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August 24, 2021Episode 15. Raising Them Right: Cultivating the next generation of transportation professionals.
FEATURING: Beverly Kuhn
Just as roads and bridges need regular reinforcement, so too do the professionals who help us travel safely and smoothly on our transportation network. Senior Research Engineer Beverly Kuhn explains how inspiring and guiding new ranks of practitioners can ensure our transportation system continues to support and improve upon our way of life.
About Our Guest
Senior Research Engineer
Beverly Thompson Kuhn is head of TTI's System Reliability Division. During more than 30 years at the Institute, Dr. Kuhn has developed diverse and extensive experience in the conduct and delivery of cutting-edge research for the transportation community. She specializes in transportation systems management and operations and technology transfer, and currently serves as vice president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (a Community of Transportation Professionals). She holds B.S. and M.Eng. degrees in civil engineering (CE) from Texas A&M University, as well as a Ph.D. in CE from Penn State University. She is a licensed Professional Engineer and a certified Project Management Professional.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:15):
Welcome to Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and what we need from one place to another and what it takes to make that happen. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:31):
Beverly Kuhn’s work is all about connection. There’s the engineering connection between vehicles and roadways. And then there’s the personal connection between her generation of professionals and the next generation — how to cultivate and promote the young practitioners who will grow into the specialists that our expanding transportation needs require. Why that’s important and how it’s done. Beverly’s focus on mentoring young engineers started when she was herself one of them years ago in college, taking the first steps that would eventually lead to her election as the international president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, an office that she will assume in January. Thanks for doing this, Beverly. We appreciate it.
Beverly Kuhn (guest) (01:19):
Oh, you’re welcome. I’m happy to do it.
Bernie Fette (01:22):
When I was getting ready for our conversation, and I was looking at your background, one of the things that caught my eye was how much of your more recent work is about connection, of a couple of different varieties. There’s the engineering connection between vehicles and roadways, connected infrastructure. And then there’s this personal connection between your generation of professionals and the next generation. We’re focusing today on the generational connection. So I just wanted to begin by asking you to describe what’s behind that, what it looks like, and what you aspire to do with that generational connection.
Beverly Kuhn (02:02):
So I really have to think back to when I started in the transportation field. I like to tell the story that when I was at Texas A&M as an undergraduate, I fell into transportation as a profession, or at least as a degree path. I needed a summer job. And my parents told me that if I wanted to stay and go to summer school, I needed that job. So I happened to be in the Civil Engineering Department, getting a schedule signed off like you used to back in those days, and asked the advisor who happened to be an ITE member, also an ITE president —
Bernie Fette (02:42):
Can you, yeah, it’s the Institute of Transportation Engineers, right?
Beverly Kuhn (02:45):
Yes. Institute of Transportation Engineers. Or as we like to say, we are a community of transportation professionals. Neil Rowan was the student advisor at that time. And he later became international president of ITE. And he worked for TTI (Texas A&M Transportation Institute). And he said, well, there’s a professor out in the hallway who might need student work. That was Don Woods, another ITE member and transportation faculty member. And he offered me an opportunity to come work for TTI. He said, send me a resume. And I think right then I realized there was this connection between the faculty and the students and their ongoing mentorship of those students to see themselves in the profession, in the future. And what role do they play in society? One of the things that I remember learning early on in the undergraduate department was the history of the transportation, the modern transportation infrastructure in the United States. On its surface, it’s not really exciting. You know, you’re learning a lot about the laws that went into place to fund the in the Interstate System. But one of the things that resonated with me early on was that close connection between what we do as transportation professionals and what impact it has on society — both positive in terms of offering mobility, but there’s also the negative side to the transportation infrastructure. And a lot of that is actually coming to the forefront now, in terms of looking back and how the infrastructure evolved and what impact it had on communities.
Bernie Fette (04:28):
The impact that you mentioned — is that the negative side that you were referring to?
