluation toolkit for use in Texas to assist planners in assessing the costs and benefits of various transportation projects and prioritizing limited transportation funds. He says he loves the work.
Students sometimes work under the guidance of professional staff at CTR, headed up by deputy director Robert Harrison. They work on varied topics such as rail, freight, ports, multimodal, planning, and economics. Some students work in various organized research groups associated with CTR, such as the Construction Materials Research Group, the Center for Water Resources, the International Center for Aggregates Research, and the Ferguson Structural Engineering Laboratory, the largest testing lab of its kind in the country. Ferguson’s motto, “We break things,” pretty much explains the fun of working in the lab, stressing full-scale bridge sections and conducting earthquake studies.
Graduate school has instructed and inspired many students. Some hope to work as university professors while others hope to work in the public sector applying research findings to develop alternative transportation modes such as pedestrians, bicycles, and public transit. Evans is interested in engineering design and planning. Seraj hopes to work in developing countries in Asia, assisting in the planning of transportation infrastructure.
“I believe the education and knowledge I have gained at UT have undoubtedly prepared me for the future,” Gonzalez said.
For information on how to apply to the graduate program in Civil Engineering in order to become a part of CTR’s transportation research program, contact Kathy Rose, the CAEE Graduate Program Coordinator (512 232 1702, firstname.lastname@example.org). If you want to talk directly to students who are in the program or to alumni, join the CTR Facebook page and post a question to the page.
Written by Clair LaVaye, Technical Writer/Editor IV for the Center for Transportation Research.