STORY: Advancing Safety and Sustainability at Volpe National Transportation Center

April 22, 2024

Alex Epstein ’07 is a safety and sustainability senior engineer at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center.

Alex Epstein ’07 is a safety and sustainability senior engineer at the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, a role that allows him to use his engineering education to solve problems he cares about.

Coming from a large, competitive high school in New York City, Epstein felt that he was “supposed to attend an Ivy”—until he found out about Olin and saw a different path.

“When I learned about Olin, I felt like it could be a better choice than the pressure cooker of some of the big brand names,” says Epstein. “It felt like a more collaborative culture where maybe I’d get to do cool stuff with other people instead of competing against each other.”

Portrait of Alex Epstein '07

Portrait of Alex Epstein '07.

At Olin, Epstein was drawn to the hands-on nature of materials science, while also exploring other interests, from social dancing to creating opportunities for accessible public transportation. 

“Growing up in New York, I was so used to public transportation and got tired of driving everywhere in college,” says Epstein. “My senior year, I did a self-study in which I worked with administration at Olin and Wellesley to get a campus shuttle off the ground—which is still running to this day and also serves Babson’s campus now.”

Epstein continued down the materials science path in graduate school, obtaining his PhD in Engineering Sciences from Harvard. While there, he also tackled another grassroots transportation project: getting involved in the municipal sector in Somerville and facilitating the creation of the first physically separated bike lane in the city.

“Something I took away from Olin was that I didn’t want to feel like my work was just sitting on a shelf,” says Epstein, who still uses that very bike lane every day when he commutes to work. “I wanted to make a difference I could see in the world.”

He began thinking that transportation is an area where it’s helpful to have a technology background coupled with the life skill of being able to mobilize people from different backgrounds to work together to solve problems. After getting some sound advice from Harvard’s Office of Career Services, he had an informational interview at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center, which works to advance transportation innovation for the public good.

“I interned at Volpe while I was writing my dissertation, working on different projects such as an environmental analysis for the minimum sound requirements for electric and hybrid vehicles to prevent crashes with people who are visually impaired,” says Epstein. “I was hooked, and ever since I’ve been drawn to win-win projects where different technologies can improve both safety and sustainability.”

In his current role at Volpe, Epstein finds and connects internal and external partners, helping to forge coalitions on a common cause like curbing excessive speeding, reducing truck pollution and crash risk, reaching more urban residents with electric vehicle charging, or helping drivers choose safer vehicles that they can see children out of more easily.

With funding from the Santos Family Foundation, Epstein has also helped Volpe provide technical support to Olin students through Senior Capstone Program in Engineering (SCOPE) projects since 2017.

“All three partners—Olin, Volpe, and the Foundation—see a lot of value in this collaboration because everyone gets something positive out of it,” says Epstein. “The Foundation advances traffic safety, Volpe advances projects for the public good and gives staff the opportunity to mentor, and Olin students get invaluable real-life experience on projects that attract students who also want to do good in the world.” 

Epstein is an advocate for career growth for Olin students; he hopes to start a more robust pipeline from Olin to Volpe through an ongoing internship program, and he is a frequent participant at Olin career fairs.

“I find it energizing to talk with young people at the early stages of their education and career path who see possibilities that I don’t,” says Epstein. “Tapping into bright young minds like those at Olin helps us all work ahead of the curve on various problems that can change the world.”