Alumni Profile: Alison Conway
Name: Alison Conway
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Currently Residing: New York, NY
Current job: Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at the City College of New York and Associate Director for New Initiatives at the Region 2 University Transportation Research Center (UTRC).
Graduated from UT: 2009
Hobbies outside of work: Traveling, bicycling, random recreational sports, photography, recently started to learn to play the Irish fiddle (poorly).
What is it like to teach transportation engineering at the college level?
At CCNY, I teach undergraduate and graduate level courses in transportation planning and transportation systems engineering. I especially like teaching the introductory courses because often undergraduate students have no idea what “transportation engineers” do; I am usually the first professor to try to convince them to concentrate in the field. The best thing about being a professor is having the opportunity to work with great students and seeing them move on to future success. I was very fortunate to have undergraduate professors who allowed me to get involved in research, so I am very happy when I have the opportunity to involve interested students in my projects. One of my first undergraduate research assistants, Diniece Peters, just finished her Master’s at UT. The other things that I like best about the research aspects of my job are having the opportunity to work on unique projects and being able to interact with and collaborate with others from around the country and around the world examining the same problems in very different contexts.
What is one of the most interesting areas of discussion in your specific field of expertise today?
One emerging area I have been excited to study lately has been how to address new challenges for goods movement in bicycle-friendly cities. In recent years, transportation planning and urban design have become very focused on encouraging bicycle and pedestrian travel in urban areas (including New York) through installation of bicycle and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, implementation of bicycle friendly policies, and introduction of bike-share programs. These efforts have generally been successful in their intended purpose – shifting commuters to bikes; however, they have also inadvertently created many new challenges for the trucks needed to support the cities’ economies and livelihoods. When roads are designed with a primary focus on bicyclists, the resulting infrastructure is often unfriendly to trucks, with reduced curb access, difficult-to-maneuver turns, and increased potential for accidents with non-motorized travelers. The most interesting thing about this area of conflict is that the more successful communities are in becoming dense and non-motorized travel dependent, the more dependent they will also become on fast and reliable goods movement to nearby businesses and directly to residences (for example, delivery of groceries purchased online). As a freight researcher who also likes to bike, I’d like to contribute to identifying solutions that will allow these modes to coexist harmoniously. Fortunately, I have convinced some fellow UT alums – Nick Lownes (University of Connecticut) and Jeff Lamondia (Auburn University) – to work with me in this area.
Why did you choose to pursue your graduate studies at UT/CTR?
I applied to UT at the suggestion of my undergraduate advisor, who identified it as one of the top programs. When I came to visit, the faculty, staff, and students were unbelievably welcoming – I will never forget that Lisa Macias drove me to the airport at 5:30 in the morning on a Sunday to catch my flight home! The atmosphere of CTR and the Civil Engineering department, in addition to the great academic and research programs (not to mention the 70 degree weather in February), made choosing UT a pretty easy decision.
What did you get out of your time at CTR? How did your time here prepare you for your career?
At CTR, I had to the opportunity to work on a number of complex projects with a really diverse group of experts and other students. I worked on proposals and projects with my advisor, as well as with CTR researchers with expertise in economics, policy, and law, and I was able to learn a tremendous amount from them. I was also given the opportunity to generate some of my own proposals, which was invaluable experience when I had to so do as a faculty member. I also learned from Dr. Walton’s advice and example the importance of interacting with and getting involved in the professional community; this guidance has been critical in allowing me to build a professional network of mentors and colleagues.
What projects did you work on while you were at CTR?
I spent six years at UT for my master’s and Ph.D. so I had the opportunity to work on a lot of interesting projects – mostly related to freight policy and ITS applications – with my advisor Dr. Mike Walton, and with great support from Vicki Simpson. My master’s thesis and the first two projects that I worked on focused on ITS applications for commercial vehicle size and weight enforcement and security. My dissertation research focused on road pricing for commercial vehicles. I also was able to work on some large team projects at CTR, including a study looking at the potential for heavier and longer-combination vehicles in Texas. On that project I had the opportunity to work with many researchers at CTR, including Rob Harrison and Jolanda Prozzi.
How did you become interested in transportation engineering?
It is hard to define exactly when I decided to become an engineer, but my mom would probably tell you it was in kindergarten when I managed to get both myself and my parents in trouble by going to blocks every day instead of rotating through all of the play stations. My family includes lots of mathematicians and scientists – my mom is a math professor, my dad is a dentist and former chemistry teacher, and my grandfather was a chemical engineer. In high school, I liked math, science, and art so I became interested in architecture and structural engineering. Like most civil engineers, I started college thinking I wanted to build bridges and buildings, but I changed my concentration to transportation after I was assigned a project focused on Intelligent Transportation Systems during my undergraduate technical writing class at the University of Delaware.
What advice do you have for students considering a career in transportation engineering?
Transportation engineering is a great field because there is almost never an easy answer to a transportation problem. Transportation engineers do use use math and physics and develop new technologies and materials to “solve” problems, but we also have to consider the diverse needs and uncertainties of different users and stakeholders as well as often conflicting and rapidly changing social, economic, and environmental goals. Transportation engineering is not a field for those who like simple answers, but rather for those looking to be constantly challenged to find new solutions to complex problems.