Sunday, October 28, 2012

Faces of Science: Engineering, snow storms and transportation systems

This is the forth of a series of blogs about women in science at the University of Wyoming, as we initiate our new NSF-funded program.Throughout the year we will be blogging about women in engineering, earth sciences, biological sciences and beyond. 

Dr. Young in Gulfoss, Iceland last May.
                The first significant snow storm of the year blanketed the town yesterday, reminding us all of the importance of knowing road conditions for winter travel. Wind, snow and ice create treacherous conditions, and accurate information is essential for safe travel. Most people probably don’t know that the road condition alerts and warnings around Laramie come from a collaborative effort between the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) and an engineer at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Rhonda Young provides data analysis and algorithms to the WYDOT Traffic Management Center in Cheyenne to help them provide better information to travelers.
“We keep trying to provide information faster and have it be more reliable,” Dr. Young says.
Dr. Young is a professor in Civil and Architectural Engineering at UW. Her area of expertise is transportation systems, specifically in operating rural facilities in extreme weather conditions. With snow almost nine months a year and high winds year around, Laramie is the perfect place for Dr. Young’s research interests.
When she began her research, Dr. Young found that the digital road sign on I-80 east outside of Laramie read ‘slick in spots’ for eight and a half months straight.
“That doesn’t really mean anything,” Dr. Young says. “People aren’t going to change their travel or make any decisions because the sign says that.”
Dr. Young also found that signs reading ‘high winds’ have little meaning, especially for travelers who are unaccustomed to the high wind gusts Laramie sees. In order to help WYDOT provide travelers with more meaningful information, Dr. Young uses engineering and math to evaluate road conditions. She provides this information to the Traffic Management Center so they can post messages on highway signs that tell travelers more exact information. Dr. Young’s work in developing algorithms makes the Traffic Management Center decisions more data driven so they are faster to respond, provides more useful information, and makes the response more consistent from storm to storm.
“We still have trouble because people who aren’t from here don’t really understand what it means to be driving when it’s gusting sixty miles per hour, but at least they have some information to rely on,” Dr. Young says.
Her work, nonetheless, has helped WYDOT ensure safety for Laramie travelers year around. Their efforts help travelers weigh the risks of travel and make appropriate decisions. This impact on society is what Dr. Young was looking for in high school when she started thinking about a career.
Dr. Young found out about civil engineering one day when she walked into her high school career counselor’s office.
“I just sort of stumbled upon it,” Dr. Young says. “Most engineers are engineers because their dad was an engineer. Especially on the male side of it, it’s much more of a family history thing, and I didn’t have that.”
What Dr. Young did have however, was an interest in transportation systems and a solid understanding of math and science. Civil engineering synthesized her strengths and interests while allowing her to benefit society.
“I liked the idea of civil engineering still being related to society,” Dr. Young says. “You can talk to people about it.”
Dr. Young pursued a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and then worked in the field for 12 years. She wanted to be a teacher, but she found that when she was in school, her favorite teachers were the ones who had worked professionally first. Her experience in the public sector has informed her classroom instruction and helped to present the softer side of engineering to her students but showing them the importance of relating engineering problems to public concerns.
“You take your engineering answer to the public and then you can’t understand how they can’t just love what you’ve done,” Dr. Young says. “It is sort of sobering to be like, ‘Oh, I never thought of it that way,’ when the public sees the problem differently.”
Working in the public sector verses the private sector allowed Dr. Young insight into working with and benefiting communities, much as she does today with her current research.
“The political process of the public sector slowed things down, we didn’t get as much built, but it was more about making sure communities were livable and bike-able,” Dr. Young says.  “It fit more with my values than just building, like in the private sector. In the private sector you calculate and you get an answer, but what does that mean? There are lots of different sides to the story.”
Dr. Young presents all these sides in her classes. She wants her students to realize how many options they have as civil engineers, where they can work as anything from an engineer on a rapid transit train in the city all the way to being the city engineer in a little town or 10,000 people.
“That’s pretty rare for engineering in general to allow you to pick what kind of lifestyle you want,” Dr. Young says.
Because of the diversity of options, most civil engineers find jobs after graduation whether it’s in the public sector, private sector or academia. The opportunity to pick the kind of lifestyle you want and the ability to help society are huge benefits of the field, especially for women.
At UW there are very few women studying civil engineering because of the architectural engineering degree which attracts more women, but nationwide there are a lot of women in civil engineering, especially in transportation systems.
As an instructor in the field, Dr. Young says that confidence is key for students, especially female students.
“There is a recognition that female students bring a certain skill set to the class and the field, whether it’s thinking about a problem differently or keeping things organized or asking different sorts of questions,” Dr Young says. “But usually they are quite good students and they are quite assertive.”
While women are very successful both as students and as professionals in civil engineering, it is important that they be aware of how they personally deal with problems and working environments. This is a lesson Dr. Young learned after leaving the public sector and starting in academia. Women tend to be team players, she says, but she had to learn to be protective of her time, especially when she was going through the tenure process.
“The tenure process is really strange because it’s a black and white mark that says ‘we’re either going to hire you for life or we’re not,’” Dr. Young says. “So, they put you through seven years of really testing you.”
This environment was drastically different than the encouraging, positive atmosphere of the public sector, because it tends to be more critical. Being critical is necessary because the department has to ensure that you can do everything due to the weight and high status that comes with the tenure decision.
Dr. Young also faced an odd environment when she began at UW because there had never been a tenured woman in the UW College of Engineering.
“It was a little bit strange for me because I thought, ‘where did they all go?’,” Dr. Young said.
Today, there are several tenured women in the college, included Dr. Young. She was the third tenured woman in the college and the first in the Civil and Architectural Engineering Department. During the tenure process, Dr. Young had her first son, which many people questioned, but Dr. Young showed that balancing, hard work and determination can overcome any perceived barrier and any doubt people may have about you. 

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo courtesy of Dr. Rhonda Young 



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