Written by Calvin Tuttle
Every year, each USDOT-funded University Transportation Center (UTC) selects a Student of the Year which is awarded at the Council of University Transportation Centers (CUTC) banquet in January. Selected students receive a flight and hotel accommodations in D.C., as well as a pass to the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting. This year, the Center for Connected and Automated Transportation has nominated Alex Sundt, PhD candidate under Yafeng Yin, Ph.D.
Alexander joined the program at the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2018 after receiving his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California-Berkeley. He serves as a graduate research assistant to Professor Yin and is the current President of the Michigan Transportation Student Organization (MiTSO). Alex’s thesis title is ‘Improving the Efficiency of Ride-Hailing Systems Using Ride-Pooling’ and his research interests include emerging mobility systems for mixed-use applications. Alex met with CCAT Marketing Coordinator, Calvin Tuttle, to discuss his research and nomination.
Calvin: Can you tell us about your research here at the University of Michigan?
Alex: I’m a fourth-year PhD student at the University of Michigan, and I work with Professor Yafeng Yin in the Lab for Innovative Mobility Systems.
Calvin: Where did you grow up?
Alex: I’m from Middletown, New Jersey and I did my undergrad at UC-Berkeley.
Calvin: Do you have any hobbies outside of transportation research?
Alex: I love to go hiking. I have visited a lot of National Parks around the country, so I love traveling, hiking, and being outdoors.
Calvin: What’s your favorite National Park?
Alex: Glacier in Montana was so amazing! The color of the water there is insanely blue/green. It’s really cool.
Calvin: Is there a single moment that lead you on the path to transportation engineering?
Alex: I’ve been thinking about this: it’s really hard to identify a single moment. Initially, I was really interested in smart cities and the idea that we can use software and sensors to make all of the infrastructure in our daily life more intelligent. That slowly transformed into a focus on transportation. I think I had a realization at one point that transportation touches literally everything in our lives. And everyone. You need to get around – mobility is such an important aspect of life. In addition to human movement, there’s also cargo movement and shipping. On top of that was the realization that I really like working with spatial data and maps. That all combined, made me realize that transportation has this huge effect and also is an area I really like working in.
Calvin: What role are you currently playing in CCAT research?
Alex: I had been looking into using mean-field games, which are essentially modeling game-theoretic principles and agent interactions at a more macroscopic level, and using that to look at transportation systems both in terms of how humans respond to departure time changes and traffic as well as using automated vehicles (AVs) to control that. We have these moving actuators in the system, and how do we use that to control the responses of human-driven vehicles (HDVs).
Calvin: What activities are you currently participating in that advance CCAT’s efforts in education, outreach, training, and workforce development?
Alex: I am the President of the Michigan Transportation Student Organization (MiTSO) on campus, and our mission as a student organization, is to get more people interested in transportation. We provide opportunities for those who are to further their professional development. We bring in speakers from industry and academia to talk about their work and to talk about career opportunities. We also provide a lot of site tours – we recently toured Mcity and we’re going to tour the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Transportation Operations Center. Additionally, we’ve toured Qline and some public transportation systems in the past. So, we bring in a lot of opportunities to transportation students to learn about the field and to get that professional development experience.
Calvin: What accomplishment from the past year are you most proud of?
Alex: It has been a slow year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we did submit a paper that I co-authored to Transportation Science, which is a big journal in the transportation field.
Calvin: What plans do you have after finishing your Ph.D.?
Alex: I am hoping to work in industry. There’s a lot of research that I’ve been doing in the ride-hailing area that, I think, will provide some job opportunities.
Calvin: Do you have any advice for students that are entering the program and working with University Transportation Centers (UTC) such as CCAT?
Alex: I think one of the big things for me has been “find the balance of research and personal” such that you don’t burn out. It’s a five-year program as a Ph.D. student, at least. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Finding things that you like to do that takes your mind off of research is really helpful, not only for mental health but for the research. I think finding that balance is really important.
This story originally was posted by the Center for Connected and Automated Transportation (CCAT).