Supply Chain PhD student Paula Penagos selected as fellow in esteemed Eno Center for Transportation Leadership Development Conference

by | Jul 8, 2024

Penagos was the first-ever UMSL student chosen for the Eno Leadership Development Conference, alongside students from universities like MIT, UCLA and Virginia Tech.
Paula Penagos

UMSL grad student Paula Penagos and University of Texas student Ziqi Liu were two of the 16 fellows at the Eno Leadership Development Conference. (Photo courtesy of Paula Penagos)

Paula Penagos, a PhD student in the Supply Chain Analytics program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, was one of 16 graduate students from across the country chosen to participate in the prestigious Eno Center for Transportation Leadership Development Conference this June in Washington, D.C.

“I learned a lot,” Penagos said. “I loved it. We went to the Capitol and the House of Representatives. We went to the U.S. Department of Transportation, inside the offices, talking to people and having the type of inside conversations that have confidentiality. It was really good to see how things really work.”

One of the signature events was a lunch meeting with Polly Trottenberg, the deputy secretary of transportation in the USDOT. The goal of the five-day conference – which ran from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. all five days – was to identify future leaders in the transportation industry and give them a hands-on opportunity to work with current industry experts in a collaborative environment while developing solutions to real-world issues.

“What they’re trying to do is make sure that, whether you’re going into academia or into industry or into the public sector, you have the tools to contribute in a good way,” Penagos said. “For example, they say sometimes academia comes with really nice ideas, but the scale of application, it’s not what we need for the federal government. That’s a disconnect. So they want to expose us to the challenges, things that we don’t even know exist, and learn how to keep building those relationships between the public sector, academia and industry.”

Penagos was the first-ever UMSL representative at the Eno LDC, which this year included students from MIT, UCLA, Virginia Tech, University of California–Berkley, University of Tennessee, New York University, Purdue University and Georgia Tech, to name a few.

“Usually, you see students from only top universities that are transportation and engineering oriented,” said Haitao Li, who chairs UMSL’s Department of Supply Chain Analytics. “So, to have Paula recognized and representing UMSL is not only an achievement for Paula herself, I must say this is an achievement for the entire UMSL supply chain analytics departments and programs. It enhances our visibility and reputation immensely.”

Penagos was nominated for the conference by Trilce Encarnación, an assistant professor in UMSL’s supply chain program. Encarnación participated in the Eno LDC in 2017 when she was a PhD student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She’s excited Penagos had the same opportunity.

“The great thing about the program is that you can visualize yourself and your research having an impact on policies and on solving issues related to transportation and logistics,” Encarnación said. “The goal is to train future leaders. They’re looking at grad students who have a specific set of skills in terms of analyzing issues, and they show how the knowledge they’re getting from their grad programs can be translated into actionable policy. It’s especially beneficial going behind the scenes to see how policies are made.”

Nominating Penagos for the Eno conference was an easy choice for Encarnación, who helped recruit Penagos to UMSL from Colombia. Encarnación was a past project collaborator with Carlos A. Gonzalez-Calderon, Penagos’ professor and mentor at Universidad Nacional de Colombia at Medellin, where Penagos developed a love for research and transportation as she earned her Bachelor of Civil Engineering. Gonzalez-Calderon recommended Penagos to Encarnación.

Penagos started her UMSL career during the Fall 2022 semester – as part of the first cohort of a restarted PhD program that was paused during the COVID-19 pandemic – and she finished one big step in her journey when she earned her MS in Supply Chain Analytics this May.

“Paula is the ideal PhD student,” Encarnación said. “She’s very self-motivated and works hard, which is very important when you’re doing a PhD course. When you get to this level, you’ve proven that you have the aptitude to study this kind of subject. What sets her apart is that she will study and put in all the effort that needs to be done. When you’re doing research, you’re doing things that nobody’s done before, so it’s not like classwork. She has what it takes to go that extra step and try to solve problems.”

Penagos used those skills at the Eno LDC. Each of the 16 fellows brought their own focus and area of expertise, and they were selected to form a cohesive cohort that could collaborate and learn from each other. To put those skills into action, the group was given a project to address – expanding passenger rail service in the state of Washington – and at the end of the week, the fellows presented their findings at a mock hearing in front of transportation leaders.

“We had to look at it from the different sides,” Penagos said, “like city planning, urban planning, civil engineering, freight transportation and supply chain, how that project would modify the way of living of the communities, but also how it would impact the transportation scene.”

Relevant to her research at UMSL, Penagos provided insights and research related to the role that freight plays in the design and execution of the proposal.

“I always tried to bring that to the table, how freight is a contributor to what you’re doing, and what are you doing to mitigate that?” she said. “It was interesting because most of the people work with transit for transportation of people, but freight has a lot of implications in transportation. You need a highway because you want to connect communities, but also because we have tons of trucks, and we need them. Trucking, railways, pipelines and waterways, there are different ways to mobilize cargo, but they have a lot of implications in urban planning, with the environment, the cost of the goods. It’s not the same cost if it’s easy to transport the food, for example.”

Penagos was integral in not only the research and discussion but the final presentation.

“This initiative was designed to remove cargo from city streets, improve air quality and enhance urban mobility,” she said. “The project also addressed significant economic, social and environmental impacts. I delivered the closing argument, emphasizing these benefits and how the initiative would streamline the supply chain and improve overall transportation efficiency.”

One of her biggest takeaways from the experience – in addition to all the contacts and friendships made with others in her industry – is the full-picture perspective she gained that will shape how she approaches the rest of her PhD work.

“What’s happening in the federal government and the policymaking sector,” she said, “can modify the way I see my research, the way I do my research.”

For Penagos, the opportunity to attend the Eno LDC was yet another confirmation that she made the right choice to attend UMSL. She was awarded a 2023-24 John Helm Memorial Scholarship through CSCMP St. Louis Roundtable and Amazon Supply Chain Operations Technology/INFORMS Scholarship in 2023. This spring she was named the inaugural Supply Chain and Analytics Outstanding Research Assistant Award at UMSL.

“They’ve been very supportive through this whole process, with everything,” she said. “I’ve been to a lot of conferences, presenting myself, presenting the work we have done here, and that’s helping me grow infinitely. I appreciate them.”

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Ryan Fagan

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