Skip to Content
Alumni profile

Barbara K. Ostrom ’78, SM ’78

Documenting highway conditions to improve safety.
December 17, 2013

Every time you hit a pothole in a road, you might think, “When was the last time anyone paved this?” Soon your chances of finding out will improve, thanks to Barbara Ostrom. As an on-site database engineer for the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Virginia, Ostrom works on data collection projects for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), including a long-term plan to make pavement performance data more accessible to the public.

Barbara K. Ostrom

“We expect that by early 2014, we will go live with an application called InfoPave that will allow users to go in and not only download data, but look at the changes in pavement sections and in traffic,” she explains.

Ostrom’s database includes information about more than 600 of the approximately 2,500 sections of road in the United States and Canada. The FHWA uses this data to make complex decisions about future infrastructure changes.

“We can’t build new roads in a lot of places. It just physically isn’t possible,” she admits. “Yet we’ve still got people who want to get there by themselves on time … We’re always going to need roads. People have got to build them and maintain them and get as many people using them as possible.”

Ostrom began delving into transportation data analysis in 1982 while working for the Maryland State Highway Administration. MIT gave her an Eisenhower Graduate Research Fellowship in 1994 to support her study of traffic data, specifically on truck traffic. Now, at Turner-­Fairbank, she has continued her truck research by developing protocols for weigh-in-motion technology, which weighs trucks (to determine tax rates) as they travel at highway speeds.

Ostrom chose MIT because of her self-described military-brat heritage. “There were only two schools in the country that let women in and had naval architecture and naval ROTC, and I preferred going to MIT,” she says. However, she eventually joined the army ROTC because of restrictions on women serving on naval ships. Today she cites the ROTC program as a key source of mentors, memories, and long-lasting friendships. After earning her degrees, in both civil and environmental engineering, she served in the U.S. Army from 1978 to 1982, eventually commanding the headquarters company of the Third Basic Training brigade at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

Now Ostrom volunteers for her local Girl Scouts council in Vienna, Virginia, teaching adult leaders and mentors basic leadership and introductory camping skills. She also maintains strong ties to MIT and is a generous financial supporter. This past June, the Koch Institute named a new computing center in her honor. The Barbara K. Ostrom (1978) Bioinformatics and Computing Facility allows researchers to analyze gene sequencing and other scientific data.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

SpaceX Starship
SpaceX Starship

How SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket might unlock the solar system—and beyond

With the first orbital test launch of Starship on the horizon, scientists are dreaming about what it might make possible— from trips to Neptune to planetary defense.

a Chichuahua standing on a Great Dane
a Chichuahua standing on a Great Dane

DeepMind says its new language model can beat others 25 times its size

RETRO uses an external memory to look up passages of text on the fly, avoiding some of the costs of training a vast neural network

Conceptual illustration of a therapy session
Conceptual illustration of a therapy session

The therapists using AI to make therapy better

Researchers are learning more about how therapy works by examining the language therapists use with clients. It could lead to more people getting better, and staying better.

Photograph of Geothermal power plant located at Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland. Aerial view
Photograph of Geothermal power plant located at Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland. Aerial view

What it will take to unleash the potential of geothermal power

Four new pilot plants funded by the US infrastructure bill could help expand the range of the “forgotten renewable.”

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.