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United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Summer 2021

Date:
Summer 2021
Issue No:
Vol. 85 No. 2
Publication Number:
FHWA-HRT-21-004
Table of Contents

Former Research Associates Find Success

by im Shurbutt

FHWA's Research Associateship Program helps participants launch their careers—sometimes with FHWA itself.

Postdoctoral candidates who apply for positions as research associates with the Federal Highway Administration do so to continue their research, make connections in their fields, and launch their careers. For some, career success is found right at the facility where they started as associates.

A girder rests inside the Structures Laboratory at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center. Source: FHWA.
The Research Associateship Program at FHWA provides mentorship and career-building opportunities for participants in facilities like the Structures Lab at Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center and sometimes results in talented new hires for FHWA.

FHWA's Exploratory Advanced Research (EAR) Program funds research associates through the Research Associateship Program of the National Academy of Sciences. The EAR Program seeks qualified candidates to work on real-world transportation problems largely of their own choosing, provided the topics are compatible with FHWA's research interests. Associates work with FHWA advisers who mentor them throughout their tenure, which usually lasts for 2 or 3 years.

From 1992 through 2019, FHWA hosted 50 research associates at its Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC) and its Headquarters office. Former associates have gone on to work in academia, government, and industry, as well as to work as consultants.

Four former research associates currently work at TFHRC, either as FHWA staff or as contractors. They have each gone directly from the program to positions that have enabled them to continue their research while expanding their professional expertise and developing their careers.

A bar graph shows the industries where former research associates are employed, as of October 16, 2019. 14 are in academia, 9 in government, 8 in industry, 2 in consultant or post-doctoral positions, and 1 in other or unknown. Source: FHWA.
Former Research Associateship Program participants go on to work in a variety of fields.

Jose Munoz, Ph.D.

As an associate, Jose Munoz focused on the development of specific nanoadditives to improve the mechanical performance of the cement paste-aggregate interface in concrete—specifically, the fundamental aspects of the interaction between nanosilica coatings and concrete-based materials. Munoz worked under the guidance of Jack Youtcheff in the Office of Infrastructure Research and Development from April 2010 to April 2013.

A man in a lab coat and gloves stirring a substance in a small dish. On the table in front of him are three plastic vials with their lids off and a plastic zip-top baggie with a light brown substance in it. © Jose Munoz, SES & Associates
Jose Munoz prepares fine aggregates for chemical analysis in the Chemistry Lab at TFHRC.

Munoz then was hired to work as a contract researcher in the TFHRC Chemistry Laboratory, where today he is the contracted laboratory manager.

"My main motivation to accept the job offer at TFHRC was my passion for research. TFHRC is probably one of the few places in the United States that offers such a unique opportunity to do research on concrete-related materials," says Munoz. "Another important factor was the balance between fundamental and applied research that could be done at TFHRC."

Munoz currently works on two projects. One is to develop a new screening test to assess the alkali-silica reactivity of aggregates used in concrete. The other is a collaboration between the Chemistry Laboratory and the Structure Laboratory at TFHRC, which is a continuation of the work he did as an associate. It is a project to develop nanosilica-based thin films to improve the bond in prefabricated bridge element connections.

Munoz cites several benefits he received from his participation in the Research Associateship Program, including strengthening his resume because of the prestige of the program, conducting research and publishing manuscripts, and networking with colleagues at TFHRC and other institutions.

"Thanks to the program, I had the unique opportunity to join the TFHRC team as a contractor and pursue both fundamental and applied research," he says.

David Mensching, Ph.D., P.E.

David Mensching served as a research associate from May 2015 to August 2016, working with former FHWA employee Nelson Gibson in the Office of Infrastructure Research and Development. As an associate, Mensching researched performance-based mixture design and rheological parameters for asphalt mixture and binder characterization. After his tenure as an associate, he was hired as an asphalt pavement engineer at TFHRC. Today, he is FHWA's asphalt materials research program manager and serves as an adviser to current associates.

"My time as an associate was for exploration and network building," says Mensching. "The associateship was my first chance to lead research from conception to completion. That's invaluable experience that can't be had in many places and in many postdoctoral positions."

As an associate, Mensching published extensively, which he says built national expertise. He also took advantage of the travel budget he was given to present on his research and improve his work.

