Graduate Group in Transportation Technology and Policy Turns 15

By Jamie Knapp • J Knapp Communications

After 15 years, Professor Pat Mokhtarian is stepping aside as chair of the Graduate Group in Transportation Technology and Policy (TTP).

“It’s healthy to say, ‘it’s someone else’s turn,’” says the modest professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who was the founding chair and has led TTP as chair and graduate advisor.

Mokhtarian, who has provided strategic direction for the graduate group, guided its students and tracked the day-to-day administrative needs, will stay on as graduate advisor. She also remains as associate director for education at ITS-Davis.

Since the unique, multidisciplinary program was approved by the UC Office of the President in February 1997, UC Davis has awarded 80 master’s degrees and 36 Ph.D.s in TTP. Roughly 10 to 15 new students enroll each year.

Even though five students were waiting to enroll from day one, Mokhtarian says it has been tricky to promote the program because its offerings don’t fit neatly into traditional academic categories. Most university graduate transportation programs focus on hard-core engineering studies, or constitute a specialization within a discipline such as economics or geography.

“In most graduate fields there are clear channels from which to recruit undergrads and places you advertise your program to prospective graduate students,” she says. “But because our program is so diverse, there is no efficient way to reach our potential market.”

TTP has relied heavily on word of mouth, drawing students from academic backgrounds as varied as English, history, psychology, geography, marketing, government and sociology, in addition to more common paths including engineering and economics. That diversity, says Mokhtarian, is the key to TTP’s success.

“TTP, by design, was made available to any grad student of any major whatsoever,” she says. “That’s our secret weapon. The fact that we have these different students all working together, socializing and educating their geeky engineering professors with multidisciplinary perspectives, has created research teams and products and ideas that wouldn’t have happened anywhere else. And that makes us unique and exciting.”

Mokhtarian credits ITS-Davis Director Dan Sperling for proposing and gaining university approval of TTP.

“I think Dan and I make a great team. He has the ideas and the vision. I have complementary skills and some inclination for day-to-day management and organization. You need both.”

Sperling returns the compliment.

“Pat has been an extraordinary leader and mentor. Her commitment and focus have elevated TTP into a premier graduate program.”

Mokhtarian says TTP received a fortuitous boost early on from the prestigious five-year National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant, which she led. IGERT provided fellowships for TTP students and other transportation students across campus. It enabled UC Davis to compete for outstanding graduate students who otherwise might have been attracted to a more traditional engineering school.

Looking forward, Mokhtarian sees a need and an opportunity for TTP to strengthen both its technology and its policy offerings.

“It’s ironic that our technology students think we overemphasize the policy side and our policy students think we overemphasize the technology side,” Mokhtarian notes. The students’ perceptions point to a need for additional lab space and technically oriented faculty, and for a stronger presence in urban planning, economics, integrated land use and transportation modeling, she says.

She also looks forward to having more time to devote to her travel behavior research and her students. She currently advises nine students.

“I wouldn’t trade my interactions with students for anything. My legacy is in the lives of the students that I advise and teach, and in the training I give so they can be well-equipped, critical thinkers.”

Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor John Harvey has agreed to be the new TTP chair. In passing the baton, Mokhtarian says she is looking forward to a new era of growth and development for TTP.

“John is just the right person to carry us forward at this time.”

Photo: Professor Pat Mokhtarian with her graduate students, November 2012 (Dorian Toy – UC Davis)