Kara Kockelman

Current Position: Professor of Transportation Engineering at University of Texas at Austin
Kara Kockelman
Highlight "Engineering requires a fresh, clean mind to cut through the trees and see the forest. It's like the story of a big truck that won't fit under a low bridge by an inch or two, and the "experts" are going crazy trying to figure out how to get the truck under the bridge.  A child walks up & suggests simply letting air out of the truck's tires. Problem solved!"
December 4, 2005Her job: Civil Engineer, University of Texas at Austin
Describe what you do in your current work situation? I teach college students about transportation engineering, which includes design of roadways (for example, how tight the curves can be and what speeds are safe), how to best obtain and use new data (on injuries sustained in car crashes, traveler preferences for different vehicle types, & so forth), and how to predict the future (using models of traveler behavior and location choices of businesses and households).
Why did you choose engineering? Math and science subjects came more easily to me, and I knew a lot of people had enjoyed their engineering studies (including my brothers), so it seemed very natural. I chose civil engineering because I wanted to assist local, national and global communities, through thoughtful planning, projects and policies.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? I attended the University of California at Berkeley for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I have a bachelors degree in civil engineering, with a special minor in economics. In graduate school, I received masters degrees in both civil engineering and city and regional planning, with minors in statistics and economics. I also took several operations research courses for background in use of optimization tools.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? During the school year I teach three to six hours each week. I also host several office hours each week, in order to speak more directly with students in my classes, and with those undertaking research with me. We tackle all sorts of interesting and relevant questions, like whether SUVs are more dangerous than passenger cars, whether bypasses around towns do any harm to the local economy, how the trade flows across Texas are affected by travel networks, and how quickly households are likely to buy plug-in vehicles and how far they are likely to drive them each day.  We university faculty enjoy a tremendous number of opportunities to interact with and support our students, and these activities are always highly rewarding. For example, I used to supervise the Engineers Without Borders student group, which had projects in Mexico and Cameroon. Several times a year, I enjoy technical conferences at a continuing series of wonderful destinations, including Japan, Australia, Switzerland, and Italy; and I regularly interact with transportation engineers in far-flung locations, like Singapore, Turkey, India and Argentina. I also propose new research, which helps fund the work and studies of new graduate students, and I am asked to critically review recent and proposed research. Finally, I deliver talks on transportation engineering topics to a variety of people -- including policymakers, members of the news media, colleagues and the public at large.
What do you like best about being an engineer? I really enjoy being able to rigorously and mathematically attack social problems to arrive at sound solutions that are objective and precise. The work that I do is relevant, with immediate and long-term benefits.  I will never regret that I obtained a quantitative education (with many math and science courses), since such material is quite difficult to master on one's own, particularly later in life. Engineers tend to have little problem picking up many of the non-technical nuances that go with addressing all sorts of problems. We tend to be very effective at finding solutions to things like congestion, crashes, and other sources of inefficiency in society.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? I believe that top engineers have to thoughtfully recognize the non-engineering aspects of problems, including human biases and social expectations. They need to be able to appreciate others' preferences and beliefs, and communicate their ideas in a manner that effectively bridges competing perspectives. This can be difficult for highly objective thinkers, but such challenges are the spice of life!
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? I want to be able to predict the evolution of cities, as a function of transportation investments and public policy, so as to enhance decision-making and minimize uncertainty. I also want to solve the problem of congestion on our roadways by introducing something called credit-based pricing. Under this policy, people are given money credits to drive each month -- but they must use many of these credits to drive popular roads at peak times. This avoids wasteful congestion delays and makes people consider the full impact of their driving behaviors. People who use buses or drive during off-peak times of day can earn special benefits; others will spend more than their initial budget -- but will avoid delays. And, of course, the roads will operate much more efficiently.  Finally, I would like to see all countries, and particularly the United States, comply with the Kyoto Protocol and its successor.  Transportation, trade, housing, and location choice decisions have enormous impacts on our nation's carbon emissions, and we can and should be meeting those targets. Engineering research and policy recommendations may well make such dreams a reality.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices? My husband and my family, no doubt. (Thank goodness for them!)  More recently, a colleague of mine (Dr. Hani Mahmassani) has had a terrific influence. Also, I was very fortunate that the U.S. Department of Transportation sponsored fellowships for young civil engineering students at the University of California, Berkeley, in order to move me quickly in that direction (back in 1990).