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An Opportunity to Learn from Successful Transportation Leaders

I learned of the International Road Federation’s Road Scholar Program when Dr. Rafael Aldrete, Director of Center for International Intelligent Transportation Research (CIITR), Dr. Yanzhi “Ann” Xu, Assistant Director of Technology at Center for Advancing Research in Transportation Emissions, Energy, and Health (CARTEEH), and Mr. Jeff Shelton, TTI’s Multi-resolution Modeling Program Manager, encouraged and supported me for being nominated as an IRF Fellow for the Class of 2020. After looking into the IRF mission and the Road Scholar Program, I found this unique experience would fit perfectly in my resume and align with my career goals. Founded in 1948, one of IRF’s missions is to build partnerships across countries for a safer and smarter road network. My long-term career goal is to help foster a safer and more sustainable transportation system by developing new data architectures.

The IRF Road Scholar Program is an annual leadership & orientation program to prepare transportation students for future leadership positions within the industry. Strengthening leadership skills is a fundamental part of any career development, and I have always been involved in leadership positions within student chapters (ITE, WTS) and conference student events (NaTMEC). Other than my experiences, I learned the theories and concepts of leadership during some training courses and workshops. However, the Road Scholar Program was an opportunity for me to learn those skills and keys to success from successful transportation leaders.

I was notified of the acceptance into the program in late November and honored to be selected by the Louis Berger Foundation to be their Named IRF Fellow for the Class of 2020. So, I became one of fourteen selected students for the Class of 2020 to attend the IRF Road Scholar Program on January 8-16, 2020 in Washington D.C. During the Road Scholar Program, I had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Sofia Berger, Senior Vice President of WSP, and learned of her hard work and experiences as a female leader in the transportation industry.

The Program was an exceptional experience for me. Through this program, I visited multiple prestigious international organizations and transportation research centers and laboratories. Our first field trip was to the World Bank Group, a financial and knowledge strengthening institution supporting developing countries in addressing their education, health, and environmental challenges. Dr. Soames Job, Head of Global Road Safety Facility (GRSF), clarified how the World Bank Group provides grants and manages road safety projects in low and middle-income countries, responsible for 93% of the 1.35 million lives lost to road traffic injuries. Though it may sound easy to transfer knowledge and solutions from similar projects in the United States to projects in developing countries, the lack of technologies or materials adds complexity in finding the most efficient safety solutions.

Our second field trip was a tour of the 3M Innovation Center and its Exhibition Hall. 3M has been long partnered with IRF to improve road safety through science and technology. The most exciting part of the tour was learning about their “technology platforms” and how they leverage the existing technical capabilities from other fields into transportation and reuse the technology, such as adhesives.

The class was taken on a whole day tour to the laboratories housed at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center. The tour was organized and guided by Dr. Taylor Lochrane and Dr. Pavle Boujanovic. Dr. Lochrane is the CARMA Technical Program Manager at Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), also the chairman of the IRF Fellows Alumni Association (IFAA). During this tour, we visited the infrastructure, operations, and safety laboratories. Among all, I found the Federal Outdoor Impact Laboratory (FOIL) and Human Factors Laboratory most amazing and associated with my research interest. The FOIL is a research facility to study crash events and the implications for the design of roadside safety barriers. Interestingly, while I was thinking about what happens to vehicles after they had been used in crash tests, I realized they were later collected and used by auto body mechanics to train interns. Meanwhile, researchers at the Human Factors Laboratory researchers have developed a virtual reality to test human driving behavior under different circumstances. “One of the most remarkable aspects about the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center tour was not each laboratory individually, but the collection of all advanced laboratories and technologies in one place”, said Ahmed AlBughdadi, one of the Fellows.

Our last field trip was to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a Federal agency that investigates and reports on aviation, highway, marine, railroad, and pipeline crashes. Their extensive laboratories, from material and safety to vehicle recording and performance, were equipped with advanced types of machinery to find the real reason behind a vehicle failure in an accident. Apart from learning the engineering and technical procedure at NTSB, we received an impressive leadership lecture by Mr. Nicholas Worrell, Chief of Safety Advocacy Division at NTSB. He also gave each of us Fellows a gift of a book on leadership skills – I cannot wait to finish mine!

In fact, the other enriching experience at the Road Scholar Program was learning from the leaders at the leadership presentations. Mr. Worrell mentioned no success happens unless we want to make it happen and take the first steps. Also, Dr. Bill Sowell, President of Eberle Design, Inc. and Vice Chairman of the IRF, noted some points to success in a leadership lecture. Apart from respect and having influential mentors, he highlighted that the key point to success is persistence. The other inspiring leadership presentation was by Mr. Michael Dreznes, Executive Vice President of the IRF. It was a six-hour presentation on leadership skills, networking, and the importance of roadway safety in today’s world. He referred to Michael Jordan’s quote and recounted that Jordan’s success is the result of a chain of trying and failures, which is not giving up and persistence. I conclude that “leaders are made”, as Vince Lombardi once said, and success happens only through hard work.

One of the most pleasant experiences at the IRF Road Scholar Program was meeting other students and spending nine days with first strangers and then friends. Once I received the acceptance email, I figured out that other students were also studying roadway related subjects at the graduate level, though from diverse backgrounds and home countries. A “Hat Exchange” dinner was the first social event that brought us all together and more connected. The daily teamwork assignments, bridge building competition, and final exam night strengthened this connection even more, and we are going to keep this friendship through our career life.

Honestly, I could have guessed that I was about to learn a lot before attending this program. Though, I never expected it would be such an enjoyable and memorable experience in my professional life. Of course, none of these would have been possible without the guidance, support, and trust of Mr. Michael Dreznes, Mr. Patrick Sankey, and all IRF family. I am so excited to be part of this family and looking forward to being more and more involved.

About the Author
Farinoush Sharifi is a Ph.D. student in Transportation Engineering at Texas A&M University. She has almost five years of experience working as a graduate assistant researcher within the Environment and Air Quality Division at Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). Sharifi earned her bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the Sharif University of Technology, Iran and completed her master’s degree in Transportation Engineering at Texas A&M University. She has been the president of the WTS student chapter at Texas A&M University, and Texas A&M University and WTS Houston recognized her success as a leader.

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