Taking A Path Less Traveled
For transportation researcher and civil engineering graduate, the path less traveled has always presented unique opportunities to make a difference.
Riannon Heighes recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and has decided to pursue her master’s degree in civil engineering with a focus on transportation research. “I want to make a real-world difference. As an undergraduate, UI civil engineering classes were taught by professors with working experience that they brought to the classroom,” she says. “They encouraged us to not just do engineering problems out of a book, although there was a lot of that, too. They inspired me to apply engineering to real-world problems. That’s one of the reasons I’m back for my master’s.”
Originally from southern California, when Heighes graduated from high school her parents moved to Lewiston, Idaho, but she chose to stay behind to begin a career in real estate. While it was a lucrative path, she knew that she wanted to do more. Heighes always knew she wanted to make a positive impact on the environment, and with an aptitude for math, she believed she could make that “real” impact through engineering. She enrolled in civil engineering at Walla Walla Community College and after earning her associate’s degree transferred to the University of Idaho.
As an undergraduate, Heighes’ desire to make a difference led her to be involved with the UI student chapter of Engineers Without Borders where she became the project leader of an initiative to design potable water wells in the Bolivian village of Chiwirapi. After spending four years of preliminary work, once in Bolivia the UI-EWB team were faced with non-engineering challenges that halted their progress. “After years of planning, choosing the community, writing hundreds of pages of paperwork, umpteen hours of meetings, fundraisers, design process and all of the research, we believed we were going to build drinking wells, but at the zero hour the community effectively said that wasn’t what they wanted. It would have been easy to be angry and discouraged. But I found myself on a different continent, in a third-world country with a decision to make ... the situation required patience, and a lot of it, and it came to a point where patience ran out and we had to leave.” In the end Riannon and the team left Chiwirapi without building the drinking wells but came away from the experience with a better understanding of how engineering solutions are intricately linked to social, political, economic and communication challenges.
After returning from Bolivia, Heighes began work with UI’s National Institute for Advanced Transportation Technology (NIATT), Transportation for Livability by Integrating Vehicles and the Environment or TranLIVE University Transportation Center. TranLIVE is focused on research and development of technologies to reduce the environmental impact of the transportation system. She is working on a project involving distracted driving among young drivers. “The goal of the research,” she says, “is to examine distractions among teenage drivers, in particular what tasks they consider to be distracting and compare that to their levels of engagement with these tasks while driving. Kids are growing up with phones in their hands, and they live in a world where everyone is using mobile devices in their cars, I think it is important to have policies in place to decrease the number of accidents and fatalities. Our research will hopefully provide data to help policy-makers make better decisions.”
Heighes has been involved with TranLIVE UTC research in the past working to conduct emissions. Last summer Heighes collected over 100 miles of emissions data using a five-gas analyzer plugged into the tailpipe of her 1997 Lexus ES300. “The experience made it clear to me that I was working in the right field. I know that the work I do is going to have an impact. Great or small, it’s going to result in changes in the way we do things.” Heighes' emissions work was recognized by the Coral Sales Company, who presented her the Douglas P. Daniels Scholarship award, given to outstanding transportation engineering students in the Pacific Northwest.
Heighes received a first-place award for an essay written for the National Conference on Rural Public and Intercity Transportation. In the paper, “A Future of Transformation for Public Transit in Rural Communities,” she discusses the important role that public transportation has in ensuring personal mobility, improving the quality of life of riders by providing a safe and economical form of transportation, and generally benefiting society by reducing pollution and traffic congestion. She argues that in the future in order for public transportation in rural communities to be successful there must be a transformation in general perceptions about what it means to use public transportation.
Article by Rob Patton, College of Engineering