Faculty Spotlight: Pablo Durango Cohen

Faculty Spotlight: Pablo Durango Cohen

Questions & Answers 

1- Where were you born and where did you study (undergrad, grad, post-doc)

 I was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador.  Quito is the second highest capital in the world at 2,850 m. (9,350 ft.) above sea level, and about 12km (8 miles) South of the equator.  After finishing high school, I moved to the US.  I completed my BS degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Southern California, and my MS and Ph.D. degrees in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at UC Berkeley.

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

I have been at NU since 2002 right after completing my Ph.D.  My work involves developing and analyzing optimization and statistical models to support the monitoring, management, and operation of transportation systems.  For example, we developed a general-purpose framework to process data collected by high-end health-monitoring systems deployed by NU’s Infrastructure Technology Institute on several structures around the country.  With high confidence levels, the framework can be used to identify unusual/extraordinary measurements.  Further, the framework can be used to forecast the progression of various distresses, and thus, to plan interventions.  I have also done work in transportation economics and policy, as well as in environmental design and life-cycle assessment of transportation systems.  For example, we are working on formulating an optimization model to support the design of products/systems/services, e.g., transit bus fleets, that captures and balances the tradeoffs between economic, environmental, and social impacts.  We are also working on designing auctions for concessions of roads and other infrastructure.

3- What courses do you teach?

I teach undergraduate and graduate courses in systems engineering and analysis.  Students learn how to approach problems that arise in designing or managing large-scale, complex systems, and to use quantitative models to evaluate and select among competing alternatives.  Working with Ph.D. students, we have written “case studies” that provide students with the experience of acquiring, processing, and analyzing data, as well as formulating optimization models to justify recommendations to improve the performance of systems.  For example, students use publicly-available data from Divvy, the bike-sharing service in the Chicago metro area, to estimate demand and costs.  They then formulate and solve optimization models yielding strategies to periodically rebalance bikes in Evanston.  In addition, for the last 5 years, I’ve been teaching a basic undergraduate course in finance, and throughout my time at NU have taught a variety of courses and seminars, including EA2: statics and dynamics.

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

I have always enjoyed teaching and mentoring students.  I used to tutor younger students in math and science when I was in high school.  During my undergraduate studies, I would guest-lecture on topics ranging from simulation to finance in my dad’s classes at the Escuela Politécnica Nacional in Quito.  Undoubtedly though, it is the research aspect that attracted me to an academic career, as it is an unparalleled opportunity to define the type and scope of the problems you get to work on.  Moreover, the resources available at Northwestern, notably the amazing students, have allowed me to pursue projects that have greatly expanded my core expertise, i.e., I continue to learn, which, of course, is quite stimulating and rewarding.

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

I am not sure what is the most challenging part of my job, but I am lucky that the job presents varied, and often, new challenges.  There is never a dull moment!

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

As far as research findings, as my colleagues have stated in response to this question, the answer is always the next one!  This opportunity and challenge to do impactful work are what motivate us to come to the office every morning.

Without a doubt, my proudest accomplishments are related to the past and continuing successes of the diverse group of Ph.D. students that I have had the privilege to supervise – about half of my Ph.D. students have been women.  My former students enjoy success in a variety of positions in academic, government, and private organizations in the US and around the world. 

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

My Ph.D. advisor at UC Berkeley has served as a role model for me in terms of the extraordinary working relationships he has fostered with his students.  I have tried to copy his approach, and have experienced the rewards of watching my own Ph.D. students grow and blossom.

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

I have 3 kids, so we spend a lot of time cheering them on in an array of extracurricular activities ranging from sports to cultural, to academics.  My son, a 12th grader, enjoys music and plays piano and clarinet in a variety of groups at Evanston Township High School, including the marching band, Jazz ensembles, and the concert band.  We have traveled throughout the Midwest accompanying my daughter, a 10th grader, in local and regional ice skating competitions.  My daughter is involved in half a dozen clubs and organizations at ETHS, including junior chapters of WiSTEM and SHPE, improv club, math team, etc.  Finally, I have a 4th grader, who loves to play soccer.

I am an avid sports fan.  I enjoy watching soccer and play in a North Shore Over-Forty-League.  I also enjoy running and racing.  I have completed the Chicago marathon 3 times, and participate in many other races.  On January 28, I will be running the Chicago Winter Half Marathon with my son, and a group of friends. 

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

One of the interesting things about doing work in transportation is that transportation systems, as well as the impacts associated with their design, construction, and operation, are tangible.  Furthermore, in cities like Chicago, most people have a great deal of experience with public transit.  My work involves understanding how to allocate resources to these systems to improve their capability to carry out the functions for which they were designed and built, i.e., to improve the effectiveness and efficiency with which transportation systems are able to provide mobility and access to goods and services.

10- What is one thing that has impressed you about living in Chicago?

We really enjoy the diverse neighborhoods in Chicago and the suburbs, and how pedestrian-oriented they are.  We enjoy going on walks, trying hole-in-the-wall (ethnic) restaurants, window-shopping for trinkets at local stores, etc.  This is not unlike the experience that one has in cities elsewhere in the world – both my wife and I grew up in South America-- and is quite different than many cities in California where she and I went to school.

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