Beverly Kuhn (04:32):
I would say yes, the negative side. When you hear stories about when the interstate was first constructed, that neighborhoods were divided by an interstate that went through a community that’s sort of the underbelly of, of our profession. And I remember it really resonated with me that it was disconcerting. It bothered me that we had inadvertently, or maybe overtly, depending on your point of view, had this negative impact on something that was really intended to be positive. We wanted to provide connection. We wanted to provide mobility. We had this ability to connect the communities and it had a negative impact that to this day still affects communities. And so when I finished my undergraduate degree and got a master’s degree at Texas A&M, I took some classes in the urban planning department. We had a close connection between those two departments, and I really wanted to understand that connection, that we cannot do what we do in a vacuum that everything transportation professionals do affects our communities in some way. And we have to have a really good understanding of that, of what we do. How does it impact others? Who do we need to work with to come up with a viable and optimal solution for our community? Because it may not be what the engineer thinks is the best route. We may need to work with communities, urban planners, landscape architects, city leaders, to figure out what’s truly best for our community. And so I think that’s really where that connection started is understanding that role.
Bernie Fette (06:15):
Yeah. I’m so glad that you started out with that because you just skipped forward to my third question that I had in mind. I was going to ask you to step into the time machine and go back honestly, and ask you how your experience as a young student might’ve informed the approach that you’re taking now.
Beverly Kuhn (06:33):
I like to tell the story that when I evidently decided in seventh grade, that I wanted to be a civil engineer, I had no idea that this is what I would do. Thought I wanted to build bridges and buildings. And once I had the opportunity to work for TTI, I really fell in love with operations. I just really thought it was exciting to figure out how do we optimize the network that we have? As I’ve conducted research and done a lot of really interesting things, I’ve also found it very satisfying to transfer that knowledge to professionals across the country. And that’s one of my favorite jobs is to go out and teach workshops and help make sure that the research that we do and that our peers do at other institutions gets into practice. Otherwise we have wasted time and money doing research if nobody’s going to benefit from it. And that’s the whole point of the research is to make it better. And so I just love being able to communicate with professionals about what’s something that we’ve come up with that can help them do their job and can make it better.
Bernie Fette (07:53):
What are you thinking, being where you are now, when you have the opportunity to have a student sitting in front of your desk in the same way that you were those years ago, what are some of the first thoughts that come to mind that you want to impart to that young person?
Beverly Kuhn (08:09):
I have the opportunity of mentoring some young members within ITE, and also we have a number of students here that are either in the undergraduate program or moving through the graduate program. So actually it’s an exciting time to be in transportation. What I try to convey to them and at least to discuss with them is what is it that moves them? What is passionate about their view on transportation and the society and what speaks to them? Is it the connection? Is it the technology? Is it sustainability, mobility, offering transportation solutions for all users? What is it that speaks to them? Because we all have something deep down that speaks to us that has pushed us to get into this profession.
Bernie Fette (09:05):
Beverly Kuhn (09:05):
I always like to say transportation professionals and a lot of civil engineers in general are the unsung heroes of our society. We do our job. And if we do our job well, nobody knows about it. The signals operate, the bridges are safe. There’s always power. There’s always clean water. You get where you need to go in one piece on time and everyone’s happy.
Bernie Fette (09:30):
Yeah. It’s because, you know, we expect things to work right. Because all of the people who have put so much effort into the system make them work right. So it’s, it’s so much easier, I guess, to notice when things go wrong?
Beverly Kuhn (09:43):
I think so. And what is it that motivates us to be in this profession? And I think sometimes it seems, it’s a really simple question to ask, but I think it helps a young student or a young professional, really try to hone in on what they’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes you just need to write it down. You need to verbalize it and understanding that can help them figure out what path they want to take as they go through their profession. Several of the young members that I’m mentoring and through the ITE program were all connected to me because they’re all thinking about going to graduate school and I’ve been down that path and I can offer some insights. And so that’s a lot of the conversations that we have on a monthly basis are about what do they intend for their career? What do they think they want to do?
Beverly Kuhn (10:39):
Do they want to go to graduate school? Do they not? What does that look like? And it’s a combination of having that conversation of the topic and the subject matter that you’re interested in and whether or not they want to pursue that in graduate school, but also sort of the global view from their personal perspective, because to take that step into graduate school, depending on where you are at in your personal life, can have different impacts on it. And so I think helping them navigate those questions. Do they want to go to school? Is it continue their education? Do they want to get a professional engineering license? That’s another question that we’ve talked about with a couple of them. Do you want to get that PE license and what does it take to get it? And how do you plan for that? Because the experience is a separate piece. So I think that’s one of the things I really enjoy about it is just helping them try to formulate that thought in terms of what is it that motivates them, because it really helps them chart their path.
