PhD Candidate in Transportation Systems Analysis & Planning
Divyakant Tahlyan is a PhD candidate in the Transportation Systems Analysis & Planning Program in the McCormick School of Engineering. His research studies a variety of different aspects of human travel behavior and uses statistical and machine learning methods to gain a thorough understanding of how we make travel-related decisions. Divyakant is a recent recipient of the Northwestern University Transportation Center’s Dissertation Year Fellowship.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I study a variety of different aspects of human travel behavior using statistical and machine learning methods to gain a thorough understanding of how we make travel-related decisions. The gained understanding helps in devising pragmatic policies or engineering solutions for improving transportation systems. My work is highly derived from the theories connecting our actions with our experiences, psychology, and social networks. My most recent work is on understanding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Telemobility adoption like remote work and e-commerce. My other works are on using information about the resources embedded in our social networks to understand our activity participation behavior, to understand travel behavior of special events attendees, and using large scale GPS data to study freight truck movement behavior.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
I realized early on during my bachelor’s degree that I wish to pursue an academic career. However, I still wanted to give an industrial job a try. After graduation, I joined a data analytics firm in Bangalore, India but quickly realized how much I hated that job and how serious I was to pursue an academic career. I resigned on the fourth day of my job there and here I am now pursuing my academic passion at Northwestern.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
My love for understanding how cities and transportation systems shape every aspect of our lives come from the city I grew up in. Designed by the famous Swiss-French architect and planner Le Corbusier in the 1950s, Chandigarh, a small city in the northern part of India, is arguably an urban utopia and unlike any other city I have visited so far. Through its mixed-use urban design, the city automatically fosters well-being and life satisfaction, and these qualities of Chandigarh had a profound impact on my philosophy about an ideal city. As I grew up and moved cities, I always compared different cities on my own “Chandigarh” scale. My history with Chandigarh played strong role in me choosing to become a civil engineer and studying transportation systems engineering and planning.
Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
While there are many admirable figures that I can think of in my field, my adviser, Professor Hani Mahmassani is certainly at the top of the list. The vastness of things he has worked on throughout his career is unmatchable and this pushes me to do better. I am also awed by his ability to convey complex ideas to both academic and non-academic audiences, an important skill in my field where our work has a lot of immediate public impact.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
The need for travel is deeply rooted in our lives. We travel to work, to fulfil our daily needs like buying groceries or to socialize. Even when we decide to not travel but order things online instead, someone else is traveling for us. My work is focused at making travel easier for all, either through designing policies or through engineering transportation systems. Given the profound impact transportation systems have on our society, my work directly impacts people’s well-being and satisfaction with life.
While the primary reason I joined Northwestern was its renowned and unique transportation systems engineering and planning program, a few other things helped me decide. When I first visited Northwestern to attend the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department’s open house, I felt being a part of strongly bonded community where I could easily grow intellectually. Everyone I talked to, both then current students and faculty members, spoke highly of the Northwestern’s Transportation program. I also felt a great sense of mutual support between students and faculty members, which is much-needed in the long journey of obtaining a PhD.
How do you unwind after a long day?
By watching television, cooking, or running/biking by the lake Michigan.
What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
It honestly kept changing at different stages of my life, but being a chef was at the top of the list. Other career options that I seriously considered included being an architect, a city planner, or a profession where I can closely study and work on cities. I finally settled on becoming a civil engineering with a specialization in transportation systems analysis and planning. If being a civil engineer doesn’t work out for some reason, opening my own restaurant is my Plan B.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
Look beyond your own field for innovative ideas, be patient and that everyone’s path is unique.
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
This year has been significantly rewarding for me so far. In spring 2021, I was selected to the receive the 2021 Bob Camillone Memorial Scholarship by the Illinois Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Recently, I was also selected to receive a Dissertation Year Fellowship by the Northwestern University Transportation Center. These recognitions have been a source of great motivation to me and have helped me stay focused on my work. Another thing that I feel extremely excited about is my involvement in a U.S. Department of Transportation funded University Transportation Center named Telemobility where I am working on understanding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Telemobility adoption like remote work and e-commerce.
Published: December 7, 2021
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