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Alec Biehl

PhD Candidate in the Civil and Environmental Engineering program, McCormick School of Engineering

Alec Biehl

As we dive deeper into the era of big/huge/gargantuan data, we must be mindful to not lose sight of the value in “small” data sources that enable the public to actively engage in research and discussions surrounding pervasive issues of economic, environmental, and social sustainability.”

Alec Biehl is an PhD candidate in the Civil and Environmental Engineering program at the McCormick School of Engineering. His research highlights, among other notions, the need to account for the influence of identity and norms on travel-related choices, especially when sustainability-oriented policy necessitates deviation from current habits. Alec currently serves on the executive boards of the Graduate Leadership & Advocacy Council (GLAC) and the McCormick Graduate Leadership Council (MGLC). He is the current communications coordinator for the Social and Economic Factors of Transportation committee within the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies. His work was recently featured by the Association for Psychological Science and Smart Cities Dive, among various other outlets.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
The joke I like to make is that I am a social scientist masquerading as an engineer. My research examines behavioral change strategies related to the adoption of active (walking and cycling) and shared (bike-sharing and ride-hailing) travel modes. Additionally, I investigate equity in terms of how disadvantaged groups, such as ethnic minorities and aging populations, perceive the risks and benefits associated with emerging mobility services. 

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
One scholar whom I greatly admire is Patricia Mokhtarian. Her research is intellectually provocative and driven by the need to reconceptualize fundamental assumptions within the field’s scholarly repertoire.  One example is that travel should be viewed as one of several aspects that constitute an individual’s lifestyle and, by extension, expression of identity and income; hence, this suggests a more holistic examination of choices and trade-offs.. Furthermore, she is one of few academics whose work I delight in reading from beginning to end; the lucidity of her writing is unparalleled! 

What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
The core of my research philosophy is that survey and data collection methods are salubrious to policy-making processes. As we dive deeper into the era of big/huge/gargantuan data, we must be mindful to not lose sight of the value in “small” data sources that enable the public to actively engage in research and discussions surrounding pervasive issues of economic, environmental, and social sustainability. This leads to a complex yet riveting question: How do we incorporate perspectives in a way that balances equity in policy treatment and equality in policy outcome?

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
As a slight act of resistance against the fixation with self-driving cars, I would hope my research is construed as a significant contribution to the development of the theme “connected and autonomous individuals and communities.” Although the self-driving car has its place within the evolving transportation ecosystem, it is not the be-all and end-all of daily mobility, and the underlying motivation for the advancement of any socio-technical system should be to improve societal welfare—which means providing a variety of mobility options! 

Why Northwestern?
I came to Northwestern to work with Amanda Stathopoulos. I have the honor of being one of the first two PhD students in her nascent research group, which broadly emphasizes the integration of “human aspects” within the analysis and planning of transportation systems. She has been incredibly influential in shaping the way I think about research and perceive the world around me! 

What books are on your bedside table?
I gravitate towards fantasy and science-fiction novels; I recently finished City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty and am currently reading Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. My favorite author is hands down Brandon Sanderson. Moreover, I will occasionally delve into works of nonfiction, such as Great American City by Robert J. Sampson and The Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. 

What inspires you?
Individuals who work to improve society rather than advance themselves (though, these are not by default mutually exclusive). Intention matters! 

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
When I served as president of my Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity chapter at Wittenberg University, without a doubt alumni engagement was the weakest aspect of our operations. In a kind gesture, the universe has given me an opportunity to work with Northwestern Alumni Relations to improve student-alumni interactions through my roles in the McCormick Graduate Leadership Council and Graduate Leadership & Advocacy Council.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?
Since July 2018, I have been serving in the role of communications coordinator for the Social and Economic Factors of Transportation committee within the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies. This position enables me to interact with various scholars and practitioners to shape the trajectory of the field of transportation in some capacity.