Bernie Fette (11:40):
When you were talking about the little things or the rare things that go wrong in the midst of all the things that are going right, reminded me that just yesterday what I was reading, there was a comment by a surgeon who was talking about when he gets into actually performing surgery and is fixing what is wrong with that patient, that it’s very easy to get lost and overlook the multitude of things inside that patient that are going precisely as they’re supposed to be, and they’re going on their own. And it sounds a little like what you’re describing there, that you’ve got this system that is humming along because it was designed and constructed and engineered so well by these young people growing into their careers. And it’s easy to overlook that whenever some small thing goes wrong,
Beverly Kuhn (12:30):
Right. We do take it for granted that the whole system is going to work the way it was intended. And then when something goes wrong or doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, we have to step back and examine that. Is something that we’re struggling with right now is the whole safety aspect of it. During the pandemic, when traffic volumes were drastically reduced, especially in Texas, we still had fatalities every day. Well, why? What is it that is contributing to that? And what is it that we can do to at least mitigate that as much as possible? We do what we can to design a system that is as safe as possible, but you still have that happen. So how do we understand? Is there something we can improve? But then there’s also the whole issue of personal responsibility when you have drivers —
Bernie Fette (13:20):
Yeah, that’s another podcast.
Beverly Kuhn (13:22):
That’s a whole ‘nother podcast, but right. I think we forget that there’s so much that works so well and you really don’t have any problems with it. But I think what’s, what’s really relevant right now is our infrastructure has been humming along for the most part, without any catastrophic incidents for decades, but nothing lasts forever. And it has to be repaired. It has to be improved. It has to be replaced in the worst-case scenario. And there’s a cost associated and there’s resources, but it is an exciting time to be a transportation professional, because there are so many other things that we have at our disposal today that we didn’t have 75 years ago when the Interstate System began, technology being a backbone of so much of it.
Bernie Fette (14:12):
I’m wondering, does the emerging generation of young professionals that you’re working with that you’re mentoring, does that generation enjoy any advantages that you didn’t have when you started — never knowing of a world without the internet, for instance? Or any other advantages that maybe you didn’t have whenever you were getting started?
Beverly Kuhn (14:31):
Most definitely. I think probably the most valuable asset that they have accessible is data and what that data entails. I sat in on a presentation last week during the ITE annual meeting, it was a pilot study that some researchers had done to look at understanding the context related to pedestrian fatalities. We have information that’s readily available from crash reports, from law enforcement, and maybe interviews with individuals that were witnesses. But what these researchers were trying to tap into was information that would be beyond that crash report to understand the context. And they had gone in and used artificial intelligence to analyze media reports, newspaper articles, Twitter feeds — any sort of platform to understand what was happening with some of these fatalities. And it came to light that one example, which happened to be the best example that they could find it since it was a pilot study, was that this elderly woman had been a victim in a motor vehicle accident. She was a pedestrian. She was hit by a vehicle. She had stepped off the curb to get her mail out of her mailbox. And that was it. Not intending to be a pedestrian fatality. She was just going to the curb to get the mail, but she was struck and killed. And that kind of data mining is so powerful to really understand what is going on in the entire system. That when you just have somebody at the street corner, counting cars with a handheld counter, which is what we did back in college, it’s just really amazing. And I can only imagine what’s going to happen in the future as that data starts to be more readily available. And it’s just voluminous, but having that artificial intelligence to really be able to go in and understand what’s going on to help solve some of our challenges, I think is really, really exciting.
Bernie Fette (16:46):
So, the other side of the coin, do they face challenges unique to the time that you didn’t have to face?
Beverly Kuhn (16:54):
I think the flip side of that data question, that data availability is the sheer volume of it and understanding how to design a data mining system that can go in and actually extract what’s useful because there can be a lot of noise. There’s just so much of it. You really need to try and hone in on what’s important. But then today we’re very cognizant of privacy issues. That’s really in the forefront. And as technology starts to be part of the vehicle and continues to expand, what is it that the driver or the motorist or the traveler doesn’t want shared and lose the control over some of their personal data, whereas before they’re just driving their personal vehicle, they’re riding transit, they’re, you know, walking on the street.
