The accidental engineer: PhD student works to make driving safer

// Industrial & Systems Engineering

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In her research, ISyE PhD student and graduate research assistant Morgan Price figures out ways to avoid accidents and improve vehicle safety—but when she first “bumped” into engineering, that was one accident she couldn’t avoid.

“I stumbled into engineering—and when I stumbled upon it, I didn’t realize how few women were in the field,” says Price. “Then what surprised me more was being a woman and a person of color. That is uber rare.”

Luckily, Price had grown accustomed to standing out, having grown up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois. She also was featured in the documentary “Woke up Black,” which chronicled Price’s life and the lives of four other black youths in Chicago for two years.

Through the documentary, Price found her first platform to spread her message. “I am a dynamic black woman and I can do anything; you can do anything, as well,” says Price.

That “anything” includes receiving full funding for her undergraduate, graduate and PhD studies, becoming a “TechSpert” for the national campaign “My Car Does What?” as well as becoming a PhD student in the Cognitive Systems Lab under John Lee, the Emerson Electric Quality and Productivity Professor in industrial and systems engineering.

“It’s been an interesting journey—not only being a woman, but being a woman of color,” says Price. “My goal is to try and make it more palatable and ok for younger girls, and specifically girls of color, who are kind of interested in math and who are kind of interested in science.”

Ironically, Price wasn’t planning on being an engineer herself. Rather, she had a different dream that all started with a title: Dr. Morgan Price. For her, that had a nice ring to it, and even as a kid, Price dressed up as a doctor for Halloween. However, as Price began her undergraduate career at the University of Iowa with a focus on pre-med, the idea of cutting open others as a doctor grew less and less appealing.

After talking to her advisor during her sophomore year and realizing she wanted to do something else with her life while still earning her doctorate, Price began exploring her options.

“This thread of ‘Dr. Morgan Price’ has really just run throughout my life,” says Price. “When I was sitting there confronted with this idea of leaving that dream behind, it was hard for me, because I didn’t want to sacrifice something I had dreamed about for so long, but I also knew that type of doctor was not the path for me.”

During this time, Price connected with the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) group, which set her up with a mentor in emergency medicine at the University of Iowa Hospital. Price then got a job with the hospital as a research assistant tasked with examining ATV crashes and creating a database of YouTube videos. What Price didn’t realize was that she was studying the mechanisms of vehicle crashes.

“I spent an entire summer looking at YouTube videos, and at the time, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” says Price. “I enjoyed the idea of looking at something that was a terrible event for someone and then analyzing it and coming up with a solution so it doesn’t happen again. So I asked my mentor what is this? It’s definitely not medicine.”

According to Price’s mentor, it was public health and epidemiology—and that work set a path for Price’s journey from medicine to epidemiology, specifically injury epidemiology.

The following summer, Price earned a spot in the prestigious McNair Scholars program, which helps prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. With Price’s interest now in injury epidemiology, she requested to work with Corrinne Peek-Asa of the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of Iowa.

However, Price wasn’t just going to work with Peek-Asa. She also collaborated with Dan McGehee, Director of the Human Factors and Vehicle Safety Research Division at the University of Iowa Public Policy Center. “We all liked the collaboration so much that they both hired to split my time and work at the Injury Prevention Research Center with Corrinne and at the Public Policy Center with Dan,” says Price.

In her final undergraduate year, Price’s next project—this time as a research assistant for the University of Iowa Public Policy Center—focused on teen drivers and the geographical locations of accidents and incidents. “And then driving just took off,” says Price. “I didn’t think that would be of interest to me but it was just this kind of serendipitous relationship that I had with medicine and injury and driving that just kind of fused together at this point.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, Price travelled to Romania through the MHIRT Scholars program. There she researched pedestrian crashes and the factors leading up to them. She also learned how very different life is outside the United States.

“Looking at it from a research standpoint and understanding that how we function is not how the world functions hit me really hard,” says Price. “Because there, the road infrastructure, behavior of drivers, behavior of pedestrians is not the same and will never be the same as the United States. And I was thinking that I do research here and that may have impact here—but globally, what does that look like?”

After her summer abroad, Price returned to the United States and the University of Iowa, this time as a master’s student in epidemiology. She also returned to her work as a research assistant for both Peek-Asa and McGehee.

Through her work with McGehee, Price gained not only guidance in her research but also numerous opportunities to advance her work, including the ability to work at the SAFER Vehicle and Traffic Safety Centre at Chalmers University in Goteberg, Sweden. The Centre is a collaboration with 32 partners (including Volvo) from academia, industry and public organizations focused on enhancing vehicle and traffic safety.

After finishing her summer in Sweden, Price returned to her work at the centers and then graduated from the University of Iowa with a master’s degree in injury epidemiology. While Price completed both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Iowa, she had one big reason to want to switch to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for her PhD program.

That was John Lee.

“When I decided to pursue a PhD, he was obviously the first option in my mind,” says Price.

And Lee had already heard about Morgan Price and was eager to meet her. Shortly after, Lee invited her to join his lab, and from there, there was no looking back.

Currently, Price works in the Cognitive Systems Lab with Lee, where she is researching how vehicles convey their capability; in other words, how does a car tell the driver when it can and cannot handle a situation? Typically, this is through warning lights and sounds. Drivers can disengage or ignore those warnings, which can be extremely dangerous. Price, however, is looking at using the car’s steering algorithm to convey capability.

“When the car is going straight, it says I can handle this, and then when it comes up on some limitation, it starts bouncing off the lane edges and telling you, ‘I don’t think I can deal with this situation,’” says Price.

Price hopes to expand that communication between car and driver to outside the vehicle via social interactions. For example, most drivers have stopped for a pedestrian to cross the street. However, that can oftentimes be an unspoken communication through a gesture or other signal. What Price is researching is how to incorporate that form of communication into a self-driving vehicle.

Price expects to earn her doctorate by 2019 and fulfill that childhood dream of “Dr. Morgan Price.” Her plans after that are still uncertain. However, she knows whatever she does needs to have an impact for future women engineers, and specifically for women of color.

“I’ve always felt like there was a greater purpose to my life than just getting a job and I think that that could be my purpose. Going the academic route, and trying to not necessarily break barriers, but just shake things up a bit,” says Price. “It doesn’t always have to work like this and we can introduce different ideas.”

Author: Katie Leung