ASU takes leading role in future of U.S. transportation system

University heads federally funded research consortium, seeks to make "quantum leap" in analytics and behavior modeling to improve travel demand forecasting

January 5, 2017

Arizona State University researchers are poised to help boost innovation in the planning and design of future enhancements to the nation’s transportation systems.

ASU has been named the lead institution for a new U.S. Department of Transportation Tier 1 University Transportation Center that will focus on improving regional travel demand forecasting. transportation research, transportation infrastructure A new ASU research center will work to aid U.S. Department of Transportation efforts to improve how the nation's local and regional transportation systems serve their communities. Photo: Shutterstock Download Full Image

The center’s work will be part of a larger DOT program to develop new systems and technologies that provide better surface transportation mobility and accessibility across the country.

The new center, called the Center for Teaching Old Models New Tricks — or TOMNET for short — puts ASU in charge of a consortium that includes researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Washington and the University of South Florida.

It’s one of 20 Tier 1 centers recently awarded to universities around the country — selected from more than 200 proposals — and the first and only one to be led by an Arizona university since the inception of the University Transportation Centers program two decades ago. The new awards provide each of the Tier 1 centers $7 million over five years.

Combining complementary areas of expertise

Ram Penyala

Ram Pendyala

TOMNET’s mission is to significantly improve data models and analytical tools that are used to plan transportation infrastructure, operate multimodal systems and optimize travelers’ movements in complex networks, said Ram Pendyala, the center’s director.

Pendyala is a professor in the Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering program of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

The inspiration for the TOMNET center is drawn from the decades of complementary research and experience of Pendyala and Georgia Tech Professor Patricia Mokhtarian, the center’s research director.

While Pendyala brings deep expertise in the refinement of regional travel demand forecasting models, Mokhtarian has similar proficiency in the design and analysis of attitudinal surveys.

Together, Pendyala said, they have long felt the need to combine the strengths of their individual expertise for the improvement of regional planning, forecasting and policymaking.

More than simply advancing the analytical aspects of forecasting models, Pendyala said, TOMNET will incorporate “human factors” into its research by exploring ways in which sociological and psychological aspects of people’s attitudes and values can be used in predicting transportation choices and mobility patterns.

“Attitudes, values and perceptions that people attach to transportation and lifestyle preferences have largely been missing in research and practice that seeks to devise better forecasts of travel demand,” he said.

“If we can find ways to successfully integrate these kinds of behavioral variables into our analytics, then I think we can make a quantum leap in our ability to predict future travel needs and desires,” he said.

Taking a multidisciplinary approach

Collaborations among ASU transportation engineers and researchers in a variety of other disciplines will be key to making that leap.

Computer science faculty members in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decisions Systems Engineering, one of the Fulton Schools, will be providing the statistical matching, data fusion, machine-learning techniques and computational algorithms necessary to weave analytics and human behavior studies together in the formulation of new travel demand forecasting models.

Faculty in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning will be contributing their expertise, led by assistant professor Deborah Salon, TOMNET’s associate director.

Venu Garikapati, assistant research professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, is the center’s assistant director. He will work closely with Pendyala and the consortium of researchers to develop and test new travel forecasting models, coordinate the center’s research and education activities, and facilitate technology transfer.

The center’s work will have far-reaching applications across a number of disciplinary domains. For example, faculty in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion, part of ASU’s College of Health Solutions, will explore the potential impacts of various transportation system infrastructure designs on public health and the livability of local communities.

Serving the needs of all

Pendyala points out that infrastructure planning and design are critical to providing transportation alternatives that enable people to access opportunities to engage in activities such as work, school, shopping and social recreation.

The center’s research team will include faculty with specific expertise in environmental economics. They will help assess the value that people attach to various facets of transportation systems and the implications for travel choices, willingness to pay for mobility options, and quality of life.

The plan is for TOMNET to work with the Maricopa Association of Governments — the regional planning agency for the greater Phoenix area —and other local and state agencies across the country to test the effectiveness and improved accuracy of the center’s innovative travel behavior models.

“Our aim is to help policymakers and regional agencies enhance their transportation system planning and development processes through human-centric travel forecasting that will be more accurate in its ability to predict traveler behavior under a wide variety of alternative futures,” Pendyala said.

An essential part of the center’s mission “is to help stakeholders meet the transportation needs of all people, regardless of their socioeconomic and demographic status, so that no one is excluded from accessing opportunities that urban environments provide,” Pendyala said.

Transportation infrastructure plays a major role in shaping a community’s access to employment opportunities, education and public services, he said, “so we want planners and policymakers to be able to see how their actions will affect different populations, especially those that are disadvantaged.”

Focus on education and outreach

TOMNET is equally focused on helping train the next generation of transportation professionals.

A significant portion of its funding will support efforts to attract undergraduate and graduate students into studies for transportation-related careers. There will also be educational outreach efforts in middle and high schools, with particular focus on fostering a future transportation workforce that is diverse and transdisciplinary.

Undergraduate and graduate students will be offered research assistantships through opportunities made possible by the center award.

TOMNET researchers plan to incorporate the activities of the center into the Fulton Schools’ Summer Transportation Institute, a weeklong education experience for high school students supported by the Federal Highway Administration.

The center also plans to host seminars and present webinars to enable academics and researchers to engage with transportation professionals, government agency officials and industry representatives.

Solidifying leadership position

ASU is joining some of the country’s most prominent research universities as leaders of the new Tier 1 University Transportation Centers. Each has a specific focus area ranging from aspects of transportation economics, governance, finance and sustainability to planning, design, energy resources and environmental health issues.

TOMNET is the only center whose focus lies entirely in the study of traveler behavior and values and the improvement of regional travel forecasting models through the application of innovative data analytics. 

G. Edward Gibson Jr., director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, said the selection of ASU to direct one of the centers “further establishes us as a national leader in transportation research and education.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Inside and out, ASU engineer studies the role microbes play in health

January 5, 2017

We humans can’t function without the help of trillions of helpful bacteria that form communities in our guts and other parts of our bodies, also known as microbiomes. This we do know. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about how these ecosystems of microflora affect our health, and how they interact with outside substances.

An Arizona State University engineer from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering has been selected to help the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to explore the topic. Associate Professor Rosa Krajmalnik Brown. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Environmental engineering associate professor Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown is serving on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee tasked with developing a research strategy to better understand the interactions between chemicals found in our environment and intestinal, skin and lung microbiomes, as well as to determine their health effects. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

Forging a new path of microbiome knowledge

Environmental engineering associate professor Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown is serving on the National Academies’ Committee for Advancing Understanding of the Implications of Environmental-Chemical Interactions with the Human Microbiomes. This ad hoc committee is tasked with developing a research strategy to better understand the interactions between chemicals found in our environment and intestinal, skin and lung microbiomes, as well as to determine their health effects.

First the committee will assess the state of scientific work regarding the health implications of the human microbiota’s chemical metabolism and the effect of chemical exposure on microbiota diversity and function.

Then it will look at what we know about how these effects differ based on individual differences or age.

Finally, the committee will develop a research strategy to identify what studies we need to improve our understanding of how different microbiome communities can affect chemical exposure, how chemical exposure affects microbiome functions and the ramifications for human health risks. As part of this effort, it will also determine methodological or technological barriers to advancing the field.

The committee will also look for opportunities for collaboration and what research investments will provide the most information for improving our understanding of the microbiome’s health effects.

A decade of microbe management

Krajmalnik-Brown has been researching the human microbiome for nearly 10 years, focusing on two important aspects: its role in obesity and autism.

“My research group looks at how the gut microbiome is involved in energy extraction, how bariatric surgery affects the microbiome and, as a consequence, energy extraction,” said Krajmalnik-Brown, who has worked on this research in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic. She also received a National Institutes of Health grant to discern the role of the gut microbiome to the success or failure of bariatric surgery, and has recently received a second NIH grant to quantify the effect of the microbiome on energy extraction.

For the past few years, she has studied the gut-brain connection and how it differs between children diagnosed with autism and those not.

Recent research suggests our gut microbiomes affect brain communication and neurological health. A high number of children with autism have gastrointestinal disorders compared with those without autism. Krajmalnik-Brown says this implies a link between autism and gut microbe abnormalities.

After comparing the gut microbiomes of children with autism and children without, Krajmalnik-Brown and her research team found that children with autism had less diverse gut microbiomes, changes that correlated with symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. These abnormalities can cause digestive issues and discomfort that are believed to exacerbate behavioral problems associated with autism spectrum disorder and can diminish quality of life.

Her microbiome research also extends beyond human health to environmental health through a process called bioremediation, or using microbes to clean up contaminants.

She is a researcher with the Biodesign Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology, the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics as well as a leader of a key aspect of the research mission of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics.

Krajmalnik-Brown works with fellow Swette Center director and environmental engineering Regents’ Professor Bruce Rittmann on bioremediation and intestinal microbiome research. He says her combination of environmental and human microbiomes expertise gives her deep insight into both the ways that chemicals affect microbial communities and how microbial communities affect chemicals.

“Dr. Krajmalnik-Brown has truly unique experience and expertise,” Rittmann said. “I suspect that no one else in the world holds such deep expertise in both realms.”

Using small organisms to make a big difference

Krajmalnik-Brown is honored by her selection to the National Academies committee.

“It means that my research has captured attention nationally at high levels and that I am working on important issues,” she said.

She’s looking forward to the impact she can make in this role.

“I hope to provide feedback and knowledge on gut microbiome and anaerobic microbial transformations of pollutants and their possible interactions,” Krajmalnik-Brown said. “Also, I will get to meet and interact with other important researchers in the field and hopefully provide recommendations that will move the field forward.”

Rittmann has served on and chaired a number of National Academies committees and has seen firsthand what Krajmalnik-Brown has the opportunity to do as a committee member.

“Members have the opportunity to make a dramatic, positive impact on a technical topic of huge social concern,” Rittmann said. “Important policymakers pay attention to National Academy reports, and policies are made or changed in government and the private sector based on these reports.”

He applauds Krajmalnik-Brown’s success in her field.

“This is how the career path is supposed to go for our most outstanding faculty,” Rittmann said.

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering