2020-04-28

Reflection: Starting a Shift to a New Career in Transportation Policy

This post is the second in a series of three posts about the end of my time as a PhD student in Princeton University (in this post henceforth referred to simply as "the university"). As a write this, I am still technically a PhD student enrolled full-time in the university, working on topics in nanophotonics & fluctuational electromagnetics. Next fall (assuming the current public health crisis abates to an extent that it is safe for me to do so — please note that I am not a public health expert or epidemiologist, so I am not making predictions in this regard), however, I will start a postdoctoral research position in the University of California Davis analyzing transportation policy, with a particular eye toward the effects of such current & future policies on the mobility and resulting socioeconomic opportunities for those who have been marginalized by current transportation systems, including people who are poor or have disabilities (like myself). This is a fairly drastic, and arguably surprising, change of career; I have told many friends and relatives about this, but not all of them, so I'd like to use this space to explain my thought process over the years leading up to this decision. Follow the jump to see more.

As someone with a disability that requires me to use a wheelchair to get around most of the time, I am intimately familiar with the ways that current transportation systems are not designed for or discriminate against people with mobility disabilities who require wheelchairs. Buses' wheelchair ramps and lifts fail far too often. Train stations are often completely inaccessible, and this includes even seemingly minor issues like horizontal or vertical gaps between train floors and station platforms that are too large. Commercial airplanes basically banned power wheelchairs like mine until just a few years ago, and recent changes in regulations have raised the question of whether such bans may be reinstated. Private cars are almost never accessible by design, and modifications for accessibility are often very costly & cumbersome; for this reason too, as transportation network company (TNC) services like Uber & Lyft have emerged to compete with traditional taxi services, taxi businesses have failed entirely or have sold off their costliest equipment, namely wheelchair accessible taxis, while TNC services have basically failed to fill the gap. There are broader problems too for those with low vision or mental disabilities, as new apps are often not designed for people with those needs while typical private cars are out of the question; meanwhile, poor people in general are often priced out of car ownership and are therefore severely limited in the number & variety of opportunities for jobs, education, and social activity that may be accessed by fixed-route public transit compared to point-to-point transportation. For these reasons, I've had thoughts puttering around in my head for years about how to improve & expand public transit services within & between different urban, suburban, and rural areas, but for a long time, I never thought about this especially seriously; I certainly didn't see myself getting into this professionally, or really doing anything other than physics professionally, although I never had a particularly clear idea of what I wanted to do in physics after graduate school. Then, things started to change.

The first trigger was the 2016 presidential election in the US. Without getting too much into day-to-day politics, I will simply say that for the first time, I started questioning whether I would belong, as a person of color with a disability, in the country where I was born and the only one that I have ever called "home". I realized that I couldn't take my rights & societal progress for granted, but would have to actively participate in the political process and work to preserve & extend them. I also started to think that simply keeping my head down & doing my work in physics wouldn't be satisfying to me by itself, but I'd need to engage with public issues in a more meaningful way. (These thoughts, anxieties, and stresses were also compounded by some personal setbacks around that time.) Over the next few months, I tried to get more interested in science communication & science policy, but while I enjoyed the conversations that I had with various people about these issues, I didn't find those fields quite so compelling. After that, I basically slid back into my comfort zone of doing research as I had been before, though I stayed engaged with political news, and I still had some desire of engaging more actively with public issues, though it wasn't always apparent.

The second trigger was my attendance of the 2018 APS March Meeting in Los Angeles, California, or most precisely, my return from it. I was in the middle of my fourth year at that point, so while I had given some thought to future career plans in physics, I hadn't given a lot of thought to that issue. Furthermore, I felt like my experiences from the previous year (in the 2017 APS March Meeting) were even better because it was my first conference, and because there were multiple sessions about work related to mine, so I had a ton of useful discussions with others who were doing work that was similar but not identical to mine, from whom I could learn a lot. By contrast, that year, my session, though good, wasn't quite as good, a lot of the novelty had worn off, and the other sessions felt too far removed from my specific research interests at that time to be so stimulating; moreover, I had learned my lesson from the previous year to not overload myself by attending a session at every time slot, so I somewhat deliberately didn't expose myself to as many other ideas, instead simply enjoying times with friends & collaborators there. Thus, from the perspective of a future career in physics, I felt like I hadn't grown much, but I didn't worry too much about that at that time.

The bigger problem was when I came back from the 2018 APS March Meeting. Every part of my journey (which involved a 5 hour-long red-eye flight, in which true to the term, I didn't sleep very well) was smooth until the very last part (not counting travel back to my home in my wheelchair). In the very last part, I waited to take a New Jersey Transit train to Princeton, but when I got there, I found that due to a snowstorm a few days earlier, the center doors on that train, which are the only ones wide enough to accommodate a ramp for me to go between the platform and the train safely on my wheelchair, had been sealed shut by engineers to prevent snow from shaking off of the train onto the tracks when the doors open or close. The doors at the ends of the trains were not wide enough for the usual ramp to be used. I then waited for 1.5 hours for a bus, that the train operators called for, which never came. Meanwhile, as my wheelchair battery was running low (and my cell phone was almost entirely out of battery) and it was cold outside, I couldn't risk taking a series of other buses from that station to other stations, especially if those buses didn't show up, which would strand me. My wheelchair requires a ramp to enter vehicles, limiting it to minivans or SUVs, and the vehicles have to have proper floors & roof heights for the wheelchair to sit properly, so I couldn't simply call a friend to pick me up (though I got very close to doing so out of sheer desperation), and I couldn't simply call a normal taxi or TNC service like Uber or Lyft, while no TNC services offered wheelchair accessible vehicles in Princeton, and the proliferation of inaccessible TNC services had led to the closure of all wheelchair accessible taxi services in & around Princeton. Desperate, I came up with the idea of using a different ramp (the one used for Amtrak trains) to board this New Jersey Transit train at the end doors, though the train design meant that I had to sit in the exterior vestibule of the train, unprotected from the elements, traveling at 60 miles per hour for 5 minutes in an ambient temperature of 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

That whole experience left a deep impression on me. For one, I realized that something had to change to make travel experiences more pleasant for people with disabilities, though I didn't really know where to start in that regard for deeper systemic changes. For another, I saw for the first time in a very stark way that no matter how good I got in physics, I would never truly escape the challenges imposed by the lack of accommodation of my disability in society, and I would not be able to use physics as an escape in that sense. Through internal thought and external conversations with others over the following months, particularly in the summer of that year when I started to give future job options more serious thought, I realized that I could not fathom living a life where I give care to nothing other than physics at every waking moment, as I wanted to be able to live life to the greatest and most well-rounded extent possible like someone without a disability. Thus, as I looked into job opportunities, I started to get the sense that looking into opportunities in physics felt like simply going through the motions, as very little about those opportunities seemed to excite me, whereas I was giving far more thought to matters of wheelchair accessibility, urban form, public transit access, and things of that nature in order to determine where I would live. Over those several months including the summer, especially after the return from Los Angeles, I had been giving issues of accessibility & transportation a lot more thought and paid a lot more attention to when things went wrong, and as that was all too frequent, so while that reinforced my drive to finish my PhD to the best extent possible while I was still in Princeton, it sapped my interest in anything else outside of my PhD in the field of physics. At that point, though, I still didn't know what else I should consider doing long-term.

The third trigger was a talk given by the president of the research & lobbying group Securing America's Future Energy, who presented about the huge potential for driverless mobility, and did specifically mention the potential for huge positive changes for people with disabilities; I spoke to him after the talk, and found his credibility enhanced by his own personal experiences with disability & challenges in transportation in his own family. Although I had seen some information about driverless cars before the talk, it wasn't until that talk that I gave serious thought to their impacts on marginalized communities, and I was aware of that change in mindset happening in my head in real time right after that talk. After the talk, I connected with that organization's president and, through him over the following 2-3 months, started building a network of people in that organization and in other government agencies & private companies working on transportation policy with respect to disabled riders & driverless mobility. The conversations with these people started to convince me that my concerns about the lack of rigorous consideration of specific ways & reasons that current transportation systems fail riders with disabilities, combined with my general quantitative background developed over college & graduate school along with some specific background in economics (as I did a minor in it in college, taking mostly technical classes in microeconomics), would actually make me a good candidate to do work in transportation policy after graduating from my PhD program, despite my relative paucity of domain-specific background.

Even by the end of 2018, I still hadn't quite made up my mind to leave physics after my PhD and pursue transportation policy positions seriously; at a new year's party with very close family friends, externally I tried to project happiness, but internally I was wracked with self-doubt & uncertainty. Ultimately, either on the first day of the near year 2019 or the day after that, I decided to take the plunge & commit to learning about careers in transportation policy, having in that time identified several academic research groups of interest in that field (particularly with respect to policy considerations for poor people, those with disabilities, and other marginalized communities, and particularly with an eye toward future mobility technologies like driverless mobility). I am truly grateful that when I returned to Princeton, I told my advisor about my decision, and though he was surprised, he was fully supportive of my move, though he advised me to wait at least a few more months both to do more projects in my PhD and to use that time to learn more about this new field. Although in that moment I would have preferred to get going right away, I realized soon after that his advice was sound, and that was borne out by how the rest of the year played out. With respect to my PhD work, doing these projects felt quite fulfilling & satisfying, and gave me even more confidence as an independent researcher.

With respect to looking for opportunities in transportation policy, I was able to make more progress in the spring. Although I primarily went to the 2019 APS March Meeting to present my work in physics, I was also able to attend a session on developments in transportation technology & policy, organized by a researcher at IBM purely out of personal interest, which I thought was really cool. Also, as I had more conversations with this small network I had formed in this field, I came to know of Prof. Alain Kornhauser in Princeton University. He & I seemed really well-matching in terms of our policy-based interests & concerns regarding driverless mobility, particularly with respect to its impacts on poor people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized communities, so even from our first meeting, we really hit it off, and he very graciously took me under his wing to a significant extent thereafter. Just a month later, he hosted the 2019 SmartDrivingCar Summit, which I attended not only as a participant but as a panelist thanks to him having valued my experiences highly, which was very kind of him especially as I had just met him a month prior. That was an immensely beneficial experience for me to learn more about this field and grow my network in this field much more than before. Following that, he invited me to more meetings he held involving local experts in the field of driverless mobility as well as local political & economic stakeholders with respect to transportation for marginalized communities, so I got to meet even more people & learn even more from those meetings. These sorts of invitations and discussions have, by his grace, continued even through today.

In the middle of the summer, I went to Europe, giving an invited talk to my collaborator's group in Luxembourg and then another invited talk at the META19 conference on metamaterials in Lisbon. While I really enjoyed that travel experience and particularly enjoyed meeting with my collaborators, spending time with them outside of work and also discussing ways to wrap up & publicize our current projects, I felt particularly out of place at the META19 conference, partly because the conference was geared more toward people more interested in engineering questions for specific applications in optics (as opposed to people like me presenting on broader issues in physics), but mostly because I knew that if I was planning to change careers into transportation policy, then my presence there would mainly be to give a talk, as I would get much less value from networking opportunities there. In any case, the talks went well, but after returning (especially as the preparations for those talks and the travel, coinciding with sprints to submit multiple papers for publication nearly simultaneously before my trip, were grueling), I felt freer to look into more opportunities in transportation policy. After finalizing my list of postdoctoral research positions in this field that would interest me, I ran this by my advisor, who very graciously offered to send emails on my behalf reaching out to those professors, knowing that especially coming from a different field, a cold email from a professor would carry more weight than one from a student; to this end, as I accidentally found later (and he was fine with this), he had also written a really beautiful long letter of recommendation, for which I am truly grateful. This, in conjunction with similarly gracious support from Prof. Kornhauser, led to some of those professors reaching out to me, each explaining whether or not they could support me as a researcher in their respective groups. Ultimately, I got a few interviews, and was given an informal offer from the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies.

At the end of the year, I traveled to UC Davis to meet my future employers (whom I will not name in this post for now, for the sake of their privacy as matters are finalized) and attend the STEPS+ 2019 Fall Symposium. Even before the symposium, I got to attend a talk at UC Davis ITS/PIEEE by advocates for sustainable & equitable transportation, housing, and development, which was really a great way to kick things off for me given my particular interests in accessible & equitable transportation; I got to meet a lot of people at that talk whom I knew I would be seeing more in the future. As mentioned in the linked post, the symposium itself was great too, learning about the connections of energy & climate issues to accessibility & equity in the context of transportation. Plus, the entire time I was there, I felt nothing but the most warm & welcoming environment I could imagine, especially considering that I was coming from a completely different field (so I lacked a lot of domain-specific knowledge) and geographic region (so I lacked a lot of geography-specific context, particularly as a lot of research at the UC Davis ITS & PIEEE are in the context of the state of California as well as the Sacramento area in particular) from most of them. The icing on the cake for me was when I had dinner, initially alone, on my last day of meetings with those folks. My future supervisor and his spouse randomly walked by the restaurant where I was eating and, though they had already finished their dinner, joined me at my table upon seeing me inside by myself at that table. They could not have been more friendly, gracious, warm, and welcoming, as we chatted about life in Davis, issues of policy & politics in California and across the country, and other things along those lines. That was really what left me without any further doubt that accepting the offer from UC Davis ITS would be a great decision, not only relative to other options but in an absolute sense too.

Since accepting that offer last fall (though again, final details still need to be formally worked out), I have mostly tried to focus on finishing my remaining projects and then finishing my thesis, with the defense coming soon (as of this writing). Of course, the current public health crisis has changed a lot with respect to my living situation and plans for the summer, and it could affect my start date, but the latter is not final, and the other points are somewhat more trivial, as my PhD work has not been affected by this crisis. That said, this crisis is already affecting transportation, especially for people who are marginalized by current transportation systems but are working jobs that cannot be done remotely, so there are a lot of questions about how different trajectories for this crisis may affect transportation, well-being, and economic growth in different ways. In any case, I'm certainly excited to learn more about transportation policy starting in the coming months.

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