Professor Yu Nie

Faculty Spotlight

Yu (Marco) Nie

1. Where were you born and where did you study (undergrad, grad, post-doc)?
  • I was born in Sichuan, China, a landlocked province in Southwest China, located next to Tibet and known for its spicy food (the likes of Kung Pao Chicken and Mapo Tofu).  I attended Tsinghua University in Beijing and received a BS in Structural Engineering.  After graduating from Tsinghua, I spent two years in Singapore where I studied Transportation at the National University of Singapore.  In 2006, I received my Ph.D. degree in Transportation from the University of California at Davis.

2. How long have you been at NU & briefly describe your research program.

  • I joined NU in 2006 as a fresh Ph.D. graduate. My research area can be broadly described as Transportation Systems Analysis.  Unlike systems from other domains such as computer engineering and social studies, the behavior of a transportation system depends on the interactions between human activities, physical characteristics of the infrastructure, and network topology. As a result, my research takes an interdisciplinary approach that draws on tools from optimization, network science, traffic flow theory, economics, and statistics.

3. What courses do you teach?

  • I teach three courses. CIV_ENV 376 is an introduction to transportation engineering designed for juniors/seniors/graduate students. CIV_ENG 471 I/II are both graduate-level courses, and together they cover analytical and computational tools that help us understand, design, and operate many different surface transportation systems (e.g., highway, transit, ride-hail, micro-mobility).

4. Did you always know you would become a professor? What attracted you to an academic career?

  • I began to develop a deep interest in academia when I was a graduate student at NUS.  To me, the most appealing aspects of an academic career include the ability to use your time freely, in terms of both purpose and pace, and the job security that allows you to focus on independent thinking, without the disruptions and distractions that are commonplace in many other careers, and the privilege to be always surrounded by people that are younger, smarter, and more energetic than oneself.  Needless to say, I had only vague ideas about these benefits back then.  I am grateful every day that my hunch about myself – that I would love this job and that I could do it reasonably well – turned out to be correct.

5. What is the most challenging part of your job?

  • To me, the most challenging part is finance, the fact that as a professor I need to fund my own research program by regularly pitching my ideas to various sponsors.  I understand the amount of money you get is, at least to some extent, a measure of the value of your research.  However, I can also think of many reasons why such a metric can be utterly deceptive.  That said, I concede the funding mechanism may be the only feasible way to run a massive modern research enterprise, however flawed the logic may be.   As Churchill would say, it is the worst form …. except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

6. What do you consider your most significant research finding or accomplishment thus far?

  • I guess the correct answer is always the “next one”.

7. Is there someone or something that has inspired you?

  • I can think of many from whom I find inspiration.  However, I consider myself a person almost without idols. I say “almost” because I did have a childhood hero whom I looked up to, the former Dutch soccer player Marco Van Basten.  If you have never heard of Basten, here is a post I wrote about him (a review of his recent memoir), https://sites.northwestern.edu/marconie/2022/08/08/marco-van-basten/.

8. What do you do for fun when you are not working?

  • My favorite pastime is reading.  I am interested in many subjects, though on the top of the list are probably history, politics, economics, and science. and philosophy.   When I do not read, I often spend my time listening to podcasts, running, and hiking.

9. How do you explain what you do and why it is important to someone who isn’t a scientist or engineer?

  • With the introduction and constant evolution of new technologies and mobility services, the transportation sector is currently experiencing monumental disruptions. The SEA—Sharing, Electrification, and Automation–—change is expected to transform how mobility is planned, supplied, and consumed by people and companies in cities and beyond.  My research attempts to understand better and predict the behavior of transportation systems and their users, and to formulate policy and strategies that promise to make these systems efficient, sustainable, and equitable.