Words from the director

by Dr. Cynthia Chen, Professor

THINK Research

The THINK (Transportation-Human Interaction-and- Network Knowledge) Lab studies the sustainability and resilience of a city through the lens of human beings interacting with the physical environment. We generate new knowledge and insights for use in city planning, infrastructure development and policy design. Our research results facilitate real-time disaster response and recovery efforts. Our work is highly interdisciplinary, drawing on the latest methods and ideas in disciplines from social and natural sciences to engineering.

More specifically, THINK lab’s research activities center on unpacking the complexities across scales, from micro-level individual mobility behaviors, to meso-level social tie networks formed as the result of space and time-based individual behaviors, and macro-level system behaviors that propagate through multiple networks. Below are some sample questions that THINK lab researchers are interested in answering:
1. What underlying mechanisms characterize behaviors across different scales?
2. How can we best leverage interactions within and between infrastructure systems and social systems to support sustainability and resilience?
3. How do cities evolve over time and reemerge from a disaster?
4. How do individual travel patterns play a role in forming networks, which then facilitate cascading spreading patterns of socially desirable (e.g., adoption of a new technology such as electric cars) or undesirable outcomes (e.g., sedentary lifestyles)?

The word “THINK” characterizes THINK Lab research activities:

  • TH (Transportation-Human): we deal with infrastructure systems (transportation for example) and humans at the same time, never one or the other. This is because infrastructure systems provide services to humans, whose behaviors then influence the performance of infrastructure systems.
  • I (Interaction): Interaction is considered in our research everywhere! Another, similar word we often use is “interdependency”. We consider interdependency between different physical systems (eg, transportation and power) and between physical and social systems (eg, transportation and humans).
  • N (Network): we approach from a network perspective, meaning that we consider a set of entities that are inter-connected with each other, or formally GRAPHS. These entities may be social entities, including people, families, groups, agencies and organizations etc; or physical components such as facilities that attract people’s activities whether they are indoor or outdoors, or locations that transfer flows (intersections or substations or cell towers). Depending on our specific studies of interest, our networks may be static or dynamic, in equilibrium or chaos.
  • K (Knowledge): we create conceptual frameworks that describe how certain systems of interest behave and evolve over time. Examples concern: what is a resilient system in today’s world, which is characterized by a complex system? How shall we measure resilience? These conceptual knowledge guides our work. Equally important, we develop advanced models that test the validity of our conceptual frameworks. These models draw knowledge from a wide range of disciplines including physics, network science, economics, optimization, and statistics. We also work closely with other researchers to conduct field work to test and implement our work in real-world communities.

Research Philosophy

We conduct research for the purposes of knowledge discovery, self-enlightenment and contribution to the society. It may take years to fully understand it. While paper publications are important, immediate outcomes on our journey for knowledge discovery, we do NOT conduct research only for the purpose of publications. We believe that when we conduct research truly for the purpose of uncovering the unknown, our potentials are boundless. A truly fruitful research career can be both joyful and painful—joyful, because when new insight is learned, that moment of joy is indescribable and embarking a research career means that we take on a lifelong journey dotted with moments of joy; painful, because often times, we can also walk on a path that takes long hours, and is lonely and full of struggles. It is exactly this combination of loneness, struggles and moments of joy that defines our research life and makes our work fun. Having walked a slightly longer journey than most of you, I have a few suggestions for you:

  • Settle your heart deep, so that you can engage in deep thinking, having your own time, and are not constantly bothered by what and how many papers you can publish.
  • Read broadly, which may include non-technical papers and stories and papers that do not directly fall into your research area. You will find that many phenomena in life are well-connected and have commonalities. By doing this, you are trying to build yourself with well-rounded qualities, as opposed to being only good in certain technical aspects (e.g., data mining...).
  • Keep writing. Writing helps clarify and deepen our thinking. Writing is also a lifelong learning journey.
  • Enjoy life. Enjoy your surroundings (people, nature, and everything else), engage in socially meaningful activities and conversations and contribute to the society.

What you would learn by working with me: aside from learning the technical skills that will facilitate you to perform some sophisticated research tasks, some of the most important capabilities you shall learn (which will benefit you for life, even if you decide not to conduct research or move out of the field of transportation) are below:

  • ability to think creatively, comprehensively, and rigorously,
  • ability to identify important questions and problems that matter to the society,
  • ability to frame a question properly, and
  • ability to communicate your ideas in a coherent way (both in writing and orally).

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