Ask Ben Rouleau '14, and he'll tell you his path to his intellectual niche was prompted simply by taking initiative during his first year of college to reach out and ask to be involved.
"You talk to one person, and they recommend these opportunities for you," Rouleau, an Honors College student and civil engineering major, said of his experience at UVM. "So it's a winding journey, and you end up where you're supposed to be."
For Rouleau, a passing conversation with UVM's undergraduate research director set him on a path to study rural non-motorized transportation. Since then he has found several academic and professional opportunities to examine Vermont roads and how they can be made better for cyclists and pedestrians.
"My first year I found out I could get grant-funded for a project, so I met with Dr. Kroll-Lerner in the Office of Undergraduate research," Rouleau recalled. "She recommended I talk to Dr. Aultman-Hall in the Transportation Research Center, and Dr. Aultman-Hall ended up offering me a research position for the summer."
Dr. Aultman-Hall is the director of the Transportation Research Center, a national hub for interdisciplinary research on sustainable transportation solutions. She connected Rouleau with a research project overseen by Research Analyst Jim Sullivan, who was studying the extent of how Chittenden County area roadswere being used. That summer, Rouleau assisted determining the number of miles traveled by cyclists and pedestrians on certain local roads.
"I would set up cameras on utiliy poles and count the number of people who passed," Rouleau said, and that summer he ended up taking and analyzing 400 hours worth of video. As the summer project came to a close, Dr. Aultman-Hall found new work him.
"She's always looking out for me," Rouleau said. "When one project comes to an end she always finds another for me. She's kept me at the TRC. I even have my own desk in the graduate student hub."
Despite his rigorous course load (engineering requirements and Honors College requirements means he takes close to the maximum number of credits allowed every semester) and his obligations as a Resident Advisor, Rouleau spent around seven hours a week on transportation projects through his sophomore and the beginning of his junior year.
"Research was sort of my on-campus job. It's spending money in my pocket and it's great experience too," Rouleau said. The time commitment is also something that works well for him. "I like to do my homework at night. Most of my classes finish in the early afternoon, so after that I head over to the TRC to do my research. It's just utilizing my down time. It's nice because it's all during the week so it leaves my weekends free. I can go skiing, hang out with friends, hang out with my girlfriend."
Staying active in research has opened up a few doors for Rouleau, including his current internship with Local Motion (a local non-profit organization which promotes non-motorized transportation and recreation). "My boss at the TRC recommended me for the position they were looking for, and I got an e-mail with the job offer."
It's also paved the way for his senior thesis work, which he is in the process of proposing and will begin working on this summer. Rouleau was inspired by his initial research at the TRC, and he wants to use his thesis to understand how cyclists and pedestrians choose the specific roads they choose to travel on in more rural areas of Chittenden County.
"The standard transportation engineering assumption is that people aren't walking or biking along rural roads; if there aren't destinations then people aren't there. But there are bikers, walkers and runners there. So the assumptions that there is no traffic without destinations is not valid in these places," he said. "So, since there is non-motorized traffic there, why this road, and why not other roads? Why do people pick the paths that they do? How do they choose the roads they do and what makes them attractive?"
His work could enable local transportation planners to better understand how to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians. He's excited by the prospect, but he's also quick to point out that he's gotten the opportunity to pursue this work because of support from his UVM mentors.
"Take those initial steps to connect with professors," he advises current and prospective students. "Let them know what you're interested in. If they see that you're interested and ambitious, they'll work with you and send you opportunities. And those opportunities will just keep coming. E-mail them, tell them where you're at, what you'e interested in. Setting up a time to talk with them in person is best, either a meeting or maybe after class."
Also, he says, the best way to appreciate your research is to find personal and intellectual balance.
"The Honors College was one of the best things that happened to me," Rouleau said. "It breaks up the monotony of equations, problem sets and structures and everything. It's the one class without a textbook; it's a real book, and we discuss it. These classes give that context, beyond the equations, of where your work fits in with society and life.".