Bernie Fette (17:47):
Right. That’s a line you’re still trying to figure out where to draw.
Beverly Kuhn (17:51):
Right. And, you know, cameras are everywhere, right? That’s the whole privacy issue; becomes more and more of a concern for just citizens in general, because they do want to maintain some of that privacy. And yet they’re providing data that could be very helpful to us, but how do we get it so their personal information is secure and they’re not having to worry about it?
Bernie Fette (18:13):
So, on one hand, not enough information. And on the other hand, maybe in some cases, way too much information, huh?
Beverly Kuhn (18:19):
I think so. And having to balance that is important, yeah. Another big difference between our profession today and where it was when I started is the number of women that are in decision-making roles and leadership positions within our profession. When I started in undergraduate school, there were women in the program, but there weren’t a large number. We had one female faculty member in the Civil Engineering Department and she was the first female faculty member, I believe, in the entire College of Engineering at that time. And so it was difficult to find female role models. What I did discover is that you had a lot of male faculty members who were an ally for the women in the program, they were the ones that were offering you research opportunities and work opportunities and encourage you to go on to graduate school or just into the profession.
Beverly Kuhn (19:20):
And were there in your corner. And I think that was very valuable. And all of the ones that I remember fondly were just wonderful for all of the women that were in the program. Over time, it has improved. The last time I taught in the Civil Engineering Department, there were quite a few more women in the classes than there were back when I was there. And we continue to focus on enhancing that diversity of our profession in general. And it is so much better than it used to be because one of the things that I think is very important in transportation is we serve our communities, and our profession needs to reflect the communities we serve. And so, if we are going to work with any kind of community, we need to be able to speak their language. And for them to see that we understand them, we are one of them and that we understand the challenges that they may face and the needs that they have for the transportation network. One of the things that’s very exciting now within ITE is next year, all three executive members, the vice president, the president, and the immediate past president will all be women, which is the first time in the history of the organization, which is over 90 years old, that that has happened. And we’re so excited because it just reflects a recognition that we’re part of the community and that we have the opportunity to lead this organization and our peers.
Bernie Fette (20:52):
That sounds like a genuine takeover opportunity. But, you know, listening to you describe what you’re trying to do and what everybody else that you’re working with is trying to do for the next generation, the sincerity and the genuine nature of what you’re trying to do for these young people comes through very clearly. But there’s also a practical side to this because you have to bring along a group of professionals to follow in your footsteps, if we’re going to continue to have a vibrant transportation system in this country. Fair to say?
Beverly Kuhn (21:29):
That is very fair to say. ITE has two initiatives that we are focused on. And one of them that really gets to the heart of growing the next generation of transportation professionals. And one of them is our student member to young member program. And we’re trying to make sure we have a connection between the student members in the chapters across the country and ushering them in, into the organization as a full member and getting them engaged in all of our activities so that they find a role they feel at home and that they have a voice in our organization and the profession in general. One of the other initiatives that we have is focused on diversity and inclusion. And to my earlier point, that our profession needs to reflect the communities that we serve, I have personally taken on as one of my missions for the next year or two is to tap into professional societies that are primarily targeted at, or engage with minority groups to give them an opportunity to start a dialogue with us.
Beverly Kuhn (22:39):
A couple of them are the American Indian Science and Engineering society, which is for Native Americans, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. So those are three organizations that all have students and professionals, and they are a broader group in terms of professionals that aren’t just civil engineers. And even to a smaller extent, transportation engineers, because we’re a subset of civil engineers. But what we are trying to do is start a discussion with them and partnership opportunities to show that transportation is a viable career path for anyone in their membership. That if you’re interested about providing mobility and safety and connectivity for your communities, we have an opportunity for you that we are involved in our communities. We’re committed to advancing all of our citizens because when we do our jobs, well, everyone succeeds. Because we provide people with a community, access to jobs, access to health care, access to recreational activities, and we support our communities. And so that’s one of the things that I’m very excited about is starting to get connected with these organizations because we have an opportunity that they can take advantage of.
