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Introducing Volpe’s New Deputy Director for Research and Technology, Stephen Popkin

Friday, February 24, 2017

Stephen Popkin, PhD, is Volpe’s new deputy director for Research and Technology. In this role, Popkin will lead and manage Volpe’s suite of multimodal transportation research programs and will work with Director Anne Aylward on Volpe’s strategic vision.

Popkin began working at Volpe nearly 20 years ago. Most recently, he served as director of Volpe’s Center for Safety Management and Human Factors.

“A big part of my job now will be helping the director in scoping out the vision for Volpe and then executing it,” Popkin said. “One of the things I’m looking most toward is understanding the full breadth of the talent that we have here. What I find exciting is understanding those capabilities, and then finding the resources, the projects, the work to bring in to put that talent against.”

Video: Stephen Popkin discusses how human factors can have a positive impact on safety for the traveling public.

Popkin’s technical background is in fatigue management and human factors—the study of how humans interact with and respond to systems, like transportation. For Popkin, human factors isn’t, at its core, simply about ensuring that humans and systems interact well. It’s about safety, because if humans and systems don’t interact well, lives may be lost.

That lesson sunk in for Popkin early in his career.

The year before he began his graduate studies at the University of Connecticut (UConn), there had been a head-on collision between two freight trains near Thompsontown, Pennsylvania, killing all four crewmen aboard. The chair of Popkin’s program at UConn was investigating the collision and tapped Popkin to work on the project.

“I remember going to Mechanicsburg and meeting the surviving family members,” Popkin said. “It was really emotional and impactful to realize that the work I could be doing could save people’s lives and avert such suffering in the future. That’s what really solidified me wanting to stay in human factors and contribute to this area of human factors, which includes work scheduling, fatigue management, and worker health and safety.”

Before coming to Volpe, Popkin implemented the first U.S. Navy submarine watchkeeping fatigue management program, and was involved in the initial implementation of Human Systems Integration principles under the Navy's DD(X) littoral combatant program.

At Volpe, he has worked on fatigue management on behalf of the Federal Railroad Administration and the Human Factors Coordinating Committee, and established Volpe’s Fatigue Monitoring and Countermeasures Research Team. This team performs work for all U.S. DOT operating administrations and includes talent from across Volpe and from academia. He has also served as executive agent to the U.S. DOT Safety Council, which aims to leverage best safety practices throughout the Department.

“What drives people to come to Volpe is there’s that mission, there’s that excitement of working on very difficult, important problems for transportation,” Popkin said. “For me, it’s now about being able to work with sponsors in Washington to understand those challenges and then pair it with our world-class staff to begin to tackle them.”  

Read Popkin’s full bio.

Steve Popkin seated in his office, in front of a book shelf.