My grandfather and both of my parents studied civil engineering, but I initially wanted to study public policy. I wanted to do something that would have an impact on communities, and I thought going into policy was the best way to do that. The more I learned about civil engineering, however, the more I realized how much infrastructure and policy coexist, and found my own niche in engineering.
My research focuses on innovative ways to pay for infrastructure projects. I specifically study crowdfunding and how you can crowdfund infrastructure. Think of a Kickstarter or Indiegogo for roads, water systems, parks and civic buildings – that’s what I work on. For instance, let’s say a community wants to build a bike lane; people would pitch their idea and aggregate interest and funds online. As you can imagine, there is a lot of red tape with crowdfunding infrastructure because it’s a public service that is typically delivered by the government. But that’s what I enjoy most, researching new ways to manage the process.
The best part of my research is that I get to do a lot of grounded theory work, which means I get to talk to the people behind these crowdfunded projects. Most of them don’t get asked to talk about themselves very often, and they really light up when I speak with them about a really difficult project that they were able to put together. Someone might create an entire crowdfunding campaign around a mile-long bike lane or an urban park, and it may seem like something so small in the grand scheme of urban development and technology, but it’s really meaningful to them. We live in the world where Uber, Lyft and Airbnb are the norm, and all these things require infrastructure, and sometimes infrastructure isn’t big and flashy, but it makes a difference in people’s lives.
I hope that today and in the future, engineers continue to grow and take advantage of new tools while still remembering the ethical and human side of things. Civil engineers sit at the intersection of technology and humanity, and we have to make sure that communities are given a chance to use technology in ways that let them decide what works best for them.