CEE Graduate Student Accepted for DDETFP: Interview with Genevieve Rigler

January 29, 2023

The CEE Department would like to congratulate civil engineering graduate student Genevieve Rigler for being accepted into the 2023 Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program (DDETFP), a prestigious fellowship for graduate students focusing on transportation engineeering.

Rigler is a doctoral student pursuing mixed methods to investigate socio-economic impacts of historic infrastructure/development policies that have exacerbated social stratification, hindered intergenerational wealth-building and caused externalities in the health, education and well-being domains.

We have asked Genevieve a few questions about her work with Dr. Davis Chacon-Hurtado and the Human Rights Institute, as well as her journey in transportation and environmental engineering.

What kind of research are you conducting with Dr. Davis Chacon-Hurtado and the HRI?

"My work with Dr. Davis Chacon-Hurtado and the Human Rights Institute has been focused on building a knowledge base at the intersection of civil infrastructure and equity, particularly in the domain of transportation. Focusing on equity in transportation is a powerful way to get the pulse of a community’s well-being and quality of life. At its core, transportation enables access to opportunities. These opportunities include access to healthcare, education, healthy food, third places, and quality jobs. We are exploring the existing conceptualizations of equity in transportation policy and practice to gauge how the term is used, and ultimately, through an interdisciplinary approach , we aim to suggest an alternative that is both comprehensive and legible to engineering and planning disciplines.

Rigler at her internship at the International Food Policy Research institute as part of her research with PIRE.

What we have found thus far is that, in many cases, the term equity is used broadly. As there is an increased focus on equity, as delegated under Executive Order 13985 and the Justice40 Initiative at the Federal level, it’s important to know what we mean when we refer to this term and the ideas it encompasses. Difficulties begin with defining equity, then it becomes more complex when deciding how to measure, quantify and monitor equity. Without a benchmark, or a way to measure changes in equity, it’s hard to justify investments and policy efforts towards increasing well-being for individuals and communities."

How has your experience as a PhD student at UConn prepared you for this fellowship?

"The research I’m doing for my Ph.D. and the Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship program (DDETFP) focuses on investigating the housing-energy-transportation nexus in the wake of a major energy transition. Maintaining the cost of a car, in addition to the expenses associated with energy needs and housing, is a major burden for many households in Connecticut; these three basic needs account for 49% of household incomes statewide. For low-income households, the energy burden was six to seven times higher, as were costs for transportation, according to the same study.

To do this, I’m working on ways to quantify the benefits and the costs to households, individuals and communities, and where these are distributed. I plan to investigate historical policies that may answer the question of how we have arrived here. That body of work would target a side of justice that is receiving less attention, restorative justice. I was deeply moved recently during a trip to Vermont where I came across a research expo titled Interpreting the Interstate Highway System (IHS). It captured various stories of local families, businesses and farmers during the construction of the IHS through Vermont. There was a poster sharing that a farmer was going to be forcefully removed from his home, since he wouldn’t leave voluntarily and refused to leave the land that had been passed down three generations in his family. That same night, he entered his barn, locked himself inside and set the barn into flames. The quote on the poster was from his wife, “No one ever said sorry,” it read. The impact of infrastructure on the social and economic capital of communities, especially vulnerable communities, has been the focus of recent research efforts (see, for example, NCHRP 08-162).

Rigler (right) presenting a PIRE presentation at a water conference.

I argue that restorative justice is an integral piece in the dialogue of communities adopting new technology (solar panels, electric vehicles etc.,). There’s a lot of research that focuses on trust in communities. When I read research on trust-building, I wonder, has trust-worthiness first been demonstrated? To that end, first, we must look at what has been to prepare better and to prepare differently during this energy transition for what could be different. History has a way of repeating itself, and I aim with my work to investigate new policy pathways to be thoughtfully considered by individuals, communities and policy makers. It’s important for people to feel they have a choice in their future and the future of their communities.

Rigler at an environmental consulting internship in New Haven, CT

I would be remiss to not mention that many of these ideas began when I received the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholarship from the U.S. State Department in 2011-2012 and lived in former East Germany with a host family. That time was pivotal. I experienced a way of life that didn’t require a car. I saw people of all ages and capabilities engaged in their communities. More than anything, they believed their voice mattered. Upon returning to Connecticut, I didn’t find that people engaged in local politics, and more disturbingly, didn’t believe their voice was heard or that it mattered. This is integral in equity-related principles of engagement in processes and restoration.

My previous research includes investigating the experience of high school students who collected hydrological data in the Blue Nile Basin, Ethiopia (https://pire.engr.uconn.edu/)  . In the end, we found that students were able to perceive an increase in their technical abilities and had built a stronger social network. In my research I argue that these two concepts, technical and social capacity, support the Sustainable Development Goals fundamentally. Ultimately, my thesis was published in a special issue in the Journal Sustainability earlier this year. (Citizen Science and the Sustainable Development Goals: Building Social and Technical Capacity through Data Collection in the Upper Blue Nile Basin, Ethiopia. Sustainability, 2022.)

Now, I serve as a reviewer for Citizen Science: Theory and Practice. It’s amazing that in one year I can go from submitting novel work, unsure if it was too radical, too new, too interdisciplinary to now be a reviewer and pursuing true interdisciplinary research as a PhD student at UConn."

Do you have any words for those who have helped you along the way?

"My unique journey wouldn’t be possible without all who invested their time, energy and resources in me. Thank you to Dr. Davis Chacon-Hurtado, my advisor, for sharing his incredible amount of knowledge and expertise in equity, transportation engineering and human rights.

Thank you to Dr. Elizabeth Holzer for encouraging and challenging me into deeper thought during her courses and our field visit to Ethiopia.

Thank you to Dr. Eleanor Shoreman-Ouimet for selecting me to work on her community resilience project this past summer; working with you in that experience and interviewing 30+ Public Works Directors across Connecticut was eye-opening and gave me a vision for the utility of my future work.

I thank Dr. Kathryn Libal and Dr. Emmanouil Anagnostou for allowing me to be the Graduate Assistant for the Engineering for Human Rights Institute and the Eversource Energy Center, and supporting my time here at UConn as a graduate student.

Thank you to peers and professors alike who lingered to chat with me after meetings, classes and conferences.

Last, but not least, I thank Dr. Zoi Dokou who was the catalyst into my research journey – it all started in her Fluid Dynamics class. It was five years ago, but I can still write Bernoulli’s equation on a napkin (though no one has asked me to) and remember the sense of belief she instilled in my research lens.

I am deeply moved that the U.S. Department of Transportation found merit in my work that focuses on restoration, trust-worthiness and a future that supports local democracy; this gives me great hope. I think that transportation systems reflect political priorities and we’re moving in the direction of understanding how public transportation makes our communities more resilient. This is seen in the increase in public transit investments in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This is vital in the wake of climate extremes and energy transitions."

Rigler during a hiking trip in Black Forest while a EUROTech student studying sustainability and pedagogy at Albert-Ludwigs Universität Freiburg, Germany.