Bernie Fette (24:08):
Looking at that, what you were just describing, from a slightly different viewpoint, what happens if we don’t prepare that next generation of leaders, or if we don’t do in your mind a sufficient job, then what happens?
Beverly Kuhn (24:23):
That’s a great question. If we don’t make this investment in the next generation of professionals, we’re just going to continue down the path of exploding congestion, lack of economic security in communities. We’re going to continue to have 30,000-plus fatalities a year on our roads. Negative impacts on the environment. Just so many negative things that are just too catastrophic to think about, if you were to look, you know, 50 years in the future. If we don’t do our job well, then we’re just going to continue to struggle. It’s imperative that we really take this holistic view of the infrastructure and how we need to make it better to serve the needs of our communities. And that may not necessarily be, add three more lanes to an interstate.
Bernie Fette (25:20):
Right. And the consequences that you’re mentioning are societal.
Beverly Kuhn (25:24):
Bernie Fette (25:24):
They are nationwide and on a very large scale, but they also happen on a very personal scale. The congestion that you talk about for instance, could impede the trip to the emergency room for a member of your family. I mean, everything you’ve described can be global, or it can be very, very individual.
Beverly Kuhn (25:43):
Exactly. And I would hazard to guess that there’s not a single one among us who hasn’t known somebody who’s been in a severe traffic accident or has been killed in an accident in our lifetime. I personally have had multiple family members and friends, either injured or killed in a car wreck for whatever reason. And it’s so personal. So once it happens to you, it’s just devastating. And you just want to do everything you can to make that go away. One fatality is too many; but we also want to be able to have our children walk to school or ride their bikes safely in their neighborhood, or be able to go to a park. You want our neighbors to be able to have jobs and access to those jobs and that if they choose to not own a vehicle, that they can still get to their job and be a contributing member of our society, ’cause that’s all, any of us want. We just want to contribute to society and live our lives in the way that we want to. And when the transportation infrastructure fails at providing that access to them, we’re all impacted.
Bernie Fette (26:52):
It sounds like the mentoring work that you do, it’s going to take a lot of hours if you do it at the level of quality and dedication that you want to — maybe even close to a second full-time job at certain times. What keeps you motivated to keep pushing?
Beverly Kuhn (27:08):
I think I just see the potential in every new professional and every young student. I try to remember that how excited I was when I started my career and that there are just a wealth of opportunities and you never know where the next fabulous idea is going to come from and what every young person brings to the profession is different. They bring a different perspective and may have just some phenomenal solution to a problem that I would have never thought of, but can meet the needs of their neighbors and their family and just anyone navigating society. I think it’s just so exciting and there’s so much potential out there. I think of my great grandmother who, when she was young, still traveled by horse and buggy and she lived to see the space age in her lifetime. And I just can’t even imagine what we’re going to see in the next 30, 40, 50 years. And I just can’t wait to see it and hope that maybe I’ve had an impact on somebody coming up with some really cool widget or transportation solution that solves a lot of problems and helps everyone.
Bernie Fette (28:25):
Yeah. 20 years from now, you get to look at somebody standing on a stage, accepting some accolade for some major achievement they’ve made and you get to think back and say, “ah, I remember her, I remember him.”
Beverly Kuhn (28:40):
Bernie Fette (28:40):
Beverly Kuhn, senior research engineer, and connection guru for TTI. Thank you for doing this, Beverly. This has been fun.
Beverly Kuhn (28:51):
My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.
Bernie Fette (28:55):
Just as roads and bridges periodically need new reinforcements, so do the professionals whose career purpose is to help us all travel safely and smoothly. And only by enlisting and training new ranks of practitioners can we ensure that our transportation systems will continue supporting an economy and quality of life that we have come to expect.
Bernie Fette (29:16):
Thanks for listening. And please join us again for the next episode, when we visit with Ipek Sener. As technology continues to reshape the ways in which we get around every day, Ipek’s work focuses on the newest transformative mobility options and how to ensure that marginalized populations don’t miss out on their many benefits.
Bernie Fette (29:44):
Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. See you next time.