Fulbright scholar researches city science

Last May, Caroline Jaffe was in her final year at Yale University in the United States when she got an e-mail telling her she had received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the TU Delft this year.

With that one e-mail Jaffe realized, “my life from this point on is going to be totally different”, the 21-year-old says.

A native of California, Jaffe graduated from Yale in 2013 with a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science. At Yale, she focused on social robotics, which seeks to understand how humans react to robots and how to build robots that behave in human-like ways. Applying for a Fulbright grant “was an almost spur of the moment decision”, Jaffe says, fueled by stories of her mother’s experiences abroad and feeling “a little disillusioned about life in Silicon Valley” after working at Google last summer.

As she considered applying, Jaffe contacted a number of professors with the idea of studying City Science, or “smart cities”, an emerging field that uses technology and engineering to understand patterns of human mobility and behavior and address urban issues. TU Delft’s Jan Anne Annema and Bert van Wee’s responses were   “really helpful and enthusiastic”, Jaffe says, paving her path to Delft.

Since arriving in August, Jaffe has put her energies into researching the integration of bikes into transportation simulation systems. “My root in all of this is that I love maps, navigating, and understanding where I am in space”, she says, and aims to connect this interest to her academic background. Right now, that means data mining; using machine learning algorithms and natural language processing to dig into a “huge amount of data” to understand how people feel about cycling, and then create a model of how these attitudes influence behavior.  She will then compare her model to people’s actual biking activity, and hopes to leverage that information to help create more efficient cities.

“This is the first really independent research I’ve done”, Jaffe says of her current project. Working without the support structures she had as an undergraduate has been difficult, she says, but fits in with her overall Fulbright goal. “I wanted to put myself in a challenging situation”, she says, not just academically, but also personally. During her time in Delft, Jaffe is “figuring out my life…being independent and dealing with the challenges of living in a new country, [making] a concerted effort to try and establish the kind of life I want to have.”

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