Ph.D. student plans career to serve the greater good and educate others

Bethany M. Gordon wants to build a more equitable world for the most disadvantaged populations — and a world that is sustainable for all.

She is also drawn to studying people, in particular the language we use to communicate with one another, and how that understanding can promote justice. In the UVA Engineering Systems and Environment Department’s civil engineering Ph.D. program, she has found a way to do both.

As a fourth-year undergraduate, Gordon was investigating master’s programs to pursue a career in structural engineering. She planned to use her education to build better, more sustainable infrastructure for communities with the fewest resources. Then she met Leidy Klotz, the then-new Copenhaver Associate Professor who is jointly appointed to the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment and the School of Architecture. He was looking for stellar graduate students to join the Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative, which he co-founded with Associate Professor Morela Hernandez at UVA’s Darden School of Business, where he also holds a courtesy appointment.

Bethany Gordon portrait

Established with help from UVA’s Strategic Investment Fund, the interdisciplinary initiative supports faculty and students who apply behavioral science research to address complex social problems with emphasis on environmental sustainability, diversity and human well-being. Gordon — a 2019 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship recipient — became its first Ph.D. fellow.

Klotz and Hernandez’s approach appealed to what Gordon cares about most.

“We showed Bethany how the work she is most passionate about can contribute to knowledge more broadly,” Klotz said. “I also think we offer unique flexibility, as well as structure, to help those new to this area rigorously incorporate behavioral science into engineering applications.”

Gordon agreed, noting that while she is an engineer in training, she’s always had an affinity for language and the humanities. “There is knowledge to be discovered in that overlap,” she said. “For instance, in what ways can we challenge the assumptions of engineering? I think that language and psychology get at that potentially underlying structural bias that we have in our system.”

While Gordon is working with Klotz on several research projects as she narrows down her dissertation topic, she is also developing a social justice course for students who plan careers in civil and environmental engineering. She wants to educate engineers who will not just intervene when people are harmed by infrastructure — as happened in the Flint, Mich., water crisis, for example — but will help prevent the harm from happening in the first place.

“We will explore how to make social justice routine in civil and environmental engineering practice,” she said.

Leidy Klotz thumbnail

"Bethany is helping to broaden the notion of what engineering can be, who it can serve and who can do it. It’s a beautiful example of how teaching, research and mentorship can all reinforce each other and serve the public good."

Leidy Klotz, Copenhaver Associate Professor

Gordon’s motivation for the work that she aspires to is rooted in her African and Native American identity and her Christian values. Her faith inspires her to help others. Her heritage helps her see through their eyes.

“Because of how people perceive me racially, I exist between groups a lot of the time, so I’m always trying to empathize with various groups. When you do that enough you realize where the patterns are and where the problems are,” she said.

Discovering the Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative opened new opportunities for cross-cutting research in areas that interested her. Through Klotz’s example as a researcher and mentor, she also saw an alternative path to achieve her career goals. Now her sights are set on a faculty appointment at a research university. Klotz believes Gordon is already making a positive difference for society, pointing to the prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program award as affirmation of her previous work and future potential.

“Bethany is helping to broaden the notion of what engineering can be, who it can serve and who can do it,” he said. “It’s a beautiful example of how teaching, research and mentorship can all reinforce each other and serve the public good.”