Prospective Students
Graduate Students
Ph.D. Student Spotlight

Photo of

Gretchen Bella

While fascinated by transportation engineering, Ph.D. candidate Gretchen Bella greatest interest is people: people who travel, or even all the people she has met as a Northwestern instructor and graduate mentor. Now in her second year, she's working on honing her research in preparation for her graduate thesis. 


Where are you from?  

I am originally from Chicago (I was born at the Northwestern hospital!) but I grew up outside of Houston in The Woodlands, TX.  

Where did you get your undergraduate degree, and what was your major? Do you have an MS?   

I got a B.S. in Civil Engineering with concentrations in transportation and water resource engineering at The University of Texas at Austin in 2019. I got my M.S. at NU on my way to Ph.D., but I did not start the program already having one. 

What attracted you to engineering? 

I was very undecided about what I wanted to do with my life when I was graduating high school. Some of my ideas for my career path included: librarian, English teacher, speech pathologist, computer scientist, or environmental lawyer. My interests were so varied, but I went to high school at a STEM magnet program and thought I should keep up my momentum by studying something science related. I fell into civil engineering as an ‘umbrella’ degree that I thought I could do a lot with (and thereby push off my decision of “What do I want to do when I grow up?”). I almost transferred to geology halfway through college but ended up falling in love with transportation engineering during a summer internship after my sophomore year. I love the way that transportation engineering blends ‘hard’ sciences with sociology and economics; car flow on a highway is governed by the same general rules as water flow in a pipe, but humans have free will to change trajectories and that is what makes transportation so interesting to me! 

What attracted you to pursue a Ph.D. in your specialty area? 

I was working as a civil engineering consultant in Houston and got to work on a project where I was experimenting with data analysis of cell phone tracking data to use for traffic analysis and realized how much I loved research and exploration. That was the first push to start looking into graduate programs. I am a very all or nothing person, so once I decided to pursue an M.S., I decided to just go ahead and apply to Ph.D. programs and really jump feet first into research. 

How do you explain your thesis research to a non-scientist? 

I am still narrowing down my thesis topic, but I think it will focus on the ways transportation systems can supplement public health systems for vulnerable populations. Research I have done so far highlights food access after disaster events and healthcare access for older adults.  

What attracted you to NU? 

My undergraduate research advisor did his Ph.D. at Northwestern and always spoke highly of the program. I have family in Chicago and have always loved the city. Combining both sides of the equation, it was easy to apply to, and then attend, NU. 

What has been the highlight of your time at NU and CEE? 

The transportation cohort has been the highlight of my time at NU! Everyone in the program is so great and the atmosphere of the Transportation Club is so tight-knit and engaging. It was so great to find a community of like-minded peers at NU. 

What has been the most challenging aspect of your graduate school experience? 

Transitioning from a career to school was difficult for me; learning to be self-managed and focus on research depth rather than simply finishing things as quickly as possible was a paradigm shift in how I approached work.  

Can you tell us about your experience being mentored or mentoring others? 

My favorite non-CEE related experience at NU has been with a mentoring program at the Center for Civic Engagement at NU. For the past two years, I have been an instructor for the Cities Project and a graduate mentor for the program. In the fall quarter, I help to teach SESP 251 - Youth Development & Mentoring and once weekly throughout the entire year, I lead a group of undergraduate students who mentor CPS middle schoolers in Uptown. The program has been so great: it is like a mentoring pyramid scheme. I mentor the undergraduates about mentorship so they can then mentor their middle school mentees. Watching everyone build one-on-one mentor/mentee relationships and personally growing my relationship with this talented group of NU and CPS students has been the highlight of the past two years for me.  

What are your interests or hobbies outside of your research? 

My happiest self is when I am outside: I love to hike, camp, and just generally spend time outdoors. I am also a huge reader and am part of a few different book clubs with friends!