NITC "Shape Your Transportation Career" With Jen Duthie, City of Austin

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Last month we hosted another online student event in our new series, "Shape Your Transportation Career" with NITC Advisory Board Member Jen Duthie of the City of Austin. Our first event featured Cameron Kergaye of the Utah DOT. Students on NITC campuses get the opportunity to ask our board members about their careers, experience at university, and advice on how to succeed in the transportation industry.

Jen Duthie, PE, PhD leads the Arterial Management Division (AMD) of the City of Austin Transportation Department. AMD is responsible for the design, construction, and maintenance of traffic signals and related systems, as well as managing traffic in real-time through the Mobility Management Center. Dr. Duthie is a Professional Engineer and has a doctorate in Civil Engineering. Prior to working at the City of Austin, she led a research group at The University of Texas at Austin Center for Transportation Research that specialized in building innovative models for current and forecasted traffic flow.

When you were new in your role, and felt like you didn't know everything, what was the learning process like for you?

"There was a lot of imposter syndrome. I was coming from an environment where I had a significant amount of expertise in a very specific area. My research group specialized in dynamic traffic assignment, and I could talk about that for days. I went into the interview for the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) engineering position, and they asked questions like, did I know about a certain type of fiber used in communications with traffic signals, and I was honest about it: I didn't know the first thing. But they were confident in my abilities generally and my capacity to fill in the gaps. I've been there for three years now and I feel like I have a good sense of what I'm doing at this point, but it was really challenging to be patient with myself. Just be confident in yourself. The opportunity to learn something new in a role is a positive thing."

Is there anything in your educational experience that you wish you had learned? What really helped you in your professional career?

"I wish that my graduate studies had been more collaborative. I cultivated this urgency to know everything and figure things out myself, which I’m now unlearning. Knowing how to effectively build and work on teams is a critical skill. There were group projects, but the PhD process can be very isolating. People compete with each other...that's just sort of part of it. It incentivized solo work and solo performance. But I now know that I do my best work when I'm bouncing ideas off of different people and not worrying about who gets credit. My graduate studies, for all the great things they gave me, also instilled some qualities that I'm working to shed. 

To answer the second part of your question: in my undergraduate degree I studied civil engineering, focusing on operations and applied math. I loved math, so when I took transportation engineering I thought it was the best - because it's math, but you're working on issues relating to people. When I did my graduate studies at UT Austin, the urban planning department held a weekly forum, and I was blown away by all the important issues that you can't really put into models. It was so great to have that multidisciplinary exposure, and those discussions directly informed my professional work. I feel like NITC does a really good job of taking a cross-disciplinary approach to transportation, so I think you all are pretty fortunate."

Have you worked on any collaborative efforts with people in the community or with other transportation professionals?

"To be honest, I haven't done a lot of community engagement in my role, so I can't really speak to that. For the operations side, or traffic signals, right or wrong we tend to say, "this is an engineering problem." We put these solutions out across the city, as opposed to single projects like a downtown revitalization. There isn’t that community engagement piece, but now we're starting to question that more and more. 

The collaboration piece with other transportation professionals is something I can speak to. We had a 2016 bond election where we allocated $720 million to upgrade 9 corridors, completely rebuilding them. It was a very collaborative effort across many departments. We're constantly building new connections. For example, the signals group is now coordinating with our active transportation folks. In many cities that's not the case."

Earlier you touched on how transportation engineering is a mixture of both math and the human element. Can you think of an experience where something you engineered became altered from your original vision because of that human element?

"All the time! That's part of the reason I made the career shift that I did. I enjoyed modeling but I really wanted to explore that unknown. We have to make so many assumptions when we model, and that is important, but they're never fully representative of reality. During my graduate studies I took a six month break and worked for a metropolitan planning organization because I was stuck. In my dissertation I was working on the network design problem, which is like an optimization problem of if we needed to add capacity to the network and we had a constrained budget to do it, where would we put it? You can think about it for roads, or sidewalks, but if you had a one million dollar budget, where in the city would you make improvements? It just wasn't fulfilling to do it at that level. I really wanted to know, how do people actually make these decisions? So I took six months off and went to work at North Central Texas Council of Governments. They do most of their work in-house, which is unique - many MPO's are more consultant-based. I wanted to be where funding decisions were made and priorities set. It's really messy and involves a lot of politics. As engineers we ignore that at our peril, or at the risk of our projects not being successful."

Did you have a specific job goal in mind before starting your PhD?

"I wanted to pursue an academic career; that was my original goal. Upon graduation, I had a tenure-track job offer but ended up, for family reasons, needing to stay in Austin. So I adapted and took a job at UT's division of statistics and scientific computation. I did that for a few years. But I missed using my skills; I worked so many years to become an expert in a certain area, and I really care about transportation, so I started doing research on the side. My PhD advisor left UT to take a job in Australia, and he had started up a research group which would do modeling work for a few public agencies. So I stepped in and brought it into fruition as he was transitioning out. It was fortuitous. It's very hard to be a non-tenure track researcher, because you're 100% reliant on the money that you bring in. We developed more contractual relationships and brought in more researchers. The research group had about 15 people when I left. But eventually I felt like my role had changed to that of a salesperson. I was spending a lot of time meeting with clients to bring in research dollars. It was hard to focus on research when I had to constantly be going after my own funds. Then I made the transition, which I talked about earlier, to the city of Austin. I really like working in the public sector because it helps you understand the problems. Even if one doesn't stay there, just to have some experience working in the public sector is very valuable."

Are there any organizations or networking events you would recommend students become involved in?

"The major one - the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) - I used to be very involved in. I was on three different committees. I was always sort of overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information at TRB, but I think getting involved in TRB committees that are in your interest group is very useful. Not only for networking, but often a lot of those committees have specialty conferences which are great because they are targeted at people who are passionate about that specific area. Participate in the committee work. That's where the discussion happens."

Our next NITC Shape Your Transportation Career advisory session will be held later this fall. Any current student studying transportation (including 2020 grads) at any one of NITC's six partner universities* is invited to attend.

*The National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC) is one of seven U.S. Department of Transportation national university transportation centers. NITC is a program of the Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) at Portland State University. This PSU-led research partnership also includes the Oregon Institute of Technology, University of Arizona, University of Oregon, University of Texas at Arlington and University of Utah. We pursue our theme — improving mobility of people and goods to build strong communities — through research, education and technology transfer.

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