Meet our CivMin summer student: Maria Vetrici

Undergrad summer student research positions explored

The following is part of a series introducing CivMin’s undergraduate summer students to the Department and our greater community.

We explore the students’ projects, motivation and challenges, while providing insights into who they are, and what motivates them, beyond academia. It also highlights the multitude of ways summer research opportunities are approached and implemented under the guidance of  our industry-leading CivMin professors.


Prof. Habib and Maria Vetrici (left to right) waving hello (Photo by Rachael Gallant, CivMin)


With various interests, Maria Vetrici (CivE, Year 2) originally started at U of T in the math and statistics program. After discovering her passion for urban geography and planning, Maria transferred into Civil Engineering. This summer, Maria is diving into the world of transportation and ride-sourcing services under the supervision of Prof. Khandker Nurul Habib


Tell us a bit about yourself. 

Maria Vetrici: I’m going into my second year of Civil Engineering. I grew up in Vancouver, on the West Coast. After high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was interested in city planning, but I ended up going to U of T for math and statistics. In my first year, I took a class on urban geography which furthered my interest in urban issues and the way cities can create and aggravate [such] issues. I realized I wanted to do engineering and decided to transfer. Now, I’m researching transportation and ride-sourcing services like Uber; it’s meant to inform policy about urban transportation. I’m excited about this work because it’s giving me a chance to explore my interest in statistical modelling I thought I left behind.


What will be your role this summer and where? What types of tasks and work will you be doing? What’s the research goal?

Maria: I’m working with Patrick Loa [PhD candidate] and Felita Ong [MASc candidate], both under the supervision of Prof. Habib. Most of my work at the beginning of the summer involved reading research papers – familiarizing myself with previous research and surveys. I learned how to model, and then, did a lot of modelling. Patrick, Felita and I are working on writing a research paper using survey data to create models to predict whether someone is going to be an Uber user or not. I’ve been assigned a section of the paper and am writing up findings and key takeaways from my research. Patrick and Felita are also writing sections of the paper and are available for assistance if needed. Upon completion, we want to submit the paper to the [U.S.- based] Transportation Research Board (TRB).


What motivated you to work with Prof. Habib on this project?

Maria: I really wanted to do research, especially related to transportation. I also really wanted to do some statistical analysis. I had this class where a U of T Civil Engineering alumni would come in every Friday [CIV191 – Intro to Engineering] and talk about their job. One day, an alumn named Wafic El-Affi visited. I talked with him afterwards because he mentioned doing research with Prof. Habib, and I was in awe. Now, he’s working at Uber in econometrics [turning theoretical economic models into useful tools for economic policymaking]. I asked him how his research experience [with Prof. Habib] was and if he’d recommend it. He said, yes. Even though Wafic did research as a master’s student, I emailed Prof. Habib and asked if he would you take an undergraduate and he said yes. It’s given me a chance to develop all the skills I was interested in developing, which is great.


In research, you can never prove anything, but you can make suggestions.


What do you foresee being your greatest challenge?

Maria: I like how objective numbers are, how you can just say – this is the equation, and this is the result. It feels simpler in a way, even though it’s complicated in its own way. And I noticed, even when I’m doing research, I like to focus on the details because it feels like when you’re looking at the details, you can’t get it wrong. The challenge for me is drawing conclusions. You have to extrapolate conclusions and try to provide some meaningful commentary based on what you found. I might get it wrong; I might say something not necessarily true. In research, you can never prove anything, but you can make suggestions, which can be hard because there are so many things we don’t know about people and the future. The goal of doing research is to figure out people and the future. I’m working on learning to deal with not knowing everything, but still being able to guess, because a guess is better than nothing.


Have you found any favourite spots on campus?

Maria: I love the Myhal Building [Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship] – I like going to the fifth floor, or even the second floor, where there are chairs right by the windows. It’s a 10 out of 10 study spot. It’s very quiet, even though there are people around. There’s sun, natural light and windows, so it meets my top criteria. Also, the McLennan Physical Laboratories – I don’t think it’s the most popular study spot but the building is relatively empty. I feel more productive in calm working environments.


Do you have any interesting hobbies or talents you’d like to share? 

Maria: Even though I’m interested in transportation right now, I feel like I’m someone whose interests change all the time. I’m excited to see where [this experience] will take me because there are so many other avenues. At one point, I was interested in the realm of statistics in data visualization and graphic design; I’m still interested in it. Who knows where I’ll go, but I’m hoping I’ll have a chance to explore many other avenues as well, even though I’m grateful for this position here.


Is there anything I haven’t asked you about you’d like to speak on? Final thoughts?

Maria: I love biking. I also have a twin; she’s in biochemistry.


Questions for Prof. Habib:


It’s not only about concrete jungles. It’s not only about bridges and structures. It’s about the human side of transportation.


What do you hope for Maria to achieve this summer? Any major takeaways?

Prof. Khandker Nurul Habib: I don’t typically have first-year and second-year students, but I rarely say no to any who show interest. Maria showed interest and she also got the University of Toronto Excellence Award (UTEA) [which provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to gain direct research experience, learn investigative methods, and foster an interest in research]. It’s always a pleasure to have undergraduate students on my team. It gives the whole team a good perspective. Graduate students also get the opportunity to teach and introduce ideas to a new audience. Maria has been doing great, she’s progressing, and she’s doing the work very systematically, jointly with two graduate students. She has a talent for transport analysis and research. 

I’m hoping Maria will gain valuable experience in the practical aspect of Civil Engineering. It’s not only about concrete jungles. It’s not only about bridges and structures. It’s about the human side of transportation. We deal with the decision-making of people – how people decide what to do, and how it eventually impacts the transportation system. I always say the demand side is the human side, the soft side of engineering. I hope this will inspire [Maria]. I hope she takes away the understanding that the way we lead our life impacts the transportation system, it’s a collective decision. One person can’t change the whole system, but small trips, decisions, and choices we make daily impact the whole system. 


How will Maria be contributing to this project/your research?

Prof. Habib: Maria is working on a [research] paper, which is good. She’ll be the first author of the paper we’re submitting for presentation to the TRB [Transportation Research Board] conference. We hope this paper will be accepted. If it is, we’ll have a chance to present [the paper] this January in Washington, DC, and if Maria is willing to travel to DC, I would be happy to bring her along with the research team. This is just a submission for a presentation, but we’ll submit it for publication in a journal too, which would be an asset for [Maria’s] CV.


The undergraduate students bring a beautiful perspective to the research team.


Is there anything I haven’t asked you about you’d like to speak on? Final thoughts? 

Prof. Habib: The undergraduate students bring a beautiful perspective to the research team. Maria has had a good start and seems to enjoy the work with Felita and Patrick. Felita and Patrick are also very happy with Maria’s contributions.


Do you have any interesting hobbies or talents you’d like to share? 

Prof. Habib: I have a five-year-old girl, Yana, and she occupies all my time, and I enjoy doing everything with her. She tracks everything I do, even my research and teaching. She even knows all of my students’ names. At this moment, in all my spare time, I play with my daughter.


By Rachael Gallant

Read more about our CivMin summer research students here.