When the Nebraska Transportation Center (NTC) was founded in 2006, Laurence Rilett had great hopes that it would be a success.
Today, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s transportation research group has exceeded most everyone’s expectations, becoming a leader in roadside safety, intelligent transportation systems and technology in its region and in the United States.
Through a unique partnership, NTC connects the University of Nebraska, more than 70 faculty researchers on NU’s four campuses and more than 170-plus students with government entities and industry leaders. With its 22,500 square feet of offices and laboratories in the Prem Paul Research Center at Whittier School, NTC has garnered more than $90 million in funding from more than 350 projects, including nearly $30 million for 90 active projects.
“When I came to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2004, we had high hopes that NTC would become what it is today,” said Rilett, NTC’s founding director. “John Craig (director of Nebraska Department of Roads), David Allen (then dean of the College of Engineering), and Prem Paul (UNL vice chancellor for research) had this ambitious vision, that UNL could develop an umbrella organization that would leverage existing strengths and allow NU to become a leader in transportation research and education.
“NU had an excellent reputation in transportation research, and we believed that by bringing the different groups together we could create an organization that was greater than the sum of the parts. That, in my opinion, was part of the success because it allowed us to pursue larger and more interdisciplinary research.”
Before the fall 2021 semester, Rilett accepted a new position at Auburn University, leading its newly established Transportation Research Institute, which includes the National Center for Asphalt Technology among its many units. Rilett was also director of Mid-America Transportation Center and was a distinguished professor of civil and environmental engineering and Keith W. Klaasmeyer Chair in Engineering and Technology.
NTC also includes the Mid-America Transportation Center (MATC), a consortium that has been awarded more than $30 million (plus an equal amount of matching funds) for research, teaching and outreach in Region VII. MATC also includes the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the University of Kansas, the University of Kansas Medical Center, the Missouri University of Science and Technology, the University of Iowa, Lincoln University (Missouri), and Nebraska Indian Community College.
NTC is also a leader in outreach programs – including “Roads, Rails, and Race Cars (RRRC)”, which works to connect more than 1,000 students at historically underserved schools throughout Nebraska to opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and careers. In its 11th year, RRRC expanded to become an after-school program for Native American students in Macy, Winnebago, and Santee.
Since 2004, Rilett led more than 30 research and education projects totaling more than $50 million in funding from sponsors such as the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Nebraska Department of Transportation. He earned the ASCE 2019 Arthur M. Wellington prize for best paper across all ASCE technical journals, and the ASCE 2021 Frank M. Masters Transportation Engineering Award.
The College of Engineering sat down (virtually) with Rilett recently and discussed his career at Nebraska and the future.
COE: It’s obvious that the mission of the Nebraska Transportation Center was to create an umbrella organization that would encompass so much in various fields of research, but what are some of the other ways in which NTC has been a leader and a success?
Rilett: “Certainly, it’s been important that NTC has a dedicated focus on supporting our students and in developing outreach programs that help our fields grow.
“We all had a vision to make sure that all our research projects had graduate student support and, in fact, that's one of the criteria for getting funding through MATC. Because of this emphasis on students and our connections developed as part of outreach programs over the years, we were able to recruit to UNL a relatively large number of students from historically underrepresented groups. For example, we recruited 16 undergraduate students for the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley as summer interns. They did excellent work and ten of them came to graduate school at UNL. Three went on to pursue Ph.Ds. and are currently pursuing academic and industry careers.
“I am a big believer in land-grant universities and the positive impact they have on their students – particularly those who are first-generation. We purposely set up our outreach programs in K-12 schools that had high participation in the federal free lunch program which also tended to have high levels of students from under-represented groups. Our goal was to interact with students who might not normally be exposed to the transportation and the engineering profession.
“These outreach programs were definitely some of the most rewarding activities that I have participated in during my academic career.”
COE: Many of the NTC faculty and students have become leaders in research, in the transportation industry, and at other universities and transportation centers. What is it about the NTC and Nebraska experience that sets them apart?
Rilett: “Certainly our status as an R-1 land grant institution with a focus on educating all citizens helps. However, a large part of our success is the result of our Nebraska home. The state of Nebraska, because of its nature, tends to have government and private entities that are much more cooperative than many other places. We received significant help from private and public sectors partners over the years and I can’t think of a single time when we asked from support from our stakeholders when pursuing research projects that we did not receive it. Ultimately, our mission is to serve the State of Nebraska, to educate its students and to strengthen its workforce. Because of that, the NTC faculty and staff were able to really focus on solving important problems to the State of Nebraska. Imagine the NTC is like a stool, and the legs of the stool are our stakeholders – industry partners on one leg, state and federal government on the other, and the public on the third. If you remove one of the legs, the stool will not stand.
“I think we can compare with other transportation centers across the country, and I'm pretty confident we're at the top in terms of student support. As a group, we have a deep belief in finding students and working with students as part of our part of our research and our education. And when you talk to a student who went on to another university or faculty that used to work at NTC, it’s rewarding to hear that you’ve had some small part in helping them to see that pathway. That’s the best thing somebody can do is encourage someone else and give them the tools and opportunities to see what they can become.”
COE: What are your new job duties at the Auburn University Transportation Research Institute (AUTRI), and what are you looking forward to doing there?
Rilett: “My duties are very similar to those at NTC. AUTRI is similar to NTC, as it serves as the umbrella organization for all transportation research, education, outreach and technology transfer activities at AU. I am its inaugural director, and I will enjoy the challenge of setting up the institute and helping to grow its research portfolio, much as I was able to do at Nebraska.”
COE: How's life in Alabama?
Rilett: I've been here a few months, and I like it a lot. I was a faculty member at Texas A&M University for 10 years before I came to Nebraska, and it’s a lot like I remember Texas being. The weather's warmer, and I did not shed any tears when I sold my snowblower (laughs). Plus, it’s a lot like Nebraska - the people are very kind, generous and hard-working. The students also are great. It's such a pleasure working at places like Nebraska and Auburn, which is an R-1 land-grant institution as well, because I find great satisfaction working with first-generation students, and Auburn offers those opportunities just as NU did.”
COE: What are you going to miss the most about working at UNL? About living in Nebraska?
Rilett: “I will miss the people the most. Definitely the faculty, staff and students at NTC and MATC as well as the staff at the many stakeholders we interacted with regularly. After 17 years, I have made a lot of friends, and it was very difficult to say goodbye. The good news is we will continue to work together in the coming years. I still have adjunct status with UNL, which will allow me to finish supervising my graduate students and complete my research projects. In the longer term, we have a number of joint proposals that we are working on.
“We have great sponsors, particularly the folks at NDOT, who were really a pleasure to work with. I am thankful to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln administration for the excellent support I have received over the past 17 years.”
“It was a wonderful experience working at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and I will always cherish the friendships and memories I made there. My family and I will always be connected to UNL – my wife Beverley completed her Ph.D. there; two of our children, Kate and Michael, are UNL graduates; and our youngest son, Samuel, is on track to graduate with a computer science degree this spring. We’re always going to be Huskers.”
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