Helping the world build sustainable environments

Rao Kambhampati, named ACM Fellow, poses for the camera in his lab next to a robot that has just stacked some alphabet blocks.
In his new role as director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Professor Ram Pendyala says he is prioritizing efforts to provide more opportunities for students through expanded curricula, internships, industry alliances, research opportunities, online courses and professional development programs. Photographer: Connor McKee/ASU

It takes only a few words for Ram Pendyala to express the purpose of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment — the enterprise he now leads.

“It’s to provide the built and natural environments that lead to sustainable, prosperous and healthy societies,” Pendyala says.

But that is where the simplicity ends for Pendyala, the new director of one of the six schools in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

While the mission statement is straightforward, Pendyala acknowledges that complexities and challenges lie ahead along the road to reaching its goals.

That is why Pendyala decided to pursue the job he “indicated emphatically” he wasn’t interested in when he agreed to serve as interim director in the summer of 2018.

Since then, Pendyala says, “My thinking evolved, because I experienced how fulfilling it is to engage more broadly with faculty and students, and to be able to help them move forward on things they want to accomplish.”

Pendyala views the director role as an ideal platform from which to elevate the school’s impact through the tangible contributions to society that can result from its education programs and research achievements.

As Pendyala sees it, the world has no lack of problems that will give faculty members in the school — which includes the Del E. Webb School of Construction — opportunities to apply their expertise to devising solutions.

Towns, cities and countries around the world are facing uphill battles against aging infrastructure, changing climate conditions, environmental pollution, unreliable sources of water, electricity and other essential resources.

“The question everywhere is how do we get to a place where we can have more resilient and sustainable systems that serve everyone in an equitable way through economically available resources,” Pendyala says. “Our school is positioned to address these challenges.”

Equipping students with knowledge to advance their engineering fields

The school’s multifaceted degree programs and faculty research projects encompass an especially wide range of engineering fields. The scope includes robust pursuit of innovation in environmental, biological, energy, transportation and materials engineering, along with construction technology, engineering and management, all infused with a guiding goal of advancing sustainability in every endeavor.

To better provide skilled professionals to drive such progress, Pendyala intends to focus not only on expanding the curricula in the school’s programs but also making those studies more accessible to students for whom traditional, on-campus college education isn’t a viable path.

The plan is to make courses in as many degree programs as possible available online, and to develop programs for continuing education for working professionals.

“We want to be at the forefront of equipping industries in our fields with the tools, knowledge and foresight they need, and to be the place our industry partners go to enhance the skills of their employees,” Pendyala says.

At the same time, he wants to ramp up efforts to integrate best practices and lessons learned in various industries into students’ education.

Colleagues who have worked with Pendyala during his almost three decades as a university educator and researcher — focusing on transportation systems engineering, planning and analysis — say his accomplishments leave no doubt he will bring his ideas to fruition.

They point to Pendyala’s exemplary performance as the current director of Teaching Old Models New Tricks, or TOMNET, a Tier 1 University Transportation Center sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation, or USDOT; as past planning and environment group chair for the national Transportation Research Board, or TRB; and his service on several advisory panels for federal, state, and local agencies around the country.

Pendyala has won the American Road & Transportation Builders Association S.S. Steinberg Award recognizing outstanding contributions to transportation education, and has twice shared the TRB’s Pyke Johnson Award with coauthors for outstanding research publication in transportation systems planning and administration.

He has conducted more than $12 million in sponsored research and published more than 200 research articles that have been cited widely by peers.

Pendyala is also on the editorial boards of leading transportation journals, has served as a consultant for several transportation industry organizations and given featured addresses and presentations at many conferences and symposium sessions.

Praise for performance as teacher, mentor, researcher, consultant and leader

He is “a very good mentor” and “an articulate and passionate teacher,” says Chandra Bhat, the Joe J. King Endowed Chair Professor in Engineering and director of the Tier 1 U.S. Department of Transportation Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Bhat has known Pendyala throughout nearly all of his career.

“Ram is as perfect a combination of visionary leadership, dynamic energy, and research creativity in one person as I have ever seen,” Bhat says. “For a person so gifted, it is indeed refreshing to see that he is sensitive to the opinions and thoughts of others. He will always be a dear friend and I wish him all the best as he transitions into this important leadership role.”

Thomas Rossi, another longtime colleague of Pendyala, is a transportation demand forecasting specialist with Cambridge Systematics, a transportation services company based in Massachusetts.

According to Rossi, Pendyala’s research has led to several specific travel model procedures in use today, notably in the area of activity-based modeling. “He was at the forefront of research into the development of practical tools for applying these models, which represent the most important improvement in the way we try to realistically simulate travel behavior.”

Some of Pendyala’s former students “have become essential members of my firm’s team,” Rossi says. “They have continued to indirectly bring Ram’s insight to our projects on a day-to-day basis.”

Pendyala’s counsel has frequently been sought by Vladimir Livshits, director of Transportation Technologies and Services for the Maricopa Association of Governments in Arizona, a regional planning organization and the Council of Governments for the Phoenix metropolitan area and Maricopa County region.

“Ram is a trusted advisor and consultant. We have come to rely on Ram’s advice and the work of his team for many critical technical and planning efforts,” Livshits says. “We have some of Ram’s students on our staff of technical experts, and as interns consultants.”

Patricia Mokhtarian, a professor at Georgia Tech, calls Pendyala “a bridge-builder, a community-builder, a strategic thinker and an outstanding researcher.”

Mokhtarian has seen Pendyala’s career evolve since his days as a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, where she was a faculty member. Most recently, she collaborated with him on the proposal to establish TOMNET, the USDOT’s University Transportation Center.

“I’m very happy with how it is flourishing under Ram’s leadership,” says Mokhtarian, who with Pendyala oversees the administration of the center’s work to lay stronger foundations for development of sustainable transportation and mobility systems.

Beyond Pendyala’s breadth of knowledge and expertise, Mokhtarian says she values him as a collaborator who “is seemingly unruffled by turmoil and maintains a sparkling sense of humor no matter what.”

The School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment Pendyala now directs, she says, “is in the best possible hands with Ram at its helm.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
(480) 965-8122 | [email protected]

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