I interviewed, Equity Data Science Fellow Alexander Malik Curtis, Alex to understand how his recent work for the Bureau of Transportation Statistics at the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has transformed his perspective of youth participation in technological development. He discusses some of his self-reflection, and what advice he can give to young transportation technologists of today.
Hello Alex! Thanks for accepting this week’s interview! To start, could you share with our audience a little bit about who you are, and the kinds of technical work you do for the U.S. Department of transportation?
Hello Phoebe! Sure I can.
While it is currently my third week in the fellowship, I’ve already contributed some document analysis which will make its way to a 200-day report on equity in the new Biden-Harris administration. I have also started working on fact-checking and data analysis related to the USDOT workforce.
And I am going to start work on rebuilding an app that highlights transit deserts, or areas where there are both a lack of public transit service and a population in need of that service. I can tell it’s going to be a very challenging and dynamic fellowship!
What inspired you to pursue this position?
I think that transportation and public service runs in my family. After serving in WWII, my grandfather became a mailman for the United States Postal Service in San Antonio, TX.
Later, my father pursued a career in aerospace and electrical engineering before finding his form as an aviation safety expert. And I grew up with a bus stop on my block growing up, so I got to appreciate very quickly the benefits of easy access to transit and public infrastructure. I’ve always been fascinated with how the public works, work.
How did the ideas of transportation shape your current perspectives of the world?
With respect to climate change, it makes me understand that transportation is a key element in helping to resolve this crisis. On the other hand, transportation is a very large field that is related to many others, including health, high technology, agriculture, etc.
I am often inclined to say that transportation is the one big thing that all parts of the world have in common. People and things need to keep moving. So, to combat climate change within the space of transportation, you need to keep these aspects of human nature in mind.
Are there any personality traits or habits you think every youth leader should have?
I think every youth leader should be independent and develop a set of beliefs that they hold strongly. I also think that every youth leader should embrace challenges when they arrive in their life, and approach these uncomfortable feelings proactively.
Lastly, I think that every youth leader should always strive to make new friends and dialogues with as many unique individuals as they can.
Whose career inspires you, and why? Who do you admire?
I am inspired by Brian Eno and his career in music and art. As a music producer, he has participated in the avant-garde as well as some of the most genre and era-defining music, such as U2, Talking Heads and Coldplay. As a thinker, he is prolific in writing and public speaking, where he shares ideas about the role of art in a person’s life and in society.
What I find most fascinating about him is that he describes himself as a ‘non-musician’ whose methods of music creation are more algorithmic, or rule-based in nature. I think that having such a different perspective in a huge field like music is admirable, and has made him the singular person he is.
What are some of the major challenges you face in your career? And what keeps you motivated to solve them instead of quitting?
The major challenge I can think of for my career is finding a way to organize the right people for the right job. Since I am so new to the field of transportation professionally, it will take time to establish myself and build up the mental map of where I find in best, and how I can reach out to.
I think because I have so much to learn even in one year of a fellowship, I get to experiment and develop my own pathways through this large field. Also, the prospect of being a relied upon expert in some aspect of transportation systems, as it relates to travel time or climate impacts is so appealing to me that I want to stick around for a while.
If you were to start all over again, would you have done anything differently?
I articulated my interest in public transit systems on my first day of college, but it took me several more years to start pursuing it earnestly. I would take myself more seriously when I have an interest, instead of hiding behind a veil of comfort and indecision.
The same goes for other interests of mine, I would have pursued them more seriously earlier. It’s of course never too late to start, but more important for one’s life is to dignify it by responding to what comes out of it.
If you weren’t working for the U.S. Department of transportation, what career would you like to explore?
I enjoyed being a sole proprietor who ran his own business and made his own hours. If I can do that in the future, and meet interesting people doing it, then I’d consider that successful.
What advice do you have for youths who also aspire to work in the field of transportation technology (or tech fields in general)?
Network with others in the network of interests, specifically mentors or people who are more senior than you in life or work.
Don’t be shy of making friends. And don’t be shy to show your interests either. You can make your interests or dreams a reality by even writing about them. One thing I did, which helped me get into graduate school and certain fellowships, wrote my own articles on the Medium platform, where I have book reviews, presentations of past technical work, and other articles.
These kinds of publications are going to make you stand out from others vying for the same positions and will help you solidify and grow your own relationship to the material.
What’s next for Alex?
I am going to be a fellow at the USDOT for the next year, so I will be digging deeper into that. I also recently joined a friend in a digital services firm he is starting—so still in its early stages, but more to come!