Ashley Hightower could have been satisfied with the bachelor’s degree she received in foreign language from the University of Memphis. Although her studies in German, Russian and Italian were intriguing, Hightower started to think about the importance of infrastructure and how much more fulfilling it would be to pursue a career in the engineering field.
Hightower worked as an assistant manager at Sherwin-Williams to save money for the tuition to enroll at Tennessee in 2020. She graduated last December with her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and is in the second semester of her master’s degree in transportation (also in the civil engineering department).
Hightower’s master’s work was recently rewarded with a fellowship of $28,500 from the Federal Highway Administration’s Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program (DDETFP), which awards fellowships to students pursuing degrees in transportation-related disciplines.
Hightower is researching public transit in the post-pandemic era, with a focus on equity and ridership and is being advised by Associate Professor Candace Brakewood.
“I was extremely excited I got the full amount and to hear they really believed in my topic,” Hightower said. “It’s awesome to have the freedom to pursue a special topic and basically already have the funding for it.”
UT student Grace Whitehouse also received a DDETFP award of $5,000. Whitehouse, who is pursuing her master’s in transportation engineering, is analyzing women’s travel behaviors on public transportation and is also being advised by associate professor Brakewood. Based on her findings, Whitehouse hopes to recommend how transit services can improve service times, station cleanliness and safety concerns.
“The goal of the project is to better understand the trips women take using public transportation,” Whitehouse said. “Based on literature review, women tend to make more recreational trips and family-oriented trips to grocery stores, daycare, or family care rather than going to and from work. They do that too, but they take other trips primarily.”
Hightower and Whitehouse have both been working with Brakewood for multiple years at UT after initially taking her undergraduate class in transportation engineering.
“They are both very dedicated and hardworking students who really deserve this honor,” Brakewood said. “I am immensely proud of them and very proud of what it says about the transportation program here at UT.”
Brakewood called Hightower’s fellowship “extremely prestigious,” and she would know. As a PhD student at Georgia Tech, Brakewood also received a full fellowship from the DDETFP.
“The Eisenhower fellowship gives you the flexibility to work on a research topic you are interested in for your master’s thesis or PhD dissertation,” Brakewood said. “When you are a grad student, the fellowship funds really help and make a big impact in your life.”
The DDETFP’s goal is to advance the transportation workforce by helping to attract the nation’s brightest minds to the field of transportation, encouraging future transportation professionals to seek advanced degrees, and helping to retain top talent in the U.S. transportation industry.
Hightower’s research involves using time series forecasting methods to identify trends or patterns in public transit ridership. In time series analysis, analysts record data points at consistent intervals over a set period rather than just recording the data points intermittently or randomly.
“Transit agencies don’t typically use this type of forecasting,” Hightower said. “My hope is that if transit agencies were able to use an alternative method of forecasting like this, it would save them a lot of time and money and they might get more accurate forecasts and be able to better plan their service levels and budgets, which would make it more efficient for them.”
Hightower and Whitehouse both already have jobs lined up once they leave UT. Hightower will be working at Kittelson & Associates, Inc., in Washington D.C. She will focus on data analysis in transit. Whitehouse will be working with STV Incorporated in Charlotte, N.C. in traffic engineering.
Hightower and Whitehouse will join this year’s other DDETFP recipients in Washington D.C. in January, when they will present their research at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board.
“This fellowship is something you can keep on a résumé for the rest of your career,” Brakewood said. “If you are in transportation and look at a résumé, you will know right away someone is clearly a very strong student if they received an Eisenhower fellowship. It is well known in the transportation field.”
Rhiannon Potkey (865-974-0683, email@example.com)