When Rachel James was a junior in high school, the youngster from Crawford in little Lewis County saw her first eight-lane highway. For some, that might not be significant. For her though, it was life changing.

On that high school band trip to Disney World, she was so excited to see some of the country’s bigger cities for the first time that she would set alarms for when she anticipated the bus would travel by or through them just to look – wide-eyed – at the grandeur.

Little did she know that her passion for city and transportation infrastructure could turn into something more.

“It just really excited me,” she said, “and at that time, I didn’t recognize it could be a career.”

The West Virginia University junior was recently named the school’s 36th Goldwater Scholar. WVU has had at least one Goldwater Scholar in all but two of the past 21 years, and has had two 10 times.

When James applied to WVU, she didn’t know how she wanted to spend the rest of her life. She started in pre-business and took a few political science classes because she thought perhaps law would be the right path for her. Through her first semester, however, she wasn’t sure she had found what she loved.

In her search for a new major, she took various general elective courses during her second semester in an attempt to find something that captured her interests. Additionally, she found out about “out-of-class experiences,” a requirement for freshman engineering students. She wound up in a civil engineering lecture.

She “completely fell in love” with the major based on that presentation.

WVU's Goldwater Scholars

1989 Robert McTaggart

1989 Tamara Henry

1990 Eric B. McDaniel

1991 Kimberly Bush

1991 James Gifford

1992 James J. Lyons

1992 Danny O. Cline

1993 Tina L. Johnson

1993 Jason F. Chipps

1994 Westley D. Cox

1994 Susan P. Lewis

1994 Misty K. Trent

1995 Jared C. Gump

1995 L. Jeremy Richardson

1996 Trisha L. Kalbaugh

1997 Anna L. Blobaum

1998 Robert Lee Clem

1999 Aletha J. Lee

2000 Richard C. Soulsby

2001 Matthew C. Lechliter

2001 Callee McConnell

2002 Brian Kent

2003 Anna Zaniewski

2003 Brendan McGeehan

2004 Forrest Doss

2005 Ryan Murphy

2006 Rebecca McCauley

2006 Eli Owens

2006 Kerri Phillips

2007 Kellen Callinger

2009 Emily Calandrelli

2009 Andrew Higgins

2010 Scott Cushing

2012 Tonia Ahmed

2012 Jessica Carr

2013 Rachel James

“This achievement reflects Rachel’s hard work and the quality of the faculty and staff who have been a part of her journey here at WVU,” said President Jim Clements. “I love her story of being inspired by a civil engineering lecture and in that moment finding the passion that has taken her to the highest levels of national academic recognition. We are honored to have her as part of the WVU family, and excited to see her continue on this path of success.”

Despite a later than normal start to her civil engineering career, she has been able to reach some major milestones. This January, she was published for the first time. In addition, she’s had a good deal of research experience, specifically on network optimization and network flow models.

“I was completely lost when I came here. As a high school senior, I was interested in everything and had no real direction,” she said. “I’m so happy that I found something that I can see myself doing for the rest of my life.”

Her first experience came via the NASA Space Grant program, to which she was selected last fall. She chose to work with her advisor, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering Dr. Avinash Unnikrishnan, and he introduced James to research on Stochastic Shortest Paths, which deals with uncertainty in travel times.

“I have mentored several graduate and undergraduate students in research at both University of Texas at Austin and West Virginia University, and Rachel is among the best students I have ever taught and mentored,” Unnikrishnan said. “She is a potent combination of intelligence, diligence, character and humility. What makes her stand out is her commitment to education and gaining knowledge. She truly understands the value of education and the positive impacts it can have on her life as well as society.”

James’ research interests focus on the use of simulation techniques to efficiently solve networks in which only the probability distribution of the travel costs are known. She says that using the probability distribution of the costs instead of assuming a definite value allows researchers to better characterize the uncertainty in travel time from changes in flow, road work bottlenecks, accidents and similar unpredictable phenomena.

She’s also gained valuable knowledge from her participation in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the civil and environmental engineering department and the McNair Scholars program.

“When I was applying for the scholarship, I was surprised at the lack of civil engineers that have received it,” she said. “I thought that maybe we just weren’t what they were looking for, so when I submitted my application my hopes weren’t very high. However, I think I was just unique. You don’t find a lot of undergrads doing the type of research that I’m doing and I think that’s what made me stand out.”

The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship is the most prestigious undergraduate award of its type and recognizes the commitment and potential each winner has to make a significant contribution to science. James was one of just two civil engineering majors to earn a Goldwater Scholarship this year.

The scholarship pays tribute to the former Arizona senator’s 56 years of service and leadership to the United States as both soldier and statesman through an endowed recognition program that encourages outstanding students to pursue careers as advanced scientists, mathematicians and engineers.

James would like to obtain her doctorate and pursue a career in teaching and research at a university. She has gained a slew of experience with this including tutoring in the Student Support Services program and facilitating guided learning as a learning assistant with the physics department.

“I love this place. It’s become my home. I needed to leave my hometown to find myself. WVU really helped me to push myself out of my comfort zone and allow me to actually start to explore,” she said. “I don’t know if I would’ve had that experience if I went somewhere else.”

By Tony Dobies
University Relations/News

-WVU-

td/04/12/13

CONTACT: University Relations/News
304.293.6997

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter

Tags:

Student ASPIRE