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Detroit to Africa: Dr. Tierra Bills builds a road to success

Dr. Tierra Bills

Dr. Tierra Bills

By F. Carlton Peeples
Special to the Michigan Citizen

For Dr. Tierra Bills, Ph.D., education was an integral part of growing up; her grandparents and family made certain of it. “I think that in my family education has always been valued and held in very high regard,” says the Florida A&M graduate.

Bills’ mother was a teacher at her K-12 school, Aisha Shule/W.E.B. Dubois Preparatory Academy.

“My mom basically taught me all of my life — at home and all through school.”  So when she snagged her BS in civil engineering technology from FAMU and went on to UC Berkley for her masters of science and Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering with a concentration in transportation.

But it wasn’t an easy road to get there. Dr. Bills’ father passed when she was younger and it took incredible determination for her to make it. She also credits her academic success to a fellowship that she won an incredible four times. The Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program (DDETFP) was awarded to Dr. Bills on two occasions during her undergraduate program from 2005-2007, a summer internship in 2008, and in 2011 during graduate school.

According to their site, the DDETFP awards fellowships to students pursuing degrees in transportation-related disciplines. The DDETFP aims to advance the transportation workforce by attracting the brightest minds to the field through education, research, and workforce development and encompasses all modes of transportation.

“I think it will be a while before I get used to the title — it has not sunk in. It’s really exciting for me; it open ups a lot of opportunities, but it’s not exactly how I expected it to feel,” remembering that she had not set out to earn a Ph.D. Early experiences in college led to an interest in infrastructure and transportation, but Dr. Bills had a tough time finding a position that would properly compensate her experience and educational background. Only through happenstance did she come across an opportunity to work abroad.

IBM Research Africa, the research and development arm of the technology giant which has labs all over the world, sent a team to give a job talk at UC Berkley. IBM does a lot of transportation work and recruited Dr. Bills for its newest lab in Karen, Kenya (a suburb of Nairobi), which officially opened in 2012.

The African continent accounts for 14 percent of the world’s population and is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The growth rate is expected to average seven percent annually over the next two decades, poising Africa to become a leading source of innovation in a variety of industries.

Dr. Bills will be working on the Smarter Cities team, which focuses on infrastructure, addressing concerns about sustaining the capacity of the city. According to Dr. Bills, the area is rapidly urbanizing with people moving from villages and farms to the inner-city.

Her primary challenge is a lack of data. “There’s great need to tap into the current data sources and get a sense of what is needed to draw a relationship between what is there and how to develop the structure,” she says. Travel behavior and travel related needs have to have data in order to plan for infrastructure.

Dr. Bill says, “(We) have to know how people travel to be effective in that area.”  Dr. Bills embarks on her life’s latest journey this November. She gets to Kenya with a two-year minimum retention contract. “Hopefully,” she says, “the experience will develop into something more; I would love to teach and give back as an educator, like my mom.”

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