Alumni Spotlight: Katherine Kortum
Name: Katherine Kortum
Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA
Currently Residing: Washington, DC
Current job: Senior Program Officer, Transportation Research Board
Graduated from UT: PhD in 2012
Hobbies outside of work: I read quite a bit, and one of the perks of my place in DC is that I am two blocks from a library. And like a lot of us, I’m always plotting my next travel adventure, which I’ve been known to describe as “analyzing the coordination between inter- and intra-city transportation networks in a variety of regional contexts.”
What projects did you work on while you were at CTR?
I was a student of Randy Machemehl’s, and worked on a few different projects. My master’s thesis and then my dissertation work, both of which looked at carsharing, focused on the car2go program which, at the time, was brand new to North America and had launched in Austin. Of course, at the end of my dissertation, I could barely stand to see the cars on the street because I was so sick of the topic, but that’s faded. I’ve now spent most of the past decade working, at least in part, on topics related to shared mobility
How did your time here prepare you for your career?
The classes at UT exposed me to a broad array of transportation topics, and I didn’t fully appreciate that variety until I left. The connections that UT offers, starting with relationships with the professors, have led to all sorts of opportunities for me as well. I didn’t realize just how very well-connected Dr. Walton is until I got into the transportation policy world in DC. Having “Mike” (which everyone else calls him, though to me he will always be Dr. Walton) on my side has opened a lot of doors.
What CTR relationships have proved the most significant?
The friends I made in grad school are lifelong friends. My fellow grad students are now professors and consultants and doing endlessly interesting things. We stay in touch, both for life events like birthdays and kids and weddings, and for work challenges. I’ve traveled around the world with some of them. The TRB Annual Meeting, when so many of them come back into town for several days, is effectively a family reunion that I look forward to every year.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The best part about working at the Transportation Research Board is all of the top-notch volunteers I work with. Our committees are made up of some of the best and brightest people in the transportation world, and they’re often working on some of the most cutting-edge projects. As TRB staff, I work closely with these innovators and executives and they consider me their equal.
What got you interested in transportation?
Brio train sets, for one thing. Plotting out a neighborhood of Legos and dollhouses. Driving across the country to visit relatives, some of whom live in places where I got to ride a subway. Listening to traffic reports on the radio and wondering “there’s always a slowdown there – why don’t they do something about it?”.
What advice do you have for students considering a career in transportation engineering?
Pay attention to what’s going on at the federal level. Surface transportation reauthorization bills are really important to understanding the country’s priorities. People and politicians can say whatever they want, but what they choose to fund tells the real story.
Also, if you enter the working world with a strong understanding of modeling, you will be ahead of 95% of people in the transportation industry. To most people, it’s just a black box. You don’t have to retain all of the details and nuance, but an understanding of the process of four-step and activity-based modeling will make you stand out in a crowd.
What achievement in your professional life are you proudest of?
I’m about to complete an MBA, which is an interesting complement to having a PhD in engineering. Not to get ahead of myself because I still have two classes to finish, but getting that degree while still working full time feels like an accomplishment. In 2015, I also was accepted into a year-long fellowship program in Germany, the Bosch Fellowship, during which I lived in Berlin and worked with a German-based research organization. It’s terrifying and exhilarating to move abroad for a while, but was an astounding personal and professional experience.