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Workshop at MIT forms friendships and opportunities

Workshop at MIT forms friendships and opportunities

Participants from the 2021 Rising Stars in Civil and Environmental Engineering bond over shared experiences.

When Lauryn Spearing, Sofia Pérez-Guzmán, and Lisa Losada-Rojas attended the 2021 Rising Stars Workshop in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) at MIT, they were at the beginning stages of their academic job search. Spearing was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, examining infrastructure system management during uncertainty. Pérez-Guzmán and Losada-Rojas were PhD candidates and both from Colombia. Losada-Rojas was at Purdue University studying the connection between transportation and health in rural areas, while Pérez-Guzmán was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute working on disaster response logistics and urban freight transport. Unbeknownst to them, the connections they formed naturally during the workshop would provide a support network for each other’s careers.

Spearing remembers watching Pérez-Guzmán’s presentation and being interested in the way she took a different approach to similar research topics. “Sofia and I started reading each other’s work and staying in touch after the workshop because there was a lot of overlap in our research.”

Because of how the workshop is structured, it allowed a lot of social time for lunches and dinners which made it easy for participants to get to know each other on both a professional and personal level.

One of the other factors that bonded the group together along with another friend who was at the 2021 Rising Stars Workshop was a group chat they created. “I remember in the group chat we were all helping each other in the job search process,” says Pérez-Guzmán.

Spearing and Losada-Rojas who secured positions around the same time, shared their experience to the group. “Applying for academic jobs is not an easy process and can be stressful. It’s nice to have a group of people who were doing it together,” adds Spearing.

Benefits that last beyond the workshop

The CEE Rising Stars workshop gives participants a glance into how MIT faculty live their life and balance the demands of their careers with their personal lives. MIT faculty participate in the full event, sharing their expertise and the chairs of the program attend extracurricular social events with the Rising Stars cohort. It was a valuable part to witness first-hand for Losada-Rojas. “It was good for us to see what is possible in a faculty position, even if you are in a university that is world class like MIT.”

The workshop also shares resources that are helpful for participants who are mostly PhD candidates or postdocs. Losada-Rojas still uses one resource a tenured MIT faculty member shared with her small group in a break-out session.

“I still go back to one article about how a tenure track should be seen more like a seven-year postdoc. And I said, to myself, well, if he can do it, I could do it here at UNM or anywhere,” says Losada-Rojas. “We are trained to be excellent researchers, but going into a faculty position comes with many more responsibilities. And just getting these resources out of this experience, has been very helpful for me,” she adds.

Another unique aspect of the workshop was how it was organized. There is a dinner for networking and participants present their research to the group. “It wasn’t a regular conference, and it wasn’t a campus visit, it was this in between,” says Spearing. “There were some aspects to the workshop that match a job talk so I felt a little more prepared because I had networked in this MIT setting that was less stressful compared to your first job talk and campus visit,” she adds.

Research project collaboration

All three 2021 Rising Stars alumnae now hold faculty positions in civil and environmental engineering. Spearing is assistant professor of Civil, Materials and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Losada-Rojas is assistant professor of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at the University of New Mexico, and Pérez-Guzmán is assistant professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Today, the Rising Stars alumnae are collaborating on a research project together that aligns with the 17 SDGs (sustainable development goals) set forward from the United Nations. They won a seed grant from the Georgia Tech Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems, called Sustainability Next. They considered this opportunity a first step in creating a competitive proposal before applying for future funding at the National Cooperative Highway Research Program and other national grant programs. The idea started from an opportunity Losada-Rojas found through Georgia Tech because she wanted to work with Pérez-Guzmán on a project given their friendship and research interests.

The research project aims to understand how climate change and extreme weather impacts the mobility of socially vulnerable populations. Both Pérez-Guzmán and Losada-Rojas research interests are in transportation and advancing social impact, and they brought in Spearing who has a systems approach to infrastructure for a multi-disciplinary perspective that enriched the research idea and contributed to winning the seed grant.

Beyond their seed grant collaboration, Pérez-Guzmán and Losada-Rojas along with another 2021 Rising Stars alumna, Angeli Jayme, research scientist at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, continue to see each other after Rising Stars through the same transportation conferences they attend annually.

“Rising Stars was a wonderful experience and to have gained these personal and professional relationships from the workshop, was an added bonus we didn’t anticipate,” says Pérez-Guzmán.

Angeli Jayme (left), Sofia Perez-Guzman (middle) and Lisa Losada-Rojas (right) at the the TRB Annual Meeting January 2024.
2021 CEE Rising Stars alumnae, Lisa Losada-Rojas (left), Angeli Jayme (middle) and Sofia Perez-Guzman (right) at the Transportation Research Board conference in January 2022.