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Summer 2012

Former students thrive in transportation careers

It’s not unusual for many University of Minnesota students who have graduated with transportation-related degrees to move into successful careers in industry, urban planning, education, and government. This article explores the lives of a few graduates and highlights their progress as they moved from students to professionals who now work in transportation fields around the country.

Avital Barnea

Avital Barnea

Avital Barnea’s favorite toys as a child were railroad track pieces that could be assembled into a miniature transportation system. She later became enthralled with transportation systems in major cities and now holds a bachelor’s degree in geography and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. In August 2011 she joined the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., as a community planner in the Federal Transit Administration’s Office of Planning and Environment. In that role, she works with transit authorities and other public agencies across the country.

The combination of her degrees created a strong foundation on which Barnea built her career in the transportation field. Researching case studies of transportation and urban planning systems and studies in technical coursework helped to prepare her for her profession, as did access to the vast resources of a large university while studying in a small learning environment within the Humphrey School. While in graduate school, Barnea interned at Metro Transit’s Transit Control Center, which exposed her to the operational aspects of transit and added greatly to her academic planning background.

Barnea encourages current students to get involved outside the classroom by joining professional organizations and attending seminars and conferences to expand networks, all while gaining professional experience. “I believe transportation affects and is affected by almost every facet of our daily lives,” she said. “I am dedicated to this issue because all people have the need, the desire, and the right to travel in a manner that promotes health, social well-being, ease of use, and environmental sustainability.”

Lei Zhang

Lei Zhang

Lei Zhang has been fascinated by the connection between transportation and the social sciences ever since he was young. In 2006 he graduated with a Ph.D. in transportation engineering and a minor in industrial engineering and operations research from the University of Minnesota.

“The congestion in the transportation systems in both China and the U.S. fascinated me, and I wanted to do something about it,” he says. Zhang explained that transportation is more than engineering; it’s also about how humans can move efficiently within the transportation system, which in turn influences congestion.

Zhang completed his undergraduate degree at Tsinghua University in China in 2000 before acquiring master’s degrees from the U of M in civil engineering and applied economics.

During graduate school Zhang interned with the Minnesota Department of Transportation as an engineer at a traffic management center. After graduating, he worked for two years as an assistant professor in civil and construction engineering at Oregon State University; he is currently in his fourth year as an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Zhang says that the projects he completed as a graduate research assistant were incredibly valuable to him. “Research is the bridge between human public policy, human behavior, policy relevance, and the social side of transportation,” he says. “Being able to link the coursework to my research projects made the research experience real to me...The experience I got from the University of Minnesota directly correlates to what I do now.”

Zhang tells graduate students that they should aim to find a balance between academics and accomplishments and to take advantage of the resources the university offers.

“Be exposed to all types of courses [and] subjects, and find out what you’re interested in doing so that you can use the resources you have to find a job that you love,” he says.

Mather Bevilacqua

Mat Bevilacqua

Mathew Bevilacqua graduated from the University of Minnesota with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2006.

“I always have liked cars,” Bevilacqua says, which is how he knew he wanted to do something related to transportation.

Bevilacqua completed his undergraduate degree in computer engineering at the University of Waterloo in 2003. During his senior year of college, he decided he wanted to go to graduate school.

“I wasn’t fond of computers anymore and I wanted to do something more mechanical in nature—computer engineering applied to mechanical engineering and to cars,” he explains.

Bevilacqua worked as a research assistant with the Institute’s HumanFIRST Program throughout his time in graduate school, from September 2003 to March 2006. After graduating, he first worked for financial software company Bloomberg in New York City. He later moved to California to work for Qualcomm, researching next-generation positioning technology and integrating sensors into modern GPS.

Since February 2012, Bevilacqua has been employed by California-based Intel as a software engineer, working on integrating GPS into solution smartphones.

“Graduate school at the University [of Minnesota] taught me to be an independent worker…You aren’t guided like in your undergraduate studies,” he says.

Bevilacqua advises mechanical engineering graduates to avoid limiting themselves to typical mechanical engineering careers, since they have a broad education that is also well suited to positions in electrical engineering, computer science, and even finance. “Most companies these days, especially in Silicon Valley, are looking for bright, ambitious problem solvers, rather than someone with specific subject matter experience,” he says. “Explore different career opportunities while you’re young, so you can better understand where your interests lie.”