Given the opportunity to stay on at TFHRC, he took it. "You have so many possibilities for cross-cutting transportation research, and the people here are welcoming, bright, and motivated. TFHRC's leaders have research backgrounds and expertise themselves, which allows for deeper cultivation of thought and creativity," he says. "It's really an unparalleled location for intellectual growth."

Mensching's career path has taken him from his associateship to managing a program of 11 other researchers, including one associate. He has gone from narrowly focusing on one project as an associate to managing a program with a broad portfolio of original research covering topic areas such as reclaimed asphalt pavement, performance specifications, long-life wearing courses, asphalt binder specifications, artificial intelligence, connected pavements, and resilience.

A man wearing goggles leans in to adjust an asphalt sample in a testing apparatus that sits on top of a lab table. Source: FHWA.
David Mensching sets up a dynamic modulus test in the Asphalt Mixture Performance Tester.

Pavle Bujanović, Ph.D.

Pavle Bujanović spent 2 years at TFHRC as a graduate research fellow under FHWA's Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program before serving as a research associate from August 2018 to August 2019. Under the guidance of his adviser, Taylor Lochrane in FHWA's Office of Operations Research and Development, Bujanović worked on developing cooperative driving automation (CDA) algorithms, specifically localization and platooning algorithms. He also worked on adding the CARMA Platform℠ to one of the vehicles in FHWA's CARMA fleet.

FHWA hired Bujanović to join the staff of the Office of Operations Research and Development as a highway research engineer at the end of his associateship.

"I work to increase the safety and efficiency of our Nation's infrastructure through CDA strategies that are designed and tested in the CARMA ecosystem," says Bujanović. "I also help promote CARMA and invest in relationships with different people and organizations that are interested in CDA research. I'm still involved in technical design, as I was before, but now I'm also contributing to the direction of the entire CARMA Program."

Bujanović praised the Research Associateship Program as a valuable research experience with excellent resources and opportunities to help recent doctoral graduates pursue their research, in part because of the freedom and flexibility the FHWA mentors provide associates in their choice of projects.

Headshot of a man in a suit and tie. Source: FHWA.
As a staff member with FHWA's CARMA Program, Pavle Bujanović has continued and expanded the work he started as an associate.

Rafic El-Helou, Ph.D.

As a research associate, Rafic El-Helou worked on the structural behavior of prestressed ultra-high performance concrete (UHPC) girders and on the development of structural design guidance for UHPC bridge components. He worked with adviser Benjamin Graybeal in FHWA's Office of Infrastructure Research and Development from December 2016 to October 2019.

Photograph of a man in a hard hat using an instrument to take measurements on a concrete beam. Source: FHWA.
Rafic El-Helou installs sensors to measure the deformation of a UHPC beam in FHWA's Structures Laboratory.

A private firm hired El-Helou directly out of the program to work as a contracted structural research engineer at TFHRC.

"I am passionate about the research I started during my tenure as an associate and wanted to continue the work after my tenure ended," says El-Helou. "I also enjoy the work environment and the collaborative research experience at TFHRC."

El-Helou's current research is a continuation of his work as an associate. "I am part of the TFHRC team that supports FHWA's efforts to develop structural design guidance for UHPC," he says. "I also research various UHPC applications in the highway sector."

Like other alumni of the associateship program, El-Helou would recommend it to others. "The program connected me with experts in my field and provided me with mentorship to kick off my career. It also provided the means for numerous professional development opportunities," he says. "It's a great start to your career in a reputable laboratory."

Become a Research Associate

The EAR Program actively seeks qualified postdoctoral candidates to participate in the Research Associateship Program, where they will work with leading researchers, have access to state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment, and expand their career possibilities. To learn more about RAP opportunities through the EAR Program, visit https://highways.dot.gov/research/research-programs/exploratory-advanced-research/nrc-research-associates-help-ear-program-solve-transportation-issues and click on the Apply link to view the list of current opportunities available at FHWA.


Jim Shurbutt is the program coordinator for FHWA's EAR Program. One of his primary responsibilities is the management of the Research Associateship Program. He holds a Ph.D. in applied behavior analysis from Western Michigan University, where his research focused on both pedestrian safety and organizational management.