Graduate Student Spotlight: Sarah Dennis

Ph.D. Student, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Sarah Dennis

This spotlight is a part of our 2023 International Women's Day Feature.

What inspired you to study engineering? Describe your path to graduate studies at UC Davis. 

My bachelor's degree is in public health from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. For this degree track, I took a "Built Environment" course with Dr. Courtney Coughenour and immediately fell in love with understanding and eventually (hopefully) improving how we can plan our built environment and transportation systems in a way that positively impacts community health and safety. Dr. Coughenour generously talked through my interests with me and introduced me to her colleague in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Dr. Alexander Paz, who eventually became my master's adviser. As my adviser, Dr. Paz helped with my transition not only to a new field of study but also to graduate school. He was an integral part of my decision to pursue a career in academia. I am extremely appreciative of his support and guidance which ultimately helped me land a position in Dr. Miguel Jaller's research lab.  In short, it has been some incredible mentors who helped me find my way to engineering and UC Davis. 

Highlight your current research. What do you love about it, why are you excited, and how do you stay motivated? 

Dr. Jaller and I are currently working on a few projects which analyze how freight transportation impacts public health in California. We are using human exposure models to estimate localized public health costs associated with freight transportation, with the specific intentions of identifying sectors or locations that can be targeted with policy or planning interventions and produce the greatest reductions in public health costs. We place a specific emphasis on evaluating the feasibility and impact of alternative fuel or zero-emission (or near-zero emission) vehicles, and estimating if there are significant and preventable health disparities between different locations or population subgroups. 

I love being able to combine the fields of public health and transportation engineering to identify different ways that planners and policymakers can improve the health and safety of communities. I also love that I am constantly learning, and I feel so fortunate to be learning from not only my course work, professors, and adviser, but also from my colleagues.  

Like anyone I think my motivation comes in waves. I have found that when my motivation bottoms out, that is usually when I need to give myself a brain break, where I take a day or an evening where I restrict myself from working on or even worrying about anything school-related (sometimes easier said than done). I would also be remiss not to mention that Dr. Jaller is an extremely supportive, patient, and considerate mentor and his guidance has been extremely important in getting through some of the lower motivation stages of my time at UC Davis. 

The 2023 International Women's Day theme is #EmbraceEquity. How do you embrace equity in the engineering field? 

I try to embrace equity in the engineering field through research, ensuring that the externalities of transportation systems are considered as a whole, but also with a special focus on marginalized, vulnerable, and/or historically overburdened or disadvantaged groups. In the future, I also hope to take the exceptional mentorship I have received and pay it forward as a mentor myself, making sure to encourage and support future students who are underrepresented in higher education, and engineering specifically. 

